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The King of Dinosaurs

Centennial Chronicle

Building a Museum for the Future
July 31, 2014
By David Beach
Staff  - Cleveland Museum of Natural History
Director of GreenCityBlueLake Institute
When The Cleveland Museum of Natural History’s Executive Director and CEO Evalyn Gates talks about designing new and renovated facilities, she often says, “the Museum will celebrate its 100th anniversary in 2020. It’s time to build for the next 100 years.”
Her statement reflects our interest in anticipating future needs related to our Museum’s mission -- the need for updated exhibits, better space for the care and storage of collections, improved laboratories for scientific research, and stimulating educational spaces for school groups. It also reflects our desire to make new facilities flexible, so they can be adapted when needs change across the next century. And it certainly reflects our intent to make the new Museum campus as sustainable as possible, so it will be easy to maintain and will operate with reduced environmental impacts and energy bills in the coming decades.
Indeed, designing a new museum campus for the next 100 years raises a host of issues about how to think about the future -- and the future of museums. And it’s a very a hot topic in the museum world today.

When the Johnstown Mastodon was found in 1926 and acquired by the Museum, it became an instant visitor highlight in the Museum’s galleries.  How should such legendary and historic objects be presented for the next century of visitors?

Museums in a world of change
Museums are facing unprecedented rates of change caused by a variety of factors, including technology, economic pressures, and novel expectations about what a museum is and how it should be used.
To help the museum field respond, the field’s leading and largest professional association, the American Alliance of Museums, created the Center for the Future of Museums. Learn more about the Center’s work.
Interestingly, the Center’s founding director, Elizabeth Merritt,  grew up in Cleveland Heights and spent her early teens volunteering in The Cleveland Museum of Natural History’s Perkins Wildlife Center. She cites our Museum as instrumental in her formative years as a museum professional. Today, Merritt is on the leading edge of thinking about the future of museums as she studies the trends and creates scenarios of possible directions for museums to consider. 

Elizabeth Merritt’s museum career has taken her from the Cleveland Museum of Natural History to leading the field’s thinking on the future of museums.

In an exclusive interview for the Centennial Chronicle blog,  Merritt discussed the realities of designing for the future when planning a new museum facility. Her thoughts on a variety of topics were insightful as well as confirming on the direction for our Museum’s campus reinvention. Here’s a snapshot of Merritt’s insights and how they are aligning with our plans:
User-centered design: Instead of taking the “Starchitect” approach and fitting a museum into a large piece of sculpture, Merritt recommends following an integrated design process to create a building that will work with the exhibits, collections, and the flow of the visitor experience. Our June 2014 blog post explains how our Museum is doing this.

The distributed museum: Many museums are re-conceptualizing themselves as a set of functions not necessarily tied to one physical place. In this vein, museums are creating satellite facilities to serve dispersed populations, testing new concepts with pop-up installations, and creating virtual museum experiences on the Internet. (For a futurist's vision of where this could go, read about the Museum of Urban Ecology.) The growing digital footprint of museums is an especially strong trend, Merritt says, and some museums are now reaching many more users online than they are in their own buildings. In Cleveland, our Museum is also operating in a distributed manner, including the Natural Areas program with its 6,000 acres in 46 preserves scattered across the region, the GreenCityBlueLake Institute, which promotes urban sustainability initiatives, and the Distance Learning program, which transmits live, interactive programming to schools across the country.  Our campus reinvention is taking this work into account and ensuring facilities and galleries will build upon and leverage this work.
The museum as a “Third Place”: Social scientists have recognized the importance of “third places,” which, after home and work, are the gathering places that nurture civic life. Merritt asks, “how can you make a museum the default hang-out, go-to social site, and extra living room?” It might involve design (seating, food, placement of entrances, etc.), policies (where can people eat, drink, listen to music, etc.) and operations (open hours). This idea is influencing the design of our new Museum in a number of ways, including concepts for an expanded courtyard that will become a  nature-filled public space, a cafe that will spill out along Wade Oval, and open play areas (with Steggie!) integrated into the landscaping around the Museum. It’s also influencing our exhibit design. One of our exhibit consultants, Tom Hennes of Thinc Design, talks about natural history museums as “safe places” where people can gather in dialogue about shared points of interest and where they can be engaged to contemplate humanity’s increasing impact on the natural world.
The open-ended museum: Another trend is toward self-directed learning in museums. Exhibit designers, including those on our Museum’s project team, like to call museum visitors “users” to acknowledge that they are not passive recipients of information. Rather, they come to our museum with their own agendas, interests, and beliefs which actively shape their museum experiences. According to Merritt, this means that museums should be less about the teaching of scripted facts and more about open-ended interactions that inspire users to want to learn more. Therefore, our exhibit designers are imagining exhibits that are not linear presentations of historical information but explorations that tell stories about the meaning of the artifacts on display. Online resources will then provide pathways for deeper learning.
Making collections visible:  Merritt has noticed that it’s getting harder to fund the maintenance of natural history collections. In part, this is a reflection of scientific shifts away from fields like botany, which study whole organisms, to fields that focus on molecular analysis. But it’s also due to the fact that natural history collections are primarily research collections, not display collections like you find at art museums. This makes it harder for natural history museums to explain the value of their collections. The solution is to make the collections more visible and more integrated into the exhibits and educational programs. And that is one of the primary goals for our new Museum: bring the collections out of the basement and share how essential they are for the advancement of science and our understanding of the evolution of life in Northeast Ohio and around the world.
Universal accessibility: Museums need to think broadly about accessibility. Merritt asks, “how will people reach your location in the future? What will be the mix of cars, rideshare, public transportation, bicycling, etc.? What infrastructure will support/encourage future access, and is it flexible enough to adapt over time as the transportation mix changes?” Of course, the building itself must be accessible for people of all abilities and ages, and our Museum’s project team is ensuring that our design provides both comfort and ease of use to make the museum experience fantastic for everybody.
Tech adaptability: It’s impossible to predict how technology will change in the next ten years, much less the next 100. So Merritt says museums should create buildings that make future, as-yet-unspecifiable upgrades and retrofits as flexible and inexpensive as possible. Our Museum’s design team already has had a special workshop on this topic, exploring strategies for staying on the leading edge and delivering all sorts of new media to users who will increasingly be armed with powerful handheld devices that will enable them to create their own content and social media interactions. 

Museums are facing an enormous number of changes spurred by external factors such as technology, the economy and the country’s demographic shifts.  The latest thinking and trends are coming out of the Center for the Future of Museums.

These are just a few of the interesting and challenging issues that arise when planning a new natural history museum in today’s rapidly changing world. Our Museum’s project team of architects, engineers and exhibit designers, as well as staff and Board representatives, are tackling the issues head on as the final design direction comes together for our campus reinvention. For more hints about the future of museums, check out Elizabeth Merritt’s blog.

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  • Peter KrembsDavid Excellent article. Well written and informative. I am saving it in my computer folder. Peter