Archive for the ‘Museums’ Category

National Museum of the American Indian

April 7, 2014



NMAI exterior

The National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, DC is housed in a large, impressive building on the National Mall.


NMAI exterior detail

The “sweeping curvilinear architecture,” according to the NMAI website, is meant to help give visitors “the sense and spirit of Native America.”


NMAI atrium dome

The interior is dominated by a soaring atrium that, whatever its Native associations, puts me in mind of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Guggenheim Museum.


NMAI atrium floor

As in the Guggenheim, the atrium floor has lots of space for sitting down, stretching out, and/or attending a lecture or performance.


NMAI cafe

Unlike at the Guggenheim, with its gently sloping spiral ramp, visitors at NMAI have to change floors using either the stairs or the elevator. The first floor is dominated by the restaurant/cafe.


NMAI gift shop

On the second floor, the first thing you see is the large museum store.


NMAI gallery 1

Thanks to the dominance of the atrium, the galleries are relegated to the back half of the museum. In terms of visitor experience, they are nothing to write home about.


NMAI gallery 2

The permanent exhibitions include a standard mix of images, (lots of) text, electronic media, and life-size or semi-immersive exhibit components.


NMAI gallery 3

Traveling and temporary exhibitions tend to rely on traditional vitrines and wall displays.


NMAI wall text

Generally speaking, text is reasonably accessible — large enough and high contrast.


NMAI text 2


One very enjoyable feature of NMAI is that there are lots of places to simply sit, relax, and reflect…

NMAI sit space 1


NMAI sit space 2

… Many of them looking out a window, offering valuable relief to the eye and the spirit.


NMAI window

On the plus side, there is lots of natural light. On the minus side, there is lots of wasted space — empty areas that add nothing to the visitor experience.


Since the museum opened in 2004, much has been written about how successful NMAI is or is not in presenting the “American Indian experience” (if such a thing can be presented in a museum) — not to mention the Smithsonian’s vast holdings of Native objects. Speaking personally, I leave disappointed every time I visit. Too much space, too many bells and whistles, not enough objects, not enough tribes represented. For all the good will that went into its creation, there should be more.


MoMA NYC: Still Pretty Dim

November 30, 2012

On a recent trip to New York City, we stopped in at the Museum of Modern Art. An otherwise interesting exhibition on the work of the Brothers Quay was marred by a series of ridiculously unreadable labels in a gallery that featured the artists’ dioramas.

bros q dim label

Yes, there’s a label in that murk. The image was taken using the available light in the gallery.

If a visitor came equipped with night-vision goggles, a flashlight, or the eyes of a nocturnal creature, a label might look like this:

q b lit

For most of us, however, it looked like this:

bq black

This is the opposite of access, comfort, and common sense. There is no excuse for it.


Guest post: Royal BC Museum, Victoria, British Columbia

January 9, 2012

Our friend Dotty DeCoster, a dedicated and thoughtful museum visitor, recently visited the Royal BC Museum in Victoria, British Columbia and sends this report:

“We went up to Victoria for a few days over Christmas weekend and among other visitations and ramblings about town, visited the  Royal Museum, which is right on the waterfront next door to the Parliament Buildings (for B.C.).

“This museum remains what I think of as the quintessential natural history/provincial history museum.  I do not understand why the dioramas here are so much more lovely and interesting than those in other places — and I’ve seen dioramas in many, many places.  But they are.  Perhaps it has something to do with the way that each one is treated separately, based on its theme, and each is uncluttered while containing just the right number of exemplar artifacts?  I really don’t know.  But they are wonderful.  New to me was the ‘undersea’ display — one is in a model (20,000 Leagues Under the Sea style) undersea module.  It is a treasure, with interactive displays built in.  (The older displays have been added to with nearby hands-on opportunities, games, and activities.)

Ocean Station, Natural History Gallery, Royal BC Museum. Copyright Royal BC Museum.

“But best of all, this museum has seating in every single display, along with devoting all of their “wasted space” (really well lit view corridors) to seating.  It is truly comfortable to be in this museum, to take time at each display.  The model town and the amazing space devoted to northwest coast native artifacts are not quite so well endowed — which is to say that there is seating, but it is not quite so integral to the display cases, and they were designed expecting people to climb stairs (but there are ways to avoid this).

