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New Trends in Museum Design

Museums have been popular attractions since The Ashmolean Museum in England first opened its doors to the public in 1677. While they certainly act as mainstays of history and culture, museum design has gone through monumental changes over the last few decades.

35 years ago, museums were quiet, lonely places for only the upper levels of society. Today, they’re hubs of excitement and culture, drawing audiences from all societal backgrounds. They’re making art more available to more and more people all over the world, and more people are choosing to spend their days looking at art than ever before.

About 865 million people visit the United States’ 16,000 museums each year—that’s an average of 2.3 million visitors each day according to the American Association of Museums. That’s more people in museums than people attending baseball, basketball, and football games combined.

The growth in attendance over the years can be attributed to the booming economy of the late 90s, which made museum donations plentiful. All of the new projects funded by these donations reflect the changing mission of museums as a whole—to attract, engage, merchandise, and educate larger and more widely diverse groups of people.

Museum designs and budgets have grown in size and in complexity, and building teams that fail to keep up with these trends will fall behind if they aren’t careful.

Museums as Artwork

Architects and designers are viewing the museum itself as the first piece in its art collection, instead of just the building that houses it. The building should be an attraction in itself, reflecting the inspired works inside.

A lot of museums have been seeking out acclaimed architects as a way of merchandising—as well as gaining support for—their projects. Not every museum can afford a hot shot celebrity architect, but they have a common goal in mind: compelling design.

Tacoma, Washington’s Museum of Glass is a prime example of compelling design in the form of a 90-foot stainless steel cone, tilted 17 degrees to one side. The building itself has to spark interest, to draw the people to the art inside.

R and R

Today’s museums want to maximize revenue, and two effective ways to do that are restaurants and retail. This capitalist thrust can be traced back to the Met in the early 70s—today, the Met’s bookshop and retail operations are nicknamed “Bloomingdale’s at the Met” for a reason.

Some museums, like Boston’s Institute of Contemporary Art, even treat their retail establishments as separate entities. People have access to their bookshops and restaurants without paying admission to the museum. Investing in these facets of a museum will increase revenue and ensure that your guests’ needs are met.  


After-hours events can be crucial business for museums, outside the regular admission fees and retail operations. Most of today’s museums have a “great hall,” or a large, open, aesthetically pleasing space to host events. These spaces are important for ceremonial events, as well as museum-specific fundraisers.

Not all museums are open to this, however. Older museums may not have the space to host large events, and some museums have beautiful, open spaces but would rather keep them pristine than use them for events.

Flexible Gallery Space

Temporary exhibitions have been popular in museums ever since the arrival of King Tut to New York in the 70s. Since then, this idea has posed new challenges to designers and museum staff, who now have to carefully consider how to control temperature, humidity, and lighting to accommodate changing exhibits.

Until very recently, the trend for these temporary exhibits leaned heavily toward the black box look. A crucial decision for every museum is deciding whether or not to use natural light, and how much to use, if any.

Some museums don’t have any permanent collections, and therefore need flexible space to work with. This includes temporary walls and careful electrical design. If you were to split a large space in half, can your HVAC system accommodate that, or will only half the room be cooled? Things like this have to be thought all the way through in order to have true flexibility.

There are some museums, however, that don’t count flexibility as a priority. Despite not being able to accomodate for temporary exhibits as well, some of the most successful museums are the ones with the least flexibility. Too much flexibility can result in a museum feeling more like a convention center. These museums still manage flexibility in display, placement, and lighting without being able to manipulate the walls or floors.

Outdoor Art and Landscaping

Art and the great outdoors make a great pairing, and because of this, many museums are now implementing sculpture gardens and landscaping into their programs. This integration of nature and architecture manifests itself in a variety of ways in museums across the United States. Utilizing rooftop space, extending the art outside of the building, and coming up with new ways to showcase performance art are all popular ways to expand art itself to the masses.

By working with nature, not against it, museums are creating a more welcoming and more appealing environment for everyone.


While museums have been around for centuries, the technological revolution has not been lost on them. New technology not only impacts the kinds of exhibits museums can host, but also the museum’s education mission as a whole.

For example, at the Museum of Glass, activities taking place in the museum are video simulcast throughout the building. A sophisticated a/v program can recognize donors when they come in, and videotape artists’ archive is currently being developed.

Another example is the digital media center in Boston’s ICA. There are computer stations for accessing digital artworks, digital education, interpretive materials, and the internet, all enhance the museum-goer’s experience.


Parking has always been a huge headache for museum owners and architects alike. It’s one of the most important aspects of a museum, but also one that’s hard to make aesthetically appealing. Lack of parking is a common complaint for most museum-goers.

Not every museum needs a lot of parking, but so many rely on it to support their annual traffic, especially in larger cities where walking simply isn’t an option.

These are the things that today’s museums should be focused on, and what the successful ones are focusing on already.

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