Inside Look: College museums and galleries

Building contemporary environments upon old traditions

Higher ed museums continue to evolve, but tried-and-true practices drive current trends such as galleries with moveable walls, event spaces and AV technology. 

“Colleges are seizing on tradition,” says Matt Kirchman, president and principal planner at ObjectIDEA, a Massachusetts-based company that plans cultural attractions worldwide.

Soaring ceilings and civic spaces, for example, originally served to convey wealth and importance. Now they have multifunctional purposes for social gatherings and art celebrations.

Decades ago, the “recipe” for exhibitions normally entailed posting printed labels alongside works of art. Now technology and multimedia come as standard ingredients to accommodate the complex pallets of visitors, Kirchman says, adding that people now have a hard time engaging with art “if they can’t use their fingers or create their own path with an app during a museum tour.”

Museum directors are encouraging building designers to leave behind signature elements. “If a museum has a certain architectural significance, then people will go out of their way to see these statements,” Kirchman says.

Campus museums provide real-world experiences to engage students, says Anna-Maria Shannon, vice president for membership at the Association of Academic Museums and Galleries and board member of the Washington Art Consortium.

Washington State and Yale universities, for instance, transferred pieces from permanent collections to galleries and event spaces. Students give tours, handle permanent collection items and create their own exhibitions in these areas.

Faculty are encouraged to bring classes to the museum to use permanent pieces (such as works by Andy Warhol) for a post-modern course, says Shannon, who also serves as interim director of WSU’s museum.

“Colleges can engage the viewer in so many ways by warping or shifting the environment, or by adding another dimension of sound, sight or smell,” she adds. “There are so many opportunities we haven’t even thought of yet.”

Steven Wyman-Blackburn is assistant editor.

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