Old Town, Modern History Gallery, Royal BC Museum. Copyright Royal BC Museum.

“The museum has an inexpensive cafe, lots of restrooms, and a whole wing devoted to a comfortable seating area which serves as a living room for visitors to Victoria, whether or not you pay museum admission.  There’s also a store, but we didn’t have any trouble avoiding it.

“In terms of displays, although I like the whole museum and admire the taxidermy, the most important exhibits (in the sense of world wide interest) are certainly the Northwest coast native (aboriginal, I believe, is the Canadian term) collection.  The collection is extensive, inclusive, and well interpreted.  Low light, of course, because they are actual artifacts, not copies.

Kwakwaka’wakw Masks, First Peoples Gallery, Royal BC Museum. Copyright Royal BC Museum.

“Take your time, then go find a seat and rest, then come back.  It’s a lot to take in on one visit.  Escalators serve the exhibition floors.  (I like this — you can peek at things as you go from one floor to another.)”

Thanks, Dotty!

(Note: Photos were downloaded by me from the museum’s website)


Calif. Academy of Sciences, part 3: A ghost of its former self

November 3, 2011

The California Academy of Sciences, as it now stands, is a big and busy place. On a typical day it teems with visitors, most of whom seem to be enjoying themselves.

In the midst of all that space and light and color, I suspect that most visitors don’t realize how much of that space is basically wasted – soaring ceilings that go up to nowhere – or how many of the exhibits are pale shadows of what the Academy had before it was remodeled to such fanfare several years ago.


Remembering the old Academy, I can’t help compare these cheesy, cheap biology exhibits to the old Life Through Time installation, which was immersive, engaging, and far more modern than any current exhibition.


The new Academy has vast floor space given over to static signage and rudimentary touch exhibits. The old Academy was stuffed with curiosities, cleverly designed and displayed. Its huge collections were readily accessible to anyone who was interested.


What’s really sad are the physical remnants of the old Academy that the new one is built around. The old Reptile and Amphibian Swamp, which featured a number of live alligators and crocodiles, now contains one forlorn albino alligator.


The railing, with its seahorse motif and bronze starfish atop the bannister, is a reminder of the old-fashioned skilled handiwork and well-thought-out whimsical design elements that were everywhere in the old building.


The African Hall is pretty much as it was – a quiet, dark, and contemplative space that also serves as a reminder of an earlier age of museums, when naturalists “collected” (shot and killed) animals, which were then mounted in dioramas with great skill and artistry. What puzzles me is why the Academy chose to keep its African Hall but not Wild California, an equivalent space filled with evocative dioramas of California wildlife. For better or worse, they don’t make exhibitions like that anymore; once Wild California was dismounted and destroyed, it was gone forever.

Nonetheless, the new Academy is wildly popular, with lines out the front door on weekends. Most visitors are from out of town, I think – another difference from the old Academy, which was one of those beloved institutions where kids who were taken there grew up and them brought their own kids in turn. The new Academy substitutes zing and flash for substance and love. Ultimately, there’s not that much there, which is a loss for us all.



Calif. Academy of Sciences: Everybody Line Up

September 14, 2011

I visited the California Academy of Sciences earlier this year for only the second time since the old complex of buildings was torn down and replaced with a new edifice designed by Renzo Piano, which opened in 2008. This visit confirmed my earlier first impression: the new Academy is long on crowds and, unlike the old Academy, short on absorbing exhibits.

It’s also a place of lines. Lines to get in the building…


Lines to get into the famous Rainforest exhibition…

Lines to get into the planetarium…

lines in the aquarium…

and lines to eat in the overpriced cafeteria…

It’s a huge building, but relatively little of it is given over to exhibit space. There’s a lot of open floor with high ceilings where visitors wander semi-aimlessly.

On the other hand, the new Academy is very popular – the lines are there not just because of poor design but because there are lots of visitors. Most of them, I suspect, are from out of town or moved to SF after the old Academy was torn down, so they have no basis of comparison. In any case, they seemed to be enjoying themselves.

