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Inside Look: College museums and galleries

Building contemporary environments upon old traditions
University Business, March 2018
  • University of Vermont’s Fleming Museum of Art, which opened in 1931, underwent a $25,000 renovation in January 2017. The university’s in-house exhibition designer and preparator completed most of the work. A new, long-term installation from the museum’s Asian collection features freestanding walls that museum employees can remove without damaging the floors, walls or cabinets. The walls originally served as bookcases but now have flat-top surfaces that support the art. (Fleming Museum of Art)
  • A lead gift from the McMullen Family Foundation funded the renovation and 7,000-square-foot expansion of Boston College’s McMullen Museum in September 2016. This tripled the total gallery space to 30,000 square feet at the museum, which opened in 1927. Two floors of galleries are equipped with moveable walls that can cater to different exhibitions simultaneously.  Lead architect: DiMella Shaffer (Boston); Contractor: Consigli Construction (Boston). (Christopher Soldt, Boston College).
  • In 2008, the University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s International Quilt Study Center & Museum moved to a 37,000-square-foot building with three exhibition galleries. The museum design resembles a quilt, and the reception hall was shaped to look like the eye of a needle. A $6 million expansion project in June 2015 built upon the museum’s original design. Lead architect: Robert A.M. Stern Architects (N.Y.); architect: Alley Poyner Macchietto Architecture (Omaha, Neb.)
  • A sweeping structure called the Grand Canopy blankets the 30,000-square-foot Jan Shrem and Maria Manetti Shrem Museum of Art at the University of California, Davis. The canopy—which reaches 34 feet at its highest point—also serves as a “roof” for the event plaza and channels natural light. The $30 million museum opened November 2016. Architects: SO–IL (N.Y.) and Bohlin Cywinski Jackson (San Francisco); contractor: Whiting-Turner (San Francisco/Los Angeles). (Iwan Baan).
  • In 2016, the Jordan D. Schnitzer Museum of Art at Washington State moved to a former public safety building. The museum’s outer façade consists of a mirrored back panel with a colored interlayer fronted by a glass outer layer. Architects completed the $15 million project on December 31, 2017. Lead architect: Jim Olson of Olson Kundig (Seattle); Principal architect: Steven Rainville of Olson Kundig (Seattle). Design-build team: Design West (Pullman and Kennewick, Wash.) and Hoffman Construction (Seattle)
  • A dark brick wall appears throughout the State University of New York at Purchase's Neuberger Museum of Art, acting as a recurring motif. It reflects the exterior of the building, which was designed by Philip Johnson and opened in 1974. The central hall leads to all five galleries including the African Art gallery which features objects from the museum’s permanent collections and Stairway Gallery on the second floor, where objects from the Roy R. Neuberger Collection are on view.
  • The Jimmy Dean Museum—a $5 million gift from the Jimmy Dean Foundation and Dean’s widow—opened in September 2016 at Wayland Baptist University in Texas. The museum also features 25 display cases and three large wall panels. Architect: Lavin Architects (Amarillo, Texas); architect: Alley Poyner Macchietto Architecture (Omaha, Neb.)
  • Four multimedia displays within Wayland Baptist University's 7,500-square-foot Jimmy Dean Museum contain audiovisual samples that depict the life and times of the singer-songwriter. A 25-seat theater lets visitors watch “Breakfast and a Song: The Jimmy Dean Story.” The museum also features 25 display cases and three large wall panels.
  • The Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center’s Hoene Hoy Photography Gallery opened at Vassar College in September 2016. An endowment funded the installation of UV window shades to protect photographs from light exposure. Exhibitions feature works from the Art Center’s permanent collection, which contains more than 4,000 pieces of analog and digital photography, film and video. Speakers provide stereo audio for films with sound. A recent acquisition, Clubbing, features a video by artist Martine Gutierrez.
  • The Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center’s Hoene Hoy Photography Gallery opened at Vassar College in September 2016. An endowment funded the installation of UV window shades to protect photographs from light exposure. Exhibitions feature works from the Art Center’s permanent collection, which contains more than 4,000 pieces of analog and digital photography, film and video. A recent acquisition, Clubbing, features a video by artist Martine Gutierrez. (Martine Gutierrez)
  • Digital works, art and films are projected on exterior walls at the Maria Manetti Shrem Museum of Art at the University of California, Davis. The walls make use of a special light-gray paint so as not to affect the colors of projected images or videos. (Jose Luis Villegas)
  • In 1926, the University of Pittsburgh began curating a series of 30 certified historical landmarks, called Nationality Rooms, that pay homage to ethnic group histories. In 2013, the French (shown) and Lithuanian rooms received media credenzas that  blend in architecturally with each space while hiding AV technology from view. Architect: Jacques Carlu
  • Each credenza at Pitt features a 50-inch LCD flat panel screen mounted to a motorized lift that professors can control via an AV monitor and control switch. The credenzas can sync with jump drive technology and are supported by an existing outlet and data port. Credenzas are used for classroom instruction, and display cultural information during tours. Pitt plans to have a credenza in each room, and will install units in the Chinese, Greek, Italian and Norwegian rooms in summer 2018.
  • A $9.5 million project at NCSU’s Gregg Museum of Art & Design led to 8,412 square feet of renovations and 16,715 square feet of new construction in August 2017. The walls’ plywood backing lets employees hang art from any location. The open structure above the galleries—including the J. Norwood and Valeria C. Adams Gallery (left) and The Randy and Susan Woodson Gallery (right)—supports hanging installations. Architect: Perkins+Will (Durham, N.C.) (Perkins+Will / Mark Herboth Photography LLC)
  • The Davis Museum at Wellesley College underwent a major four-year overhaul. The museum, which reopened in September 2016, now holds twice as much art and displays it geographically and chronologically, rather than thematically. This new format provides easier access to galleries. Several pieces—such as the D’mba shoulder mask from the Baga culture in West Africa—are augmented with contextual images and extended gallery texts. Design team: Rice + Lipka Architects (New York), Stoltze Design (Boston).
  • Using an app, visitors can guide themselves through the galleries at Wellesley College's Davis Museum, which first opened in 1993.  The app contains artist biographical information, videos illustrating techniques and technical images from conservation treatments.
  • The 2015 expansion at UNL’s International Quilt Study Center and Museum added 13,000 square feet of space, including the creation of a digital gallery. The communications department created an app that lets visitors view over 4,000 quilts up close. They can select images on an iPad, expand photos and scroll the selections. The image projects onto a external screen in high resolution. Lead architect: Robert A.M. Stern Architects (New York); architect: Alley Poyner Macchietto Architecture (Omaha, Neb.)
  • The 2016 expansion at Boston College’s McMullen Museum included the creation of a glass atrium that provides a new entry point. The atrium also features exhibition displays and a conference center administered by the college. The conference center offers access to a display space for the permanent collection. A display of John La Farge’s stained glass windows leads to the conference center. Lead architect: DiMella Shaffer (Boston); Contractor: Consigli Construction (Boston) (Gary Wayne Gilbert, BC)
  • Officials at the Manetti Shrem Museum of Art at UC Davis can fully utilize space for a single event by setting up art, decor and tables inside the glass lobby and in the outside plaza. The glass lobby leads to a central courtyard that opens to three distinct pavilions, adding up to 19,000 square feet of cumulative space for public use and gatherings. Architects: SO–IL (N.Y.) and Bohlin Cywinski Jackson (San Francisco); contractor: Whiting-Turner (San Francisco/Los Angeles) (Drew Altizer)
  • The August 2017 project at NCSU’s Gregg Museum, created in 1928, included the repurposing of the chancellor’s residence, a 1920s, neo-Georgian building that now serves as a secure gallery and event space. The lobby can hold up to 120 seated guests, and the Ennis Gallery—the former living room—can seat up to 35 groups. Together, the first floor, two terraces, formal garden and lobby can accommodate up to 300 people. (Architect Perkins+Will / © Mark Herboth Photography LLC)

