Enhancing the Spaces Where Art Appears

BY definition, museums are big, boxy buildings where art and other objects are hung or stored. Designing these spaces to accommodate various needs has clearly become a science. The challenge is especially acute because the museum exists, not only to house a collection, but for the public. ``You get involved in physiological and psychological issues with museum planning,'' said John Hilberry, a Detroit architect who has done architectural design and planning studies for American museums.

Mr. Hilberry is one in a growing field of architectural consultants catering to museums. Wherever a museum is to be built or expanded, experts are sought to make the final product something that won't scare the public away.

One of the largest concerns of museum administrators today is to make the public feel comfortable in their buildings, Hilberry said. ``Looking at art can be physically exhausting. In our society, people are not generally asked to be that sensitive and that alert for such long periods of time. People stand up so straight in museums and do so much walking. You need a respite from all this. You need a place to sit down in a pleasant environment that's not too demanding, to rest up before you do it again. Going to a museum shouldn't be about endurance.''

Changing floor materials, with carpets in some rooms and hardwood floors in others, as well as different heights of walls for various kinds of artwork (for instance, a lower scale for etchings and taller walls for large contemporary paintings) are two ways to break up the monotony, museum consultants say.

These consultants tend to differ on the question of windows in museums, some arguing that natural lighting is preferable and less costly than artificial light, while others contend that windows can be distracting. ``When you walk into a gallery and there is a window, you tend to look out the window,'' one consultant notes. ``When there is a window next to a painting, there is no contest.''

Hilberry also says that placing restrooms, fountains, plants, restaurants, and even skylights around the museum at periodic intervals helps to make visiting a museum less tiring. He believes in having windowed rest areas to relieve the closed-in feeling that comes from being in a windowless gallery.

E.Verner Johnson, a Boston architect who has done studies and architectural plans for Boston's Museum of Science, the Louvre, and the Smithsonian Institution, says that courtyards and galleries painted in different colors are useful to break up monotonous space. ``Not every museum needs a restaurant,'' he says, ``but it's a nice asset to have the food, not so much because of the food itself but because it breaks up museum fatigue.''

Of course, having a restaurant is only advisable if the museum and its collection take more than an hour to see, Johnson notes. ``If it takes only 30 minutes to see the entire museum, a restaurant will not be in scale. You also wouldn't want a full-blown restaurant if fewer than 100,000 people come to the museum, because it would lose money.''

He says that museums must define their roles, collections, and limitations before they build. In general, museums engage in any of five activities - exhibit, maintain a collection, publish catalogues, conduct research, and teach the public - but only the largest ones do them all.

Long-range planning, however, cannot always be exact; the very process of building a new facility or addition may attract unexpected gifts or contributions. This is what happened at the Dallas Museum of Art; it had a good pre-Columbian objects collection but only scattered pieces from other cultures and eras before it opened its $50 million facility in early 1984. An entire collection of Impressionist and post-Impressionist paintings was offered to the museum shortly after its reopening, as well as a decorative arts collection, for which the museum had to build a new wing.

Museum officials often hope that an exciting new or renovated facility will induce donors to come forward. Stellar figures in architecture - such as Philip Johnson, Louis Kahn, I.M. Pei, Mies van der Rohe, and Frank Lloyd Wright - have all designed visually arresting structures.

At times, these architectural works of art overwhelm the actual art objects they have been designed to showcase. Richard Meier, who designed the High Museum in Atlanta, angered many people in the museum by saying that, in time, he hopes the collection improves to match the building.

The 10-year-old Pompidou Center in Paris, with its four walls of glass, was designed by London architect Richard Rogers. It has received a fair amount of criticism because of its pointedly dazzling design. The extreme amount of glass eliminates 20 percent of the museum's available hanging space for the art and permits far too much natural light to enter the galleries, requiring unattractive shading devices.

Francis Mah, who designed the 1972 expansion of the Brooks Museum in Memphis, Tenn., is critical of I.M. Pei's addition to Boston's Museum of Fine Arts. That addition included an eye-catching courtyard enclosed by a glass-sided arcade. Exhibition galleries are off the arcade. The galleries themselves, Mr. Mah says, are too ``confining and restrictive. They don't stand up to the wonderful bright courtyard, and it's wrong when the public area is more attractive than the art.''

Museums also need to conserve, move, and store works of art - the least glamorous but most important function of many institutions. Few museums are able to put all of their collections on display and, as a result, temperature- and humidity-controlled spaces are required for sometimes large quantities of art. The failure of museums to modernize in these areas, John Hilberry says, could result in ``limiting the quality and number of exhibits that can be brought in.''

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