For contrast, here is a Peter Hartlaub SF Gate blog entry, with photos, on the old Academy.


More Bathroom Blogfest: clean, simple, 60s

October 29, 2010

Thanks to the folks at Results Revolution for listing my first Bathroom Blogfest post. They bring up some good points about restrooms as key places where the concept of visitor comfort can be extended or utterly neglected.

Another BB post linked from the same entry is from the Kitchen and Residential Design blog by Paul Anater. He notes that being “stuck in the 60s” (the theme of this year’s BB) isn’t necessarily a bad idea if you’re talking about bathrooms, and provides illustrations of some classic modernist, human-scale bathrooms from the early 60s that look as if they could have been designed today.

In that spirit, here’s a women’s restroom (photos by Beth) from Palazzo Grassi, the just-too-cool museum of minimalist, conceptual, and terminally hip art in Venice, Italy. As I noted in an earlier post, the seating in this museum is lacking, to say the least; but the restooms are clean (literally and design-wise), simple, and classic – completely in keeping with the White Cube look and feel of the museum.




In terms of access for people with mobility problems or in wheelchairs, they are a bit tight, however.


Death Valley Museum: The comfort of the familiar

March 29, 2010

Death Valley National Park is one of our favorite places on the planet. One of the things we like about it is that because it is so isolated, very little changes over time, at least in terms of human impact on the landscape. Except for a much-needed campground upgrade or two (and the disappearance of the date milkshake stand at Furnace Creek, alas), most of the buildings and facilities are pretty much physically the same as they were 20-plus years ago when we first started visiting … including the museum at the Furnace Creek Visitor Center.

As far as I can tell, the building has remained essentially the same since it was built in the 1960s (I think), back when this was Death Valley National Monument. And judging from the exhibits, the museum has not changed either.

With its static exhibits, photo displays, and stuffed animals, the Death Valley Museum is a time capsule of 1960s museum practice and philosophy.

And that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Most of the year, Death Valley is hot and intensely bright. The vistas are long and shade is hard to come by. It can be overwhelming, visually and physically. A visit to this quiet, dark, contemplative space provides welcome relief to the senses and the spirit. At least in my observation, visitors — kids included — slow down here, lower their voices, and quietly take in the old-fashioned exhibits. 

What’s more, the exhibits are well-written and informative.

There’s even comfortable seating.

At this point, the museum itself has become an historical artifact in itself — the kind of place a parent can take a child and say, “It was just like this when my parents took me.” I think there’s a great deal of emotional comfort in that continuity, in addition to the physical and psychic comforts of coolness, dimness, and quiet.

That’s all on the brink of changing. For many years, Death Valley was a total backwater in terms of telephone and computers. There were old-fashioned land lines, and beyond that, nothing, unless you had a satellite phone. But now there’s wi-fi, bringing with it the sight of people slumped against the wall of the Visitor Center working on their laptops. Cell phone service, at least at the main commercial centers of Furnace Creek and Stovepipe Wells, will start soon, along with all the intrusive babble: so much for quiet.

And the museum is next. According to the latest Death Valley Visitor Guide, stimulus funds have been set aside to upgrade the museum exhibits. My fear is that audio and video will come crashing in — and to what purpose, really? There are subtle ways to make the current exhibits more accessible to a wider variety of visitors, but the likelihood is that they will instead be replaced with cookie-cutter, characterless interactives, turned up too loud. I hope I’m wrong.

I hope that at least they keep this very cool topographic Death Valley diorama:

Besides being beautiful in itself, it’s an example of an art that is no longer much practiced — which is a loss to us all.

WMA Comfort and Access Workshop, MOPA San Diego, Video Pt 1

November 29, 2009

Thanks to videographer/editor Kenshi Westover and staff videographer Joaquin Ortiz of MOPA, our October 2009 WMA workshop on visitor comfort and access was thoroughly documented on video. We were able to field-test Beth’s idea of workshop participants playing the roles of visitors with either physical disabilities or learning differences. Beth created the role-playing cards for the physical disabilities, and Paul Gabriel created the cards for learning differences. Participants were randomly assigned roles and had about 15 minutes to familiarize themselves with their cards before heading out the museum door to re-enter in the guise of their new personas. Here’s Part 1 of several episodes, edited and produced by Kenshi, documenting the day:


Based on the results of the day, role-playing seems to be an effective method for testing comfort and access.

