Changing the venerable

Redesigning museums is a tricky but necessary business
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Almost no building remains fit for its purpose forever, except perhaps a mausoleum. However great a museum or a gallery may be, there is always the lure of a new wing or a re-​fit. Nothing remains the same, even in western Pennsylvania. Let’s look at how some of our institutions have faced, and continue to face, change.

Pittsburgh’s first museum, James Reid Lambdin’s Museum of Natural History and Gallery of Painting, opened here in 1828 not so far from where the Allegheny Jail now stands. It moved out of the city a few years later, settling in Lexington, Ky., and did not survive there either. Not a reassuring start to the cultural life of the city, which seemed to prefer theaters and music halls.

Andrew Carnegie’s Institute put down firmer roots in Oakland with a library, lecture and music halls, and the two departments that have come to be known as the Carnegie Museum of Art and the Carnegie Museum of Natural History. Construction started in 1891 on part of Mary Schenley’s old estate and the great Longfellow, Alden and Harlow project was effectively completed by 1907 with the construction of Dinosaur Hall. By 1896, the first Carnegie Annual Exhibition took place, asserting the institution’s international reach when most public museums in America and in the world were in their infancy.

Carnegie’s large building was more than sufficient for its purpose with music and lecture halls and covered courtyards of statuary and architecture that survive effectively unchanged, approached by magnificent staircases and foyers. The rest has been differently utilized. It may come as some surprise to realize that the Ailsa Mellon Bruce galleries, now home to the decorative arts, were once the home of the Hall of Bronzes (many of which have since been dispersed or deaccessioned). The Heinz Architectural Centre has absorbed an entire gallery of painting, as well as the floor and attics above it, also providing storage space for the print cabinet. The entire section of north-​facing painting galleries on the third floor of the original Institute block have been ceded to the Natural History Museum, now housing the Walton Hall of Ancient Egypt. The ground plans published in past International catalogs tell a story of continuing change.

Three projects have changed the nature of the Museum of Art. The most important is the Scaife Wing, conceived in 1967, completed in 1974, and linked to the original building by a series of large galleries, including the Heinz Galleries, also built in 1974 and used for temporary exhibitions. The genius of this arrangement is that over 90 percent of the Museum of Art galleries are on a single floor, with a theater, offices, conservation and storage space below. This work, by architect Edward Larrabee Barnes, set out a series of primary galleries — historical and didactic — spread over 125,000 square feet of hard terrazzo flooring. It was certainly a long slog to walk from the classical world through to contemporary art, but in 1974 it was clearly expected of the visitor. But the majestic modern cantilevered staircase, as grand as in any Berlin museum of the 19th century, had a crucial design flaw: its movement failed to synchronize with the gait of ordinary human beings. Yet it was long ago decided that to alter it would be prohibitively expensive, and visitors hobble up and down the stairs to this day.

During the directorship of Richard Armstrong, architect Richard Gluckman remodeled the somewhat relentless historical flow of