Re-building Futures: How Architecture Critique Shapes Museum FuturesOctober 25, 2023
Written by: Mikayla Barney
The soft morning rain falls on the stone pathway of New York City. Eager feet wait by the polished glass doors. A rumbling of chatter begins outside the museum, you can feel the excitement growing. The Richard Gilder Center is a new addition to the American Museum of Natural History. It was designed by architecture firm Studio Gang. The nine year long and over 400 million dollar project created a lot of controversy among critics and the general public when it opened in May 2023. As I stand outside the pink granite walls, trying to peek inside the rounded windows, I understand why this building evokes such strong reactions in everyone who visits. It is a rare event in anyone’s life to visit a freshly built facility of such a historic museum. Naturally, everyone’s got an opinion on how it shaped up.
The inside of the museum feels like you are entering a hollow bone. The lighting is natural and soft. The facade is a muted warm beige with grit and texture. It felt like bark when I touch it with my hand.
As I wander the halls, I think about how an interactive opportunity was missed. The large walls were created using a technique known as ‘shotcrete’ to create the rough texture. The designers could have added imprints of insects into the walls, a peek-a-boo trilobite or rogue shells scattered around the museum for curious children or keen observers to find. The museum delivers in awe, but I felt it lacked enough intimate details to keep me there. Such a detail was added to the staircase that grounds the room. In the middle of the staircase is a sign that reads “Have a seat and look around – A fellow Museum lover.” I appreciate when museums can deliver on the big and the small things. I decided to listen to the sign, sitting down on the stairs for a few minutes to take everything in.
While I sat, I thought about how an introduction was missing. Not every visitor will be as prepared as I was. I had researched the museum’s history, printed a map and I knew exactly what I was going to see. For an off-the-street visitor this building might be confusing. “Why is this here? Who started this project? When did this get built? Where did this come from?” all questions I get asked on a daily basis at our museum. The story of why and how the Richard Gilder Center got built is interesting and fascinating. But without a panel to tell the story, visitors will be left to wonder, and not in a fun way.
So why did this place get built? In 2014 the American Museum of Natural History announced its new project to build an addition that addresses the issues of functionality, accessibility and transparency at the museum. Unsurprisingly, the initial response from the public was oppositional. It didn’t seem to matter that New York’s Landmark Preservation Commission gave this project the green light, as locals and community groups protested the expansion. It didn’t seem to matter that the museum would be adding a new fully accessible entrance, or thirty new connections to previously established galleries. It didn’t seem to matter that more than 12% of hidden collections would be put on displays for everyone to enjoy.
When you are working against 150 years of history, any new idea seems scary. Despite all the protest, do people like it now that it’s built? The answer: not really. Critics wasted no time in taking colossal bites out of this bone-like structure. Here are a few of the critiques:
Philip Kennicott, The Washington Post: “Conventional expectations about how buildings should express their relationship to structure are now antipodal to where they were in the mid-10th century: Back then, one wanted to see in a glance the rational structure, how it stands up; today, one wants all of that hidden, in favour of neo-Baroque fantasies that aren’t really buildings, but portals of mystery and wonder. Does this building earn its keep?”
Alexandra Lange, Author: “Gilder feels like a valiant attempt to reconcile a 150-plus-year old museum’s worth of contradictions: Make it dramatic but not historic, show science at work but don’t add clutter, fix the circulation but leave space for people to gather. You can either make an array of small, honed spaces or one big move, and Studio Gang chose the latter.”
Michael Kimmelman, The New York Times: “Gilder is spectacular: a poetic, joyful, theatrical work of public architecture and a highly sophisticated flight of sculptural fantasy. It is an instant heartthrob.”
As a natural history museum in the early stages of growing bigger, we can use these critiques to gain perspective into what the general public likes and dislikes about museums. We also have a duty to examine ideas closely, and what these public opinions reveal is that they conflict with the overarching needs and purposes of museums. So let’s put these critiques under the microscope.
Kennicott questions the seduction and sleekness of the Richard Gilder Center. His comments only spotlight how far away he is from the layered and squishy challenges museums live in. In his article, Kennicott critiques the museum’s choice to transport hundreds of pounds of construction supplies from Germany to New York. And he’s right. According to the research, buildings are responsible for 40% of the world’s energy consumption. Buildings contribute to one-third of greenhouse gas emissions alone. While the fantasy that vernacular architecture could help solve climate change is lovely, it is not a solution that would sustain long term survival of museums.
