As museum leaders address challenges posed by the pandemic and emerging social justice movements, many institutions will need to re-evaluate their approach to important planning and design issues in order to thrive, according to the national experts at Cooper Robertson, an international architecture and urban design firm.
“After months of closures and lost revenue, financial pressures are compelling museums to rethink every kind of strategic goal and expectation. Now is the time to challenge the status quo and be creative with facilities and resources,” says Bruce Davis, AIA, LEED AP, a partner at Cooper Robertson, and a head of the firm’s museum practice. “In addition to new ideas for protecting guest and audience health, we’re seeing a questioning of whether continued growth is always the best approach, and a stronger emphasis on addressing social justice issues through planning and design.”
Davis identified a number of key trends and considerations shaping today’s conversations around the future of museums and cultural facilities.
1. Expansion plans reconsidered. For institutions grappling with reduced funding and lower revenue, plans for expansions and growth that have not yet reached the design stage are now being phased into smaller projects or simply put on hold until the longer-term impact of the pandemic becomes clearer. A pre-pandemic trend of museum planners and architects serving as big-picture strategic advisors will likely accelerate, as administrators reexamine institutional goals and turn to design and planning experts for assistance in forecasting the spatial implications of long-range needs. Davis also notes that several of Cooper Robertson’s recent museum planning projects have focused on updating or reconfiguring existing spaces so that they can function more effectively, and anticipates that this approach will gain more attention.
2. Facilities needs shift, with reduced onsite staff. As in many industries, museum leaders and their staff members have found that working remotely offers clear environmental and work-life benefits. In the near and long term, this shift may decrease the need for onsite staff offices and workspaces, creating opportunities to repurpose these areas for exhibition, educational, and other important uses, without expanding building footprints.
3. A greater emphasis on the use of outdoor space. Stronger indoor/outdoor connections and the activation of outdoor spaces will become more common for a variety of functions, including public programs, dining, and the display of art. Building on a larger movement towards spaces that foster a sense of health and well-being, the closer integration of building and landscape also brings valuable social distancing benefits. Davis notes that several of Cooper Robertson’s current museum projects emphasize better connections to outdoor space, including a new master plan for the Brandywine Conservancy & Museum of Art in Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania.
4. Flexibility key for generating revenue from indoor gathering spaces in spite of social distancing. As museums and other cultural institutions navigate the reopening process, challenges persist in finding revenue generating opportunities to replace those held in spaces where people gather, including programs, events, and dining. Institutions with flexible and adaptable spaces, designed to transform from lecture or event hall to other uses, will find success more easily, as they can better respond to future needs, including unexpected changes such as those imposed by COVID-19.
5. Social justice issues reflected and emphasized. In addition to the challenges resulting from COVID-19, social justice movements have compelled museums to focus on how they better reflect and respond to their communities. Beyond curatorial and programming shifts, institutional leaders must work to create a greater sense of welcome through their physical space, with an emphasis on transparency between indoor and outdoor environments, and a broader adoption of universal design principles. Earlier this year, Cooper Robertson’s in-house Diversity and Inclusivity Initiative convened a panel event exploring this and other related topics.
6. An evolving relationship between online content and in-person attendance. Expanded online content has allowed museums to reach larger and broader audiences than is typically possible with in-person visitation, and has proven especially valuable during the pandemic. Some institutions are also exploring sponsorship models to support temporary artist programs or performances with no, or socially distanced, audiences that can be shared online. While the long-term impacts on revenue generation and physical museum spaces remain to be seen, cultural leaders anticipate that online engagement will ultimately encourage more, and more diverse, in-person visitation.