Exhibitionists: Top Tips for Museum Design

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Tuesday, October 7th, 2014
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Museums must provide both experience and comfort to ensure the public gets the most out of a visit.

They have to equally work well for staff and provide an enjoyable working environment, while museum owners need to ensure they are affordable to build, run and maintain.

From an engineering perspective, there are a number of key issues to consider which can help achieve a successful outcome.

Flexibility

An obvious starting point is ensuring that the building’s infrastructure, from both a services and structural perspective, is flexible and adaptable to allow exhibitions to be altered over time.

Gone are the days when museums were limited to row upon row of locked display cases crammed with artifacts, each with a small card giving basic information on the item. Technology has revolutionised the entire museum experience for both the visitor and the museum itself with a focus on far greater interaction. Modern museums allow the visitor to interrogate the museum’s collection and drill into a database of information to a level that suits their individual interests.

In order to achieve this, the modern museum features extensive data network cabling and Wi-fi access throughout the public and exhibition spaces to provide various levels of access to the museum’s information stores, and relevant external reference links. These networks often also include conventional and 3D printers to encourage students and younger users to explore the information available.

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Time Earner Installed WiFi at the Natural History Museum

The flexibility also extends to other building elements from the structure itself (the building should be designed for significant loads as can be associated with various exhibitions and collection areas); lighting infrastructure (control systems and electrical wiring that are readily adaptable to suit alternative lighting scenes and accent lighting); power cabling that can be easily altered to suit specific power demands (such as robotic displays); fire systems that are robust so as to avoid leaks yet flexible to cater for high fire loads and sensitive collections; and air conditioning systems that can deliver stable environments across a broad band of operational conditions.

Of course, museums are also much more than exhibition spaces. The flexible design must consider a variety of uses – from loading docks and administration areas to retail zones and catering – each requiring its own set of specialised requirements.

Schiphol Museum Shop by UXUS

Schiphol Museum Shop by UXUS

Catering for touring exhibitions

Museums rely on securing major touring exhibitions to generate revenue to allow them to operate. Major touring exhibitions (from Tutankhamen to Versace dresses to Old Masters) are offered to the various museums in the region who bid for the rights to stage the event.

A bid consists of two elements – the money the museum is prepared to offer and the standard of the facilities to ensure the exhibit’s collection is not compromised.

This includes factors such as security (from receiving through storage, to display and eventual packaging to be shipped out), fire protection (e.g. VESDA, pre-action systems, misting systems, gaseous suppression), environmental control (temperature stability and humidity control in storage and exhibition spaces plus CO2 monitoring, etc.), daylight control (depending upon the type of exhibits there may be a preference for natural daylight, albeit controlled) and flexibility of the space (the area available, range of heights/volume, ability to quickly erect temporary walls without major re-work to the base building infrastructure, accommodation for wiring and controlled artificial lighting).

Quality of storage space

Museums typically display only a small percentage of their collections. Accordingly, they need vast storage areas (which can be off-site due to shortages on the prime site), and these storage areas must offer all the qualities of the exhibition space, including temperature and humidity control, extensive security, high standard of fire detection and protection. Because the artefacts are stored more densely, however, the structural capacity needs to be much higher. The storage space must also afford good access to the collection.

Many collections are susceptible to the heat and require low temperature storage and conditioning; 24/7 controlled temperature and humidity at 4o degrees Celsius and 30 per cent relative humidity is a common target.

Paper records may require slightly different conditions. Archival standard storage and also requires 24/7 controlled temperature and humidity but targets 20o degrees Celsius and 50 per cent relative humidity as standard.

Storage Gallery at Larco Museum

Storage Gallery at Larco Museum

 Wayfinding

Museums are vast buildings often dimly lit to accentuate the collection and full of tourists who are unfamiliar to the building.

The intelligent use of specialist lighting can help highlight features, bring the building to life, define areas and aid and amplify the flow of pedestrian traffic through the spaces.

Wayfinding is one of the most crucial aspects to get right in order to remove any potential navigational stress for visitors, ensure a pleasant experience, improve functional efficiency, as well as safety.

Using colour as landmarks, for example, increases the readability of a space. Attractiveness and memorability of warm colours are higher than for other colours. Cool colours and high brightness levels can help people be orientated in a space.

Wayfinding is crucial to guide visitors through the museum but also to facilitate evacuations during emergency conditions.

National Media Museum in Bolton, UK

National Media Museum in Bolton, UK

Resilience

Resilience is a popular buzzword at present, and given the priceless nature of many museum collections, it is a very real concern.

The new Museum of New Zealand (Te Papa Tongarewa) in Wellington, for example, sits within a region that is on a couple of major fault lines. The museum site itself is on the shores of the harbour and on reclaimed land. It was built to survive a major earthquake without damaging the collection, as the value of the national collection far exceeded the cost of the building.

Museum of New Zealand

Museum of New Zealand

“As a result the designs initially considered founding the building on a vast network of piles such that, when the tsunami hit, the ‘porridge’ (reclaimed land) would be swept out to sea and the building would still be sitting high and dry,” said Bob Meggitt, associate director – building services at Meinhardt, who worked on the project.

“Eventually though it was decided to base isolate the entire building and all services connections needed to be sufficiently flexible to accommodate the movement (+/- 500 millimetres). In addition, dual 11kV feeders, 100 per cent generator support, major UPS systems and n+1 chiller capacity helped ensure there would be no operational interruptions.”

Vertical Transportation

It is also worth touching on this specialist niche service.

Museums need lots of lifts to move visitors, transport a wide range of exhibition materials and  keep operations moving.

The use and solution can often be very specific and quite unusual, so a ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach just won’t work.

“One lift at Te Papa was large enough to transport a Holden station wagon with room to spare,” said Meggitt.

ESD

Museums are large voluminous public facilities that can consume substantial energy if not well designed. Key to this is a building envelope that is well sealed, well-sited to reduce external heat load, and engineered with control systems that monitor all critical parameters and can reduce system running times without compromising the result.

Modelling, in its various guises, is an essential tool in the engineer’s armoury for this purpose:

  • Building energy and façade thermal modelling to guide the value engineering and design processes.
  • Computational fluid dynamics modelling (CFD) to assess the wind impact on the building and surroundings.
  • Daylight modelling to ensure design achieves optimised day-lighting.
  • Thermal comfort modelling and analysis to ensure design meets optimal indoor environmental quality indicators.
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