More video episodes to come.

de Young Museum, San Francisco: It never rains … oh, wait a minute

August 27, 2009

When you visit the de Young Museum in San Francisco, and walk out of the cafe onto the terrace that fronts on the sculpture garden, on many days you will enter not the fresh open air but a plastic-enclosed, temporary-looking space.

It’s full of design features that say “added as an afterthought,” such as this elegant sand barrel:

deyoung sand barrel

Step out of the plastic enclosure into the sculpture garden and you will see the full expanse of this kludgy plastic addition to the would-be elegant Herzog & de Meuron building.

deyoung plastic pavillion outside

Why is this is party tent necessary? My guess is that since the building opened in 2005, any number of visitors have complained that the outside terrace is cold, windy, and wet. It’s exposed to the west, where the prevailing weather comes from just about every day of the year. In San Francisco, that weather often brings a chill wind, fog, and in winter, rain.  

Rain? But there’s a huge, brutalist overhang running along the entire side of the building to take shelter under, right?

deyoung overhang

Wrong! Look up, and you’ll see that the overhang is totally porous…

deyoung porous overhang

…rendering it useless as a functional architectural element for about four to six months a year, namely late fall, winter, and early spring, when (most years) it rains frequently and profusely. This feature of San Francisco’s Mediterranean climate is extremely well-known, as are the steady west wind and frequent fog. Except perhaps to Herzog & de Meuron.

Contemporary Jewish Museum, San Francisco

August 14, 2009

The Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco re-opened in 2008 in a new building designed by Daniel Libeskind. If you read about the building on the museum’s website, you’ll encounter a lot of architectural rhetoric about the symbolism of the shapes, materials, and designs. But do those abstract concepts translate into a user-friendly building? Call me a Philistine, but I don’t think so. 

The lobby, otherwise known as the Koret-Taube Grand Lobby, features what the museum calls the ‘PaRDeS’ Wall.

jewish contemp lobby

Outlined in lighting panels in this photo, it’s an abstract representation of a Hebrew acronym referring to a Kabalistic practice. To my naive eye, though, the lobby is simply a tall, narrow, awkwardly proportioned space with a geometric design on one wall.  

The galleries have bench seats, nothing to write home about but adequate. The education space, at least when we visited, had seating that was a little more interesting than usual.

jewish contemporary bubble seats

They’re sort of low, bulbous, padded stools. We referred to them as “bubble seats.” You can move them around pretty easily, put them together, and generally enjoy them more than the average stool or portable bench.


Restrooms are adequate, although the hardware — latches and handles and the like – are remarkably shoddy. This is something we’ve noticed in a number of other brand-new public buildings. (Which strikes me as a short-sighted way to save money.) One of the men’s rooms has a strangely impractical bench along one wall.

jewish contemp restroom men bench

It’s a nice idea, but the wall behind the bench slants inward, making it impossible to sit upright. Anyone who has visited the Libeskind-designed Denver Art Museum will recognize this sacrifice of comfort to grand design.

Another disappointing space is the Richard & Rhoda Goldman Hall, a multipurpose performance/lecture/event space. The photo on the museum’s website makes it look bigger and more attractive than it is. For one thing, the retractable tiered seating has extremely little legroom. You’re squished in tightly with other audience members.

jewish contemp multipurpose squish

Also, the steeply raked tiers do not accommodate anyone who has trouble climbing stairs. The only truly universally accessible row of seats is the front row.

jewish contemp multipurpose empty

More seats can be added at floor level, but it’s a kludge. 

Finally, there is another disconnect between the design concept and the reality of the space. According to the architect, the pattern of lines on the ceiling and wall reference a 16th century map of trade routes to Jerusalem. A noble conceit, but, so what? When you actually sit in the room as an audience member, you see a pattern of diagonal lines inscribed arbitrarily on the walls and ceiling of a room that has all the charm of a high school gymnasium.

jewish contemp multipurpose overall view