Tuesday, August 27, 2013

The Importance of First Impressions

It is sometimes said that a person's opinion of someone is formed within the first few seconds after meeting them. Although that opinion may change as the acquaintance deepens those first moments can be crucial. This same adage can be applied to places as well as people.

I enjoy visiting museums, both at home and when I travel. They are places of interest and intellectual and emotional enrichment for me. I appreciate not only the collections housed within the institutions but also the skill and artistry of the curators in their presentations of them. Lighting, placement of the objects or artwork and use of space can all greatly enhance the visitors experience. But it is that critical first impression that can often set the mood for what is to follow.

The stately, almost imposing facade of New York City's Metropolitan Museum speaks volumes of what lies within. As one ascends the steps a feeling of almost religious reverence can be experienced. The grandeur of the building sets the mood for the grandeur of the priceless riches inside.

In my own beloved Chicago the Art Institute has for years wrapped the visitor in a warm, midwestern embrace from the moment you set eyes on it. Lions bearing a blue green patina of age and the elements, occasionally adorned with Chicago Bears helmets, Cubs regalia or evergreen holiday wreaths, sit on either side of the wide staircase that ascends from Michigan Avenue. Passing through two sets of glass doors brings you into the classically designed entry hall. A grand staircase leads up to the second floor galleries. The space imparts an immediate sense of history. A sense that this building, with it impressive holdings, is a place of stature and importance. The welcoming staff provides the warmth and friendliness that is one of the hallmarks of my hometown.

Several years ago a new wing was added to the museum, as the enormity of it's collection had outgrow it's original home. The wing, designed by architect Renzo Piano, is accessed by an entrance around the corner from the museum's grand Michigan Avenue entrance. Instead of going up a flight of stairs, one goes down a short flight. Beyond this building's glass doors is a large, spare, sunlit space, a fitting introduction to the modern works the wing was built to house. A floating staircase off to one side, which adds to the airy feeling of the space, leads to the galleries. Louvered ceilings provide natural light inside the galleries. Windows afford exquisite views of the park across the street with it's Frank Gehry designed bandshell. The Gehry structure quickly became one of the city's defining symbols.

Chicago's neighbor to the north sports a museum entry that is almost sculptural in nature. Over a glass walled atrium huge movable wings fan out from the buildings rooftop. It gives one the feeling that you are entering a work of art, setting the stage for the experience which awaits you within it's walls.

In Mexico City's Museum of Anthropology a case can be made that the building's design competes with the artifacts in it's collection. In the central courtyard water flows from the top of a stone column to the courtyard floor. Reflecting pools hold aquatic life, small fish and turtles, delighting the children that visit.

In Merida, Mexico the former home of the Museum of Anthropology and History contained a touch of irony. Many of the exhibits relate to the history and customs of the Mayan people, indigenous to the region. The exhibits were housed in the former Governor's Mansion, which could be seen by some as a symbol of the domination, suppression and eventual destruction of the very culture celebrated by the museum.

A failure, in my view, are the I.M. Pei designed glass pyramids in the courtyard of the Louvre in Paris. The attempt to juxtapose the old and new was, for me, odd and jarring. A repository for some of the greatest art in the world deserves an entrance that reflects and respects the grandeur of that art.

There is no standard blueprint for the designs of museums nor should there be. The museum on the campus of the University of California at Berkeley, with it's concrete ramps and open galleries, broke all rules when it was first opened to the public yet is a hugely successful example of a modern, non traditional setting for art and exhibitions. However a sensitivity to the collections should be evident. There should be a respect for and a relationship between collections and the places in which they are housed. In that way the design of the buildings and the art they hold can both be celebrated and enjoyed by the visitor.


  1. The ROM in Ontario now feels you are going through a broken mirror.

  2. I'll disagree with Spo about Gehry's addition to the Royal Ontario Museum. It is distinctive and a bold statement to make as they sought to bring a museum that was, some would say, losing ground the the Art Gallery of Ontario in cultural relevance.

    A museum I was surprised to see not mentioned was the Getty Center (LA, not Malibu). Opened in 1997, the collection is impressive but the architecture is breathtaking