Monday, February 29, 2016

The Museum Entry Experience

Terry Haggerty installtion, Norton Museum of Art,West Palm Beach

On a walk while on vacation recently, I came upon the Norton Museum of Art in West Palm Beach (FL) and I stepped into its lobby. Brilliant candy red ribbon-like lines raced across the lobby’s walls, climbed the ceiling, stretched, bent, wrapped, and folded in on themselves. An installation by the British artist, Terry Haggerty, this striking optical graphic, immediately inside the museum, activated the entire space and stopped me in my tracks. The Norton Museum of Art experience had met me at the door. 

Since that brief but highly satisfying encounter I have been thinking about the museum entry experience as a gift for the visitor and an opportunity for a museum to announce early and emphatically the nature of the experience it intends to offer its visitors.

Part architecture, part exhibit, the museum entry experience is a full gesture delivering a condensed version of the museum’s DNA. It is more than a preview of activities and objects or a replica of T. Rex skull. Entry experiences might be prior to the lobby or after the lobby and before the exhibit halls. Nevertheless they occur very early in the visitor experience and with great impact. A sweeping staircase is not sufficiently grand or distinct, nor is walking between giant letters that spell out the museum’s name, nor is a gorilla bursting through a building’s exterior. What may be briefly arresting quickly becomes a cliché. Something in the character of the museum entry experience must promise to surprise, but not just once.

Entry experiences driven by lobby functions are altogether different. Stanchions funnel visitors into lines for membership or tickets, towards the store or café. Information about upcoming exhibits flashes  on screens and lists of longstanding donors cover the walls. While serving decidedly important functions, these entry sequences could be anywhere. And they are.

An entry experience is a place, a moment–one that sometimes engulfs the visitor, challenges perceptions, and often connects to enduring human themes. The museum entry experience is not only memorable; it also builds anticipation and fosters a receptiveness in the visitor for the museum’s offerings.

World War I Museum, Kansas City (Photo credit: The New York Times)
At the National World War I Museum and Memorial in Kansas City (MO), visitors cross a glass bridge between the admissions desk and the exhibits. Below is a field of 9,000 bright orange poppies. The visitor doesn’t need to know that each poppy represents 10,000 deaths in World War I to be struck by the profusion color and sheer number or to be reminded of John McCrae’s poem, In Flanders fields, the poppies blow… A powerful moment has captured the visitor before entering the exhibits.
Kidspace Children's Museum, Pasadena

Entering Kidspace Children’s Museum in Pasadena, visitors walk through the tall, white arched entryway of a classic parks building. The bright sunshine makes the low, narrow tunnel that follows seem even darker. Reflective surfaces on all sides and overhead catch light from colored spots below, sparkling with jewel colors. The passage to the museum’s plaza is enchanting. Separating the outside world from what comes next, it invites visitors to dwell and explore reflections, textures, and shimmery effects. It heightens the sense of possibilities to come that begin to appear as the tunnel opens onto the museum’s plaza.
Bridge of Glass, Venetian Wall, Tacoma

The Chihuly Bridge of Glass is a 500-foot pedestrian overpass connecting the Museum of Glass to downtown Tacoma (WA). Pedestrians pass two 40-foot crystal towers, walk under a glass-topped pavilion populated by Chihuly forms, and move between two walls displaying over 100 glass sculptures. Crossing the Bridge of Glass, pedestrians catch the glow and blend of colors of glass illuminated by natural light from outside and above. The Bridge of Glass plays both to the city and to the museum.
Front Page at the Newseum, Washington, D.C.

The Dalî Museum, St Petersburg
There are also more contained gestures attuned to the larger museum idea that can help launch an entry experience. The trail of small ants familiar in Salvador Dalî’s paintings march through the doorway into the Dalî Museum in St Petersburg FL creating a very Daliesque moment. At one time, the Newseum posted front pages from approximately 80 newspapers daily along the Pennsylvania Avenue facade of its building. Passing the prominently displayed page-one news from newspapers worldwide and all 50 states introduces the complex stories about the press that the museum wants to cover. 

The Orangery, Dumbarton Oaks (Photo: Dumbarton Oaks)
I have also thought that there are entry experiences in search of museums. One excellent example is the Orangery at Dumbarton Oaks in Washington, D.C.  A Patrick Dougherty willow sculpture is a promising start for a compelling entry experience at various museums–if there isn’t one already.  
Perhaps if we are more alert to the museum entry experience and how it captivates visitors, museums might be more inclined to create highly engaging experiences that reach out and bring visitors into the museum experientially as well as physically.

•What is the museum entry experience at your museum? 
• What museum entry experience stands out for you?
Patrick Doughtery, Eastern Tennessee State University, Johnson City TN

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