Special Museum Spaces
Janet Petitpas, Senior Associate, London
Museums are always looking for ways to increase the impact of learning for our visitors. One way to increase impact and memorability is through special spaces and dramatic environments as we are more likely to remember learning messages when they are tied to an overall memorable experience. Historic surveys have shown that some of the most memorable and influential exhibitions are those that take place in special spaces, such as the walk-through heart at the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago and the grain chutes at the Minnesota History Center. By experiencing the learning goals as part of the overall environment, the exhibits and educational messages are more memorable and powerful over longer periods.
By strongly linking important collections and immersive environments to special places, learning goals are enhanced and re-enforced. In fact, spaces influence all of us in many more subtle ways: researchers are finding that memory is enhanced when university students regularly change the locations in which they are studying, resulting the topic of study having additional hooks within the brain.
Does a space have to be immersive and dramatic to be special? What makes a space special anyway? For children, special spaces and places are frequently those where they remember doing something unusual, where they remember being especially happy or a favorite place they often visit rather than somewhere very dramatic.
Through their work with children, the Geographical Association in the United Kingdom has created a word cloud (you can create one here) of words that children use when discussing their favorite places on their school grounds:
As you can see, features of the natural environment, along with special people, are the words most frequently cited.
David Sobel has studied children and their special places and is the author of the book Children’s Special Places: Exploring the Role of Forts, Dens, and Bush Houses in Middle Childhood. Throughout the book he explores the secret world of children in which they find and create their own environments. In these special places, children develop and control environments of their own and enjoy the freedom from the rules of the adult world. In addition to helping children situate themselves in the social world, special places may assist the child in the transition to adolescence.
Examples of Special Places
Some special museum environments I’ve seen recently have been very effective in creating magical spaces and have provided very enjoyable and memorable experiences. One of these was the playground area of the Berlin Zoo. There were several climbing areas that had novel shapes, allowed for some basic change, and provided unique climbing experiences. My children were particularly entranced by the uniqueness and playfulness of these unusual spaces and I almost needed to bribe them to go see some animals (including a giant Panda). While being a great place to let off steam, these spaces encouraged conversations about eggs (who makes them and who doesn’t) and characteristics of animals and was one of my children’s favorite experiences in all of Berlin.
Two fairly recent exhibitions at the Hayward Gallery in London have also provided special spaces that were incredibly appealing to visitors of all ages. The first was the Psycho Buildings exhibition, which featured a metal, climb-within, change of perspective piece, a maze created by a fiber artist along with visitors, and a rooftop rowing pool among other installations. More recently, an Ernesto Neto exhibition included walk around spaces made of padded fabric with spices sewn in, providing for smell as an additional component of place-making. These immersive, dramatic and fun spaces allowed the Hayward to expand their audiences and broaden the community’s overall assumptions about modern art.
Recently in London, the Tate Modern opened the Tate Tanks, subterranean former oil tanks that have become a space for live art, performance, installation and film. Designed by Herzog & de Meuron, the new tank spaces are also intended to provide room for enhanced live encounters between artists and audience.
Early reviews of the space emphasize that the tanks have been kept as close as possible to their original identity, resulting in naked, concrete spaces. The stark spaces are meant to act as a neutral backdrop to the live artworks that will take place here. Like the Turbine Hall, which retains the feel of its industrial past, the use of the tanks also allows art to occur in a found space that maintains industrial echoes of its past.
Museum director Nicholas Serota says this about the tank spaces: "It will bring the kind of work that has traditionally been seen in alternative spaces, for short durations and often barely recorded, into the museum. It will bring it into our own sense of art history as something that is not on the margins, but something central to art."
What special places have made an impact on you or your Museum?