In the American Alliance of Museums’ Center for the Future of Museums’ Trendswatch 2013: Back to the Future report, released earlier this year, a trend to watch out for is the “Urban Renaissance” (check out the report here). After years of people moving out of the cities into the suburbs, “the United States is experiencing a reverse exodus back to the cities.” To accommodate this change in demographics, museums are rethinking how they use space and how they interact with the surrounding space.
One example cited by the Trendswatch 2013 report is the Nature Gardens (formerly North Campus) project at the Natural History Museum in Los Angeles County. The Museum is reclaiming three and a half acres of concrete parking lot space and turning it into a natural, park-like habitat where visitors will have an opportunity to experience local wildlife in the middle of Los Angeles. Last August, through my work with RK&A, I had the opportunity to be part of the project and see the changes in process, when we went to LA to do some formative testing on the “Nature Lab” exhibit, which opened this June at the Natural History Museum. According to the Museum’s website, Nature Lab “is a bridge between the Museum’s indoor research and collections, and [its] new outdoor space.” For two days I talked with Museum visitors about nature and wildlife in Los Angeles, and believe me, people generally weren’t thinking about mountain lions, turtles and other fascinating creatures that are featured in the new exhibit (you can check out the whole report from last summer here and take a look at the new exhibition here).
In June, when I was vacationing in Ireland I had the opportunity to visit the Titanic Belfast Museum. The Museum, which opened in March 2012, offers an amazing look at the ship-building industry in Belfast, the construction of the ill-fated ship, as well as her demise and her discovery, all on the site of the ship’s birthplace. In fact, the slipways where RMS Titanic and her sister ship RMS Olympic were built lie just outside the doors of the Museum. The tender ship for RMS Olympic and Titanic, SS Nomadic, sits in the marina on the other side of the Museum, the last remaining White Star Line ship. The original headquarters and drawing offices of Harland and Wolff, the designers of the Olympic-class White Star Line ships, are next door to the museum. By all means, this site takes advantage of its rich ship-building history (to learn more, check out their website).
However, it wasn’t only the history that caught my attention (although I am sure you can tell the history fascinates me). The new museum is part of a “waterfront regeneration project” that hopes to turn the former shipbuilding space into a lively area full of apartments, shopping, entertainment, and businesses.
This new quarter of Belfast, aptly named the Titanic Quarter, is different from the park space created by reclaiming concrete in Los Angeles, of course, but I think the idea behind the projects is similar. In both cases, the museums serve as active community spaces, not only for museum visitors who visit for the exhibitions, but also for local residents who can use the surrounding areas as places to enjoy the outdoors, relax, unwind. The museums become destinations for more than what the buildings hold. As suggested in Trendswatch 2013, these types of development projects allow museums to become public spaces where people can socialize, hang out, or have cultural experiences (the Nature Garden in Los Angeles advertises outdoor movies on its Facebook page. The Titanic Slipways has served as a location for outdoor concerts and events in Belfast).
I can’t be sure what the future holds for museums. These projects are just two examples of museum projects that have developed great urban spaces as a response to re-urbanization, either independently or with the city. I am sure you can think of many more. I find this type of space—where the formality of the traditional museum meets the informality of the outdoors—very exciting. And I can’t wait to see what museums dream up next.