Arup Museum Experience Event Report

Arup and Materia organised and co-hosted an event today on designing the museum experience. An abstract subject made clearer by three expert stories on two recent museum projects: the newly renovated Rijksmuseum and the extension to the Stedelijk Museum, both of which are in Amsterdam.

A general theme was that change is constant. So the question put to the three was: what does the future of the museum look like?

The shiny white ‘bathtub’ of the Stedelijk Museum received much publicity last year and was presented as an architectural case by its designer, Benthem Crouwel Architects partner Mels Crouwel. Details on the Rijksmuseum were given by its head of expositions, Tim Zeedijk. A third speaker, Nigel Tonks of Arup, discussed the complex balances at play in the design process of such large scale projects.

The presentations focused mainly on broad issues in museums. Questions arose such as what kind of space contemporary society demands for its art, and how we can adapt museums to ever-changing social, political and technological paradigms.

In the Rijksmuseum, for instance, variations in interior lighting were experimented with, using natural sky-lights as well as artificial spot-lighting. This has a subtle influence on the way people perceive the art and the spaces the art is set in.

The Rijksmuseum can be seen as a support to the works of art on display inside it. Its spaces are quietly shaped to show off the paintings and sculptures to maximum effect.
The Stedelijk museum, on the other hand, is more like a piece of art itself. At least, to the casual viewer. Benthem Crouwel partner Mels Crouwel explained that much of the design is a result of rational choices. The overhang keeps sun off the open public area, the lifted white box allows that space to continue inside and forms its own closed museum space. Its angled sides hide extra steel construction and ducts. The white colour is an effective polyester coating that doubles as a projection screen. A diagonal closed staircase is coloured yellow because routing is always yellow in architecture drawings.

These material choices are ways of improving the museum experience. Connecting the stories, Nigel Tonks demonstrated the balance of influences at work in museums. Iconic buildings and spaces for icons. Authenticity versus technological mediation. Electric or natural light. These factors will all have to be discussed in the coming generation.

At the moment the vast majority of museum-goers visit world-famous sites such as the Louvre or the Guggenheim, but this is set to change. China is preparing to increase domestic museum attendance to one billion people – most of its population – within 10 years. This staggering feat may be realised by introducing modular villages of 3,000 houses surrounding one museum. The plan is to build 100 museums in the next decade. So, although we can’t yet be sure how, it is clear that the future of the museum is going to be very interesting indeed.


This event was hosted at Delta Light, for which many thanks.