From Exclusivity to Accessibility: The Paradigm Shift in Museum Design

Allison McElheny, AIA, LEED AP BD+C
Allison McElheny
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See how we engage with different perspectives to bring the transformative potential of inclusive design to the museum context.
We have to stop treating diversity as being not the normal state when it is actually the normal state.

Museums are undergoing an important transformation as architects, curators, and thinkers work together to redefine museum spaces to prioritize inclusivity and diversity. When we talk about Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) in architecture and design, we're talking about engaging with different perspectives and using the transformative potential of inclusive design in the museum context.

At Quinn Evans, we infuse DEI thinking into every one of our projects, from universally accessible routes at the National Native American Veterans Memorial, all-gender restrooms at the Baltimore Museum of Art, sensory decompression spaces at the Pilot School, to the Family Care Suite at the National Air and Space Museum. With each project, we learn, iterate, and apply lessons to advance the impact and engagement of our work.

An interior photo of a museum gallery with people looking at artwork.
Stanley Whitney: Dance with Me Henri, an exhibition at the Baltimore Museum of Art. The exhibition traced Philadelphia-based artist Stanley Whitney’s lifelong artistic engagement with works by Henri Matisse and showcased the origins of three stained-glass windows commissioned for the Ruth R. Marder Center for Matisse Studies.

Reclaiming Erased Narratives

The discussion of DEI in the museum and gallery world starts with considering the historical omissions prevalent in museum architecture. Think of the former palaces and neoclassical buildings that often house museums. These structures, perched on hills overlooking the surrounding cities, radiated exclusivity and often sidelined non-European art. To this day, it's common to find that Asian or African collections are not housed on the museum's main floor but relegated to lower-traffic areas and buried in the lowest floor levels.

Institutions like our client, the Baltimore Museum of Art (BMA), have taken intentional steps to make the museum building, collections, and the way art is exhibited more inclusive and welcoming. At the BMA, former director Chris Bedford ruffled feathers in 2020 by taking steps to sell artworks by recognized artists to finance the acquisition of works that will diversify the collection, host more inclusive exhibitions, and to create more pay equity among the staff.

One such installation, by artist Mickalene Thomas, combined art and design in a novel and expansive approach to transform the museum's entry. In A Moment's Pleasure, Thomas worked with our team to create a typical two-story Baltimore row house on the terrace in front of the museum, giving the look of domestic architecture familiar to the community. Inside, she transformed the museum lobby into a living room of the 1970s or 80s, where she displayed her own work and that of other invited Baltimore-based artists. With these cues, the exhibition invited people into a different time and space, a more familiar and inviting space than the more typical formal and crisp feel of a museum lobby.

Interior and exterior photos of an art museum exhibit.
A Moment’s Pleasure, an exhibition and immersive installation by Mickalene Thomas that reimagined the main entrance and lobby of the BMA as a Baltimore row home.

Embracing Diversity in Architecture

The BMA and other museums prioritize inclusivity by acquiring art that mirrors the communities they serve. This deliberate effort aims to rewrite the narrative surrounding art accessibility and representation. As architects and designers, we can support these goals by listening closely to the community and considering ways to reverse some of the less inclusive ways art has been presented. While in many cases, the historic building that houses a museum cannot, and should not, be changed, expanding what constitutes art and how it can be displayed to best engage a visitor naturally demands a new approach to the physical design of the interior gallery spaces.

Bridging Time and Place

Designing museum spaces for more diverse art is often a logistical and technical challenge, but it is also an opportunity to showcase more global influences and relationships. The BMA and similar institutions are creating connections between artworks from different places and time periods through their acquisitions and exhibitions. Architects can support these goals by, for instance, ensuring that sightlines allow artworks to intertwine in the visitor's gaze. This approach helps foster conversations about the influence – often unspoken – of different artistic expressions on familiar pieces. The goal is to display the art in such a way that it allows visitors to make connections between different pieces across time and space.

To achieve these goals, flexibility becomes a key requirement in museum architecture and design. This can mean ensuring that once separate gallery rooms become more open to one another with wider door openings, for example. It also means designing HVAC, lighting, and power configurations that can accommodate various types of artwork in the same space and allow curators the freedom to develop innovative exhibitions, recontextualize the collections, and present a richer experience for visitors.

An interior photo of a museum study room.
Transparency and sightlines from the study room of the BMA’s Nancy Dorman and Stanley Mazaroff Center for the Study of Prints, Drawings and Photographs directly into the adjacent gallery expand visual connections.

Incorporating Sensory Design for Neurodiversity

One thoughtful example of inclusive design is our Molina Family Latino Gallery in Washington, DC. All the signage in this gallery is bilingual in English and Spanish, and the colors and textures are reflective of those in the city's Latino neighborhoods. The gallery also incorporates sensory mapping to ensure that people of all abilities and ages are not overwhelmed by the interactive exhibits. This process involved careful consideration of the exhibit's floor plan to understand how each area of the gallery would be experienced in terms of sound and light levels, crowd densities, and opportunities to sit down and rest. The sound map for the project showed, for instance, that an area of interactive exhibits with audio projecting forward would create disorienting overlapping noise. Working with experts, those areas were transformed into more focused sound experiences buffered by quiet spaces.

Floor plans of a museum gallery.
We created a series of diagrams mapping sensory stimulation to inform the planning and design for the Molina Family Latino Gallery in the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History.

Challenging Assumptions

The concept of DEI in museum and gallery architecture, planning, and design highlights and echoes the shift towards challenging traditional notions of art in the museum world, notably at institutions like the BMA. Museum spaces were once governed by rigid rules dictating what art was acquired and how it was displayed. The familiar grouping of art by geography or period is giving way to more dynamic spaces where boundaries blur and assumptions are recontextualized. By strategically reinstalling artworks with a global context, museums like BMA encourage visitors to rethink their relation to artworks, and architects and designers are critical to these plans.

One example would be the surprising juxtaposition of the French artist Henri Matisse's work with the installation of contemporary stained glass pieces by American artist Stanley Whitney in the Ruth R. Marder Center for Matisse Studies. The new windows show the strong influence of Matisse’s 20th-century works reinterpreted by a contemporary African-American artist. That juxtaposition, enabled by innovative technical solutions, enhances access and emphasizes that the conversation with great works of art is open to everyone and helps to redefine museums as more vibrant hubs of cultural dialogue.

Inclusive Design: A Vision for the Future

We hope that inclusive design becomes second nature for architects. Just as we follow the requirements of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) to remove physical barriers to accessibility, we want architecture and design professionals to be open to learning about and considering the cultural barriers that are embedded in museums. In this way, architecture can support the vision of many museums to become more inclusive and reflective of the diverse communities they serve rather than being exclusive spaces for a few.

By recognizing their colonial origins and historical biases and embracing more diverse art, redefining spaces, and encouraging cultural dialogue, museums can evolve into accessible and welcoming spaces for everyone. As museums cease to be mere repositories of artifacts and transform into spaces that embrace all narratives, design and planning professionals are deeply involved in conversations about the different ways to enable those changes. Through collaboration with curators and other museum professionals, we are learning together how museums can transform into more empathic and inclusive spaces, develop trust with broader audiences, and expand their capacity to be flexible spaces for service and engagement.

An interior rendering of a black box space.
Our design for a new space at the Jewish Museum of Maryland swaps the museum gift shop model of monetary transaction for one of cultural transaction through the sharing of oral histories and experimental performances.

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