For centuries, museums have played an essential role in preserving the history and information of our society. Museums have served our communities by providing access to culturally significant objects and artifacts as well as stories of past generations. More recently, museums have blurred the boundaries of storytelling and entertainment to form a less than a traditional educational experience. This shift in focus has given rise to various revenue-generating streams for many museums apart from museum admission. Like many other fields, the COVID-19 pandemic has severely impacted cultural institutions the most. 

With the stay-at-home orders and mandatory closures, many museums have faced challenges to overcome this crisis. With many institutions adapting to social distancing rules, working at less than 25% capacity, and with no end date to the pandemic, museums are opening up to conversations about long term design changes to their physical structures. The museum prototype has changed from being a quiet, lonely, and classic space that features simple large open rooms flanked with art in display cases to an engaging, exciting, busy, and attractive public space that celebrates communities. In the U.S. alone, 865 million people visit museums every year, with an average of 2.3 million visitors per day. Visiting the museum has now become a way to broaden one’s perspectives and is a journey of the transformation that takes place within oneself. 

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British Museum ©Jean Francois Cardella

Architecture as an Attraction

Museums are best known for their one of a kind art pieces or artifacts that they carry. The Louvre in Paris was visited 9.6 million times in 2019 solely for viewing the iconic Monalisa. However, museums are aspiring to be outstanding in their design and be a successful backdrop to the collections they carry. The art displayed inside is complemented by the architecture of the building. The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York, built in 1951, and the Milwaukee Museum of Art, which opened in 2001, are great examples of contemporary architecture that don’t compete with the interior displays but attract visitors through their distinctive design as compared to a classically designed museum. The building is an essential investment in the museum to attract visitors and act as a distinctive piece.

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Image 2 – Guggenheim Museum ©Massimo Borchi
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Milwaukee Art Museum ©Carol M. Highsmith

Retail & Hospitality in the Museum

With a rise in the number of visitors, museums are always trying to maximize revenue. Restaurants, bars, and retail spaces are becoming important spaces in the museum’s program expansion. In the early 1970s, the Met in New York began selling postcards and other paper products in the Great Hall. Today, this model has become an essential component of museum planning. Along with retail, another staple to museums is the presence of hospitality to evoke a sense of casual leisure within the museum space. The Stark Bar at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Terzo Piano at The Art Institute in Chicago, and the Modern at MOMA in New York attract foodies worldwide to their well-curated menus. With the changing consumer expectations, museums are being driven to evolve. Retail stores and restaurants that blend technology, culture, and entertainment are becoming more accessible to the public via museums.

Stark Bar ©Dustin Downing
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Terzo Piano ©Dirk Denison Architects
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The Modern ©The Modern

Event Spaces at the Museum

A primary source for revenue generations for museums is the availability of event spaces. The main lobby in Santiago Calatrava’s Milwaukee Museum of Art is designed beautifully in all white with a gorgeous view of Lake Michigan from its ship-like structure. In Fort Worth, the Modern’s lobby area serves as an Italian piazza or a public space for gatherings for after-hours events. 

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Milwaukee Art Museum ©Lauren Justice

The Galleries

Museums are now steering away from permanent collections to more flexible galleries to incorporate changing exhibits. The flexible module gives a more dynamic design that is catered to each exhibit. An open floor plan enhances the user experience and allows visitors to follow their own course throughout the space. The flexible public space, just like the pop-up retail and co-working space models, attracts a large volume of visitors to their exclusive and premier nature of the event. These gallery spaces are designed to have integrated ceilings to accommodate mechanical systems that can control the indoor exhibit environment. Floor systems are also designed to accommodate flex walls and partitions to become a more adaptive gallery space.

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Stedelijk Museum ©Gert-Jan van Rooij

Outdoor Exhibits

Art, ranging from sculptural art and mural art to performance art, is moving into outdoor spaces. Gardens and landscaping are becoming important elements of museum design. The Roof Garden of the Metropolitan Museum of Art is a prime example of an outdoor exhibition space. The garden sits atop the museum overlooking the vast expanse of green of Central Park. Each summer, an artist is commissioned to install an exhibit that complements this setting. The Sculpture Garden of the National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C. is a six-acre park that features 20 large scale sculptures of world-famous artists. An outdoor space also acts as a sneak peek at what the museum offers indoors and has become an important design element to keep up with people’s changing expectations from museum spaces.

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Met Rooftop ©Hyla Skopitz
Met Rooftop ©Hiroko Masuike

COVID-19 Considerations

COVID-19 had changed the world in innumerable ways. The museum, too, will look and feel different from the pre-COVID era. Museums are prioritizing how they can engage with the communities in a safe and socially distant manner. Brooklyn based design studio, Isometric Studio, has released a set of guidelines that help museums to reopen safely. They focus on design strategies that help prevent the spread of infection. They incorporated visual diagrams showing how galleries and exhibition spaces can be redesigned to follow current health and safety protocols and how virtual showcases can be incorporated into the museum. 

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Floor Demarcation System ©Isometric Studio
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Single Direction Circulation ©Isometric Studio

Museums architecture creates spaces that take inaccessible art to the public and provide a wider reach to the city. They create spaces of substance that act as community centers and provide access to education and learning. In today’s world, museum architecture has a great responsibility in keeping visitors safe while also providing knowledge. The museum module, as we know it, will change completely and more emphasis on virtual interaction will be given in the post-COVID times. Design innovation is critical in the future of cultural and civic architecture; a design that caters to the needs of its consumers in mind, along with the function of the building, will be a successful design. 


Rashmi Nair is an architect, interior designer, and fashion illustrator who is an ardent lover of all things design. She strives to be sustainable in design and life and strongly believes in the ‘Less is More’ idealogy. She enjoys exploring museums, reading, making lists, and a hot cup of coffee