Today, many museums outsource because sourcing locally costs far more and runs the risk of not keeping the lights on. HVAC systems, 24/7 security systems, exhibit mounts, and data loggers don’t dazzle and evoke awe. As costs rise around the world, a collective shift is building in our own backyards. People are much pickier today about how they spend their money. An at home theatre is more appealing than a new roof. Entertainment sells. Our socio-economic landscape is putting a silent strain on museum foundations, especially collections. Kennicott worries museums will “hold the science” in favour of enjoyment. It seems maybe he is longing for an age where teens listen to Bach and not Beyonce. For years now, museum professionals have known about this trend towards entertainment over science. Somehow, AMNH found a balance, and managed to be transparent with the public the entire way through. The initial drawings and plans match up almost identically to the final build. So if you have the nerve to walk through the doors after nine years of hard work and ask “but does it earn its keep?” my retort is “how can you possibly measure that accurately?”
Lange expresses disappointment in the grey voided architectural grandeur of the building, instead choosing to spend her time in the darker areas amongst the ants. This critique is what you might expect from a born-and-raised New Yorker commenting on how well this building captures the feeling of nature. Lange is not wrong, though, as she is a well educated critic in the field of architecture. She’s right in saying that people like good old-fashioned symmetry. The research shows us that people overwhelmingly enjoy classical architecture over modern, by 72% in fact. According to science, people enjoy smaller spaces over larger ones. Ironically, her article is a surface-level take on the canyon sized challenge the AMNH had ahead of them. Lange is tired of the “multistory top-lit party spaces” that museums have become, but fails to see how this opinion is polluting museum life cycles. Museums are tired of people with no knowledge of our industry chipping away at our newly built walls for sensational, self-serving purposes. For museums, words are our bricks. If academic and news sources publish articles that take unfair jabs at museums, it affects our ability to protect and educate the future generation of learners.
The AMNH did not just build this new addition for the public, it was built for the future. The brand new, state of the art scientific labs, research library and collections rooms will continue to serve over 200 scientists and home over 33 million artefacts. It can be difficult to notice nuance, though, from the dark rooms Lange chooses to spend her time in. For the rest of us, we can see that the line between the new build and the old build of the AMNH is obvious, but the line between holding museums accountable and insulting them is more ant-sized.
Kimmelman uses the phrase ‘instant heartthrob’, but when your chest hurts inside a museum we call it museum fatigue. On one side of the wall, we have the Kennicotts and Langes of the world. On the other side, we have people like Kimmelman, who view the world through rose-tinted windows. Kimmelman admits he loves the museum, so his appreciation of the new Gilder Center might be biased. He was not offended by the removal of the Roosevelt Park, or by the legal and cost issues that prolonged the build, or by the shotcrete technique used by problematic naturalist Carl Ackeley who once shot down a gorilla for display. Kimmelman acknowledges these big issues, which is great, but ultimately decides he likes it anyway. This is not surprising, as Kimmelman is the target audience for this new build.
He’s the family man with kids who would love to run around the open space, touching all the screens and screaming in awe at the live bugs. The research of John Falk teaches us how different museum visitor types influence our experience. For ‘professional’ types like Kennicott there’s not enough hard science to hold him there. For ‘explorers’ like Kimmelman, he’s having a great time! And for ‘rechargers’ like Lange, the museum is too loud and too big. Different visitors spend different amounts of time in the space too. Studies show that the average visitor spends less than twenty minutes in exhibit spaces. That’s approximately one minute per every 400 square feet. Following that data, it would take you approximately seven hours to see the entire Richard Gilder Center. Seems more like a headache than a heartthrob. Kimmelman’s critique goes to show that the ‘too big’ argument falls flat. To one person, this new addition is exciting and it means they can visit again and again and always see something new. To another person, the addition feels so overwhelming and frustrating that they can’t possibly see everything in a single day. It seems that to fully experience the Richard Gilder Center, with all its facets, in all its seasons, in all its glory, is as much an internal challenge to overcome as it is a physical one.
Whether you agree more with one opinion or another, the 70+ years of evidence from scientists tell us that buildings and cities do affect our well-being. Our brains attune to the geometry and arrangement of the spaces we inhabit. Science shows us that sometimes we get it wrong, sometimes we aren’t aware of the effect a building can have on us, for better or worse. Regardless of your opinion on how this architecture will age in the future, we can all agree that this museum inherently matters and improves the world just by existing. I don’t know how our brains and our buildings will reshape ideas of museum modernity in the coming years, but we must remain curious with our minds and careful with our words. And for the record, I liked the Richard Gilder Center.
