In this recession economy, the arts have suffered a heavy blow and museums find themselves trying to appeal to as broad an audience as possible just to stay afloat. But who is today’s museumgoer ? How does a museum go about attracting their attention? Beginning in 1699, the Paris Salon was the official art exhibition space of the Académie Royale de Peinture et de Sculpture (French for “Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture”) and, for a time, the greatest annual art event in the world. It was also a chance for the upper and lower classes to rub elbows—everyone came to the Salon. Does everyone still visit museums today?
In the United States, museum admission can be costly and even if visitors can stomach the price, they often feel as though museums are too elite to serve as a simple form of entertainment. Recently, museums have pulled out all the stops to increase their annual attendance. Around the country, museums have added computers with games or information access, cafés and exploration/play areas for children. Although the art exhibited in a museum is, arguably, its most important feature, perhaps one of the most significant changes museums are making is to their appearances.
The initial construction of the Brooklyn Museum occurred between the 1890s and the 1920s. This included a grand staircase as the entrance from the Eastern Parkway. However, by the 1930s, the staircase showed signs of deterioration. An interest “in creating a more direct and ‘democratic’ entrance into the Museum” led to the approval of the demolition of the staircase in April 1934. In 2004, the Brooklyn Museum then added the Rubin Pavilion and Lobby to “the original nineteenth-century Beaux-Arts façade”—a glass construction which echoes the original staircase, while maintaining and expanding the street level entrance and the visitor services just inside those doors.1
In theory, a street level entrance makes an institution seem more accessible—it belongs to everyone on the street, not just the elite. Although the 2004 addition received a very positive architectural review from the New York Times upon its completion,2 its success is being reevaluated today. The Rubin Pavilion and Lobby was “meant to beckon the masses, and the Brooklyn Museum said it hoped to triple attendance in 10 years.” But six years into this effort “attendance…is just a smidgen above the 326,000 visitors who came to the museum in 2004.”3 Could it be that a populist emphasis on “access” is the wrong direction for a museum today? Philippe de Montebello, former director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, believes that…
What most museum visitors crave is some form of uplift, an experience to get them away from the humdrum of daily life in favor of an encounter with something unique, thus unreplicable. They don’t just want to step into the museum as they would into a mall, but to experience a real transition from the street to the institution.T he current glass entrance defeat the very purpose and exhilaration felt when a person who wasn’t brought up in a mansion is able to walk into a mansion. By taking away the majesty of the entrance, they’ve taken away the majesty of the experience.“4
So what are visitors looking for? Do you want a museum to be a comfortable place, one you could walk in to (and out of) casually? Or do you want a museum to be a grand cultural experience—one that uplifts the visitor? Do you want a museum that feels like an institution that you belong to (and belongs to you)? Or do you want to feel that you are stepping into an exceptional experience—a world not your own? Do you think one type of entrance is more successful or appropriate than the other?
In April 2006, the New Britain Museum of American Art (NBMAA) opened its own addition—the Chase Family Building. The 43,000-square-foot building with 10 new galleries allowed more of the museum’s collection to be on view. But what does the new entrance say about the museum? Previously (opened to the public on July 1, 1937), the collection was housed in a stone mansion, so entering the museum was like entering a historical, upper-class residence.5 Now, a small flight of stairs leads from the sidewalk of New Britain’s Lexington Street to a patio with tables, chairs and outdoor sculptures. The entrance itself is comprised of a series of glass doors under a triangular overhang that juts out over a portion of the patio.
What does our appearance and entrance say about us? The NBMAA doesn’t have the magisterial staircase that once adorned the Brooklyn Museum, but it is raised on a grassy hill, slightly above the street. Does this make our entrance somewhere in the middle of elite and populist? What do you think? Have we come close to the fabled “just right” of Goldilocks and the Three Bears?
For more on museum expansion, see this blog post.
1. Brooklyn Museum. “About: The Museum’s Building.”
2. Muschamp, Herbert. “ARCHITECTURE REVIEW; Brooklyn’s Radiant New Art Palace.” (New York Times, 16 April 2004) E31, E 37.
3. Pogrebin, Robin. “Brooklyn’s Populism Hasn’t Lured Crowds.” (New York Times, 15 June 2010) C1.
4. Pogrebin, Robin. “Sketching a Future for Brooklyn Museum.” (New York Times, 8 August 2010) AR1.
5. New Britain Museum of American Art. “Museum History.”