Higher ed museums continue to evolve, but tried-and-true practices drive current trends such as galleries with moveable walls, event spaces and AV technology. 

“Colleges are seizing on tradition,” says Matt Kirchman, president and principal planner at ObjectIDEA, a Massachusetts-based company that plans cultural attractions worldwide.

Soaring ceilings and civic spaces, for example, originally served to convey wealth and importance. Now they have multifunctional purposes for social gatherings and art celebrations.

Decades ago, the “recipe” for exhibitions normally entailed posting printed labels alongside works of art. Now technology and multimedia come as standard ingredients to accommodate the complex pallets of visitors, Kirchman says, adding that people now have a hard time engaging with art “if they can’t use their fingers or create their own path with an app during a museum tour.”

Museum directors are encouraging building designers to leave behind signature elements. “If a museum has a certain architectural significance, then people will go out of their way to see these statements,” Kirchman says.

Campus museums provide real-world experiences to engage students, says Anna-Maria Shannon, vice president for membership at the Association of Academic Museums and Galleries and board member of the Washington Art Consortium.

Washington State and Yale universities, for instance, transferred pieces from permanent collections to galleries and event spaces. Students give tours, handle permanent collection items and create their own exhibitions in these areas.

Faculty are encouraged to bring classes to the museum to use permanent pieces (such as works by Andy Warhol) for a post-modern course, says Shannon, who also serves as interim director of WSU’s museum.

“Colleges can engage the viewer in so many ways by warping or shifting the environment, or by adding another dimension of sound, sight or smell,” she adds. “There are so many opportunities we haven’t even thought of yet.”


Steven Wyman-Blackburn is assistant editor.