Museum architecture has traditionally been on a monumental scale, as museums in both the US and Europe took inspiration from Greek temples and lofty palaces. Though newer museums borrow from different traditions, they are often still built on the same scale, a monument to modernity rather than classicism, but a monument nonetheless.
But how do these monuments appear to the visitor?
Originally the province of the wealthy and educated, museums used architecture familiar to their primary audience. As museums’ conceptions of who their audience is shifts to be more democratic, more museums are realizing that their monumental facades do not endear them to all of their visitors. Some feel overwhelmed or intimidated, others just plain unwelcome (1).
One strategy to combat this intimidation has been to hang large colorful banners advertising exhibitions over the classical façade to soften the face of the museum (2). These banners have almost become de rigueur and can be seen at most major museums. But museums with neo-classical architecture are not the only museums whose buildings play a large part in their interactions with their visitors.
The Everson Museum in Syracuse, NY was designed by I.M. Pei and built 1968 as a building which also functioned as a sculpture (3). The structure is striking, featuring interconnected boxy wings of chiseled stone uninterrupted by windows. However, the museum has had one consistent problem since its opening. Much like the Louvre pyramid, another building designed by I.M. Pei, visitors can’t find the entrance.
Several steps have been taken to help visitors orient themselves, including positioning sculpture in the exterior court oriented towards the entrance, placing tables and seating near the entrance to draw people in, and finally, hanging a banner over the doorway.
But Stephen Kern, the Everson’s Executive Director, says it’s not all bad. The semi-concealed entrance sends visitors on a “quest of discovery” around the building, allowing them to appreciate the structure/sculpture from angles not seen when walking straight to the front door (4).
The building has also given the museum opportunities difficult to come by with other, more traditional, architectural styles. The museum features art films on the side of the building Thursday through Sunday from dusk until 11 o’clock, projected from a building across the street. During the summer, the Museum puts on a popular film series geared toward bringing the community together (5). The series unites people from the local neighborhood with the wider city and suburb population, creating a large, diverse group with a common purpose: enjoying a movie under the stars.
Despite some difficulties, the Everson Museum has, as Stephen Kern put it, “leveraged the building to service the community” (6), an ideal that any museum, no matter its architecture, can aspire to.
Special thanks to Stephen Kern for his time and enthusiasm when I interviewed him for this blog post.
1. Falk, John H. and Lynn D. Dierking. The Museum Experience Revisited. Left Coast Press, 2013. Page 180.
2. Gretchen Sorin, Director of the Cooperstown Graduate Program. Personal Communication
4. Stephen Kern, Executive Director, Everson Museum of Art. Personal Communication.
5. Both art and popular films are partnered with the Urban Video Project in Syracuse
6. Stephen Kern, Executive Director, Everson Museum of Art. Personal Communication.
Falk, John H. and Lynn D. Dierking. The Museum Experience Revisited. Left Coast Press, 2013.
The Everson Museum of Art Website
Urban Video Project Website