The physical museum must evolve. Can spatial design help?
How do you rethink one of the most iconic museums in the world? A ‘Herculean’ endeavour, but one that The Museum of Modern Art’s senior deputy director of exhibitions and collections Ramona Bronkar Bannayan and her team took on with great enthusiasm when it came time to future-proof the New York City institution. Last year, MoMA unveiled an overhaul and expansion completed with Diller Scodofio + Renfro. Not only does it widen the museum’s sprawl and the range of its collections, but too enables MoMA to develop a stronger connection with the city and people. Spatial design effectively helps drive engagement.
It isn't enough to say that we have a great building and a great collection — you have to query it on a regular basis
Despite many platforms shifting online, promising more access, more content and more activation, Bannayan pointed out in her Frame Awards 2020 talk How to make the museum future-proof that there are more museums — and more opportunities to attract visitors — than ever before. ‘Every decade there’s been a marked physical change to the museum,’ she said, ‘The number of museums in the last 20 years has changed from about 20,000 to 55,000. In order to stay relevant, the museum has to be a metabolic institution. We have 200,000 works of iconic art in the museum. But it isn't enough to say that we have a great building and a great collection — you have to query it on a regular basis, to ask: what are you not showing, what are you not saying, what are the topics you're not addressing in the museum? We have to always be in a state of renewing and strengthening the physical collection, as well as the physical environment.’
Audiences demand new art, and you need the right spaces to experience that
With collection galleries that will change even more frequently than before, the updated MoMA gives people the opportunity to ‘create their own layout and pathway’ each time they visit. Works previously organized in medium-specific departments are now integrated, giving visitors the chance to discover and interact in a totally different way. 'Art demands new kinds of space. That's part of the ethos of the institution — audiences demand new art, and you need the right spaces to experience that. We wanted to weave together different mediums and contextualize them through chronological and societal moments while allowing each to really live and and flourish in the galleries and not be compromised by other works around them.’ This merge of content and maximized spatial flexibility allows the museum to reach out a wider range of audiences: ‘There isn't one kind of audience — we know we have art specialists, art lovers, culture enthusiasts and people that are simply activity seekers. [We asked ourselves] how to listen to the needs of the artwork and be true to them and yet create a space where all of these different kinds of people can come, feel engaged with the art and be deeply present.’ Achieving this also meant crafting dedicated, transparent areas for people to relax, reflect, socialize and learn. And MoMA also extends a hand to the non-committal visitor, too: the street-accessible programmed ground floor is now free to the public, tightening the museum’s stitch in NYC’s urban fabric.
Physical museums actually do still need to exist
Bannayan believes that the museum’s contemporary role is to be a facilitator of a dynamic relationship between people and art — a social space and incubator of conversation. ’Physical museums actually do still need to exist. Everything’s available online — you have can virtual reality experiences; you can sit in your living room and look at works of art. I think that's wonderful — everyone should have that experience, particularly those that can't come to a museum. Recognizing these [digital] platforms and what they can do and how they exist while also understanding what the museum itself as a physical space does..they just begin to complement each other rather than competing with each other.’
MoMA’s digital platform is positioned to encircle the core of the institution, the museum itself: ‘We feel strongly that that objects really matter and that there's nothing like being present with an actual work of art. You feel it, you see it and you experience it differently when you're there. The public can no longer be invited as a guest or a spectator, they have to be an active agent within the creation of the experiences that derive from the work on view.’