Museums have the important responsibilities of caring for, conserving, storing, and displaying artifacts and objects from all fields of human endeavour. These artifacts showcase the world around us and display artistic, cultural, historical and scientific importance. The collections museums house are important, of course, but sometimes the very design of the museum itself can make an artistic statement or tell us something about the historical period in which it was built.
There’s a fascinating link between architecture and museums, and many take the form of absolutely stunning buildings. This article will explore museum architecture and take a look at some of the most beautiful museums around the world.
We couldn’t help but stare.
Dubai’s Museum of the Future
Most museums are concerned with history but Dubai is very much a forward-looking city. It already boasts the tallest building in the world in the form of the incredible Burj Khalifa. There are plans for the world’s biggest and most advanced rotating skyscraper and a ‘space simulation city’ out in the desert to pave the way for the colonisation of Mars.
It seems fitting then that the city is in the process of building a Museum of the Future, which focuses on the future and aims to be “a unique incubator for futuristic innovation and designs”.
The museum architecture of this facility is suitably advanced in its own right. Scheduled to open next year, the museum will take the jaw-dropping form of a silver torus with an open centre. It’s a highly conceptual design that shows how art and architecture can sometimes intersect.
“The form started to originate through the design of a building that, first of all, looked futuristic; however, I came to understand that the client appreciated the sense of feng shui,” explained architect Shaun Killa.
The oval shape represents the fertile fields of earth and the limitless imagination of the sky above, while the space in the centre represents the unknown.
“People who seek what we don’t know are the inventors and discoverers for the future,” Killa adds.
The building is also technically demanding, which again is suitable for the museum’s theme and purpose.
“A building with this complexity has never been done, not with this shape of the facade and the superstructure,” said Derek Bourke, BIM manager for construction firm BAM International, who are carrying out the building work.
Milton Keynes Museum’s new purpose-built galleries
The UK has a number of historic museums but, as the last and most prominent ‘new city’ to be built in the 1970s, Milton Keynes features a relatively new institution – Milton Keynes Museum. The building it is housed in, however, is a former Victorian farmstead that goes back to when the nearby Wolverton was one of the country’s original railway towns.
This gives a feel of the area’s past, especially when compared to the carefully planned town architecture of Milton Keynes itself. The site was redeveloped after a fire destroyed the museum’s Grade II listed threshing barn and cowshed, both dating back to the 1950s. Now, Milton Keynes Museum is looking to add its own futuristic touch with two new purpose-built galleries.
The two interlinked buildings are completed, with one representing ‘Ancient Milton Keynes’ and displaying archaeological exhibits telling the story of the area through the ages – from prehistory up to the 1800s. Its twin space will represent ‘New Milton Keynes’ and will “celebrate our successes, lament our failures, and recognise the part we’ve all played in transforming a corner of Buckinghamshire countryside into the biggest and boldest experiment in building a new community”.
Bill Griffiths, Milton Keynes Museum Director, said: “We don't want to be like any other museum, but to produce something that, like the present museum, has heart and soul."
The museum says that with the gallery buildings now complete, fundraising is continuing “to enable the museum to fill the spectacular spaces with the elements and items that bring our past to life”.
Aesthetics and practicality
This is a vital aspect of any museum design. The exterior architecture is important, but the interior spaces must also be designed with the practicalities of storing and displaying the actual exhibits in mind. This could involve designing grand or intimate spaces, thinking about the flow of people and ensuring that humidity and temperature levels are suitable for the types of artefacts stored in the museum.
For any new or redesigned development, the supporting infrastructure on the site should also be planned for, from car parking to the design of the museum’s grounds to refreshments and other amenities.
Other notable museums
Wherever you look around the world you can find examples of museum architecture that dazzle the eye, make the viewer think, or reflect the collections that are housed within.
The Niteroi Contemporary Art Museum in the city of Niteroi in Brazil, for example, features a saucer-shaped structure perched on a cliff above a picturesque bay. The base is surrounded by a reflective pool and the main building is accessed via a spiralling red-carpeted ramp. Architect Oscar Niemeyer has said that he wanted the museum to resemble a flower growing out of the rocks. The swirling Guggenheim Museum Bilbao in Spain, meanwhile, has been likened to both a bouquet of flowers and a boat.
When designing the Louis Vuitton Foundation in Paris, architect Frank Gehry took inspiration from the glass-dominated look of the Grand Palais des Champs-Élysées and the palmarium of the Jardin d'Acclimatation, both of which date back to the end of the 19th Century.
Pritzker Prize-winning architect I.M. Pei looked even further back for his Museum of Islamic Art in Qatar, to ancient Islamic architecture in general and the Ibn Tulun Mosque in Cairo in particular.
Whether they’re futuristic or historical in theme, museums around the globe frequently boast beautiful and sometimes bewildering forms. Current architectural trends and theories can shape museums, but sometimes, by reflecting our history and culture, as well as the fact that they have some very specific requirements, museums can also shape architecture.