Antoinette Duplessis. The Five Minute Falk. iMuseum Symposium Toronto. March 2011. Accessed October 2023. https://www.museumsontario.ca/newsarticle/publications/imuseum/pdf/RTAudienceResearch-FalkVisitorMotivationHandout.pdf
Alexandra Lange. What New York’s Cave-Like Natural History Museum Misses About Nature. Bloomberg. May 2023. Accessed October 2023. https://www.bloomberg.com/news/features/2023-05-10/nyc-s-new-gilder-center-imagines-natural-history-as-theme-park
American Museum of Natural History Website. Richard Gilder Center. Accessed October 2023. https://www.amnh.org/exhibitions/permanent/gilder-center
American Museum of Natural History Breaks Ground on the Richard Gilder Center for Science, Education and Innovation. Press Release, 2019. Accessed October 2023. https://www.amnh.org/content/download/258213/4384416/file/Gilder-Center-Groundbreaking-AMNH-Press-Release.pdf
American Museum of Natural History Gilder Center for Science, Education, and Innovation Environmental Impact Statement Draft Scope of Work. March 2016. Accessed October 2023. https://www.nycgovparks.org/pagefiles/100/AMNH-Gilder-Draft-Scope-of-Work.pdf
Beverly Serrell. Paying Attention: The Duration and Allocation of Visitors’ Time in Museum Exhibitions. The Museum Journal 40(2): 108-113. May 2010. Accessed October 2023. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/229912168_Paying_Attention_The_Duration_and_Allocation_of_Visitors’_Time_in_Museum_Exhibitions
John Hill. Studio Gang’s Gilder Center Unveiled. World Architects Website. November 2015. Accessed October 2023. https://www.world-architects.com/en/architecture-news/headlines/studio-gangs-gilder-center-unveiled
Kriston Capps. Classical or Modern Architecture? For Americans, It’s No Contest. Bloomberg. October 2020. Accessed October 2023. https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2020-10-14/classical-buildings-beat-modern-ones-in-u-s-poll
Laurel Graeber. Gilder Center Flies, Wriggles and Surprises. The New York Times. August 2023. Accessed October 2023. https://www.nytimes.com/2023/08/10/arts/design/gilder-center-museum-natural-history-animals.html
Michael Bond. The hidden ways that architecture affects how you feel. BBC Future. June 2017. Accessed October 2023. https://www.bbc.com/future/article/20170605-the-psychology-behind-your-citys-design
Michael Kimmelman. Wonder and Awe in Natural History’s New Wing. Butterflies, Too. New York Times. April 2023. Accessed October 2023. https://www.nytimes.com/2023/04/25/arts/design/gilder-center-natural-history-museum.html
Oscar Holland. What traditional buildings can teach architects about sustainability. CNN Style. December 2017. Accessed October 2023. https://www.cnn.com/style/article/vernacular-architecture-sustainability/index.html
Philip Kennicott. New York’s splashy new Gilder Center is all seduction. The Washington Post. May 2023. Accessed October 2023. https://www.washingtonpost.com/arts-entertainment/2023/05/04/natural-history-museum-gilder-center-new-york/
Rossilynne Skena Culgan. See inside the American Museum of Natural History’s massive new expansion. Time Out Website. April 2023. Accessed October 2023. https://www.timeout.com/newyork/news/see-inside-the-american-museum-of-natural-historys-massive-new-expansion-042623#:~:text=The%20 expansion%20 comprises%20seven%20 new,building%20that%20invites%20you%20in
Studio Gang Website. Richard Gilder Center for Science, Education, and Innovation at the American Museum of Natural History. Accessed October 2023. https://studiogang.com/project/gilder-center
Tom Anstey. American Museum of Natural History gains first approval for US $325m Gilder Center. Attractions Management Website. September 2016. Accessed October 2023.
Wendy Blake. A Reporter’s Journey Through the AMNH’s Evolving Gilder Center. West Side Rag Website. November 2022. Accessed October 2023. https://www.westsiderag.com/2022/11/03/a-reporters-journey-through-the-amnhs-evolving-gilder-center
Wikipedia. Museum fatigue. Accessed October 2023. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Museum_fatigue#:~:text=In%201997%E2%80%931998%2C%20Beverly%20Serrell,house%20of%20the%20Birmingham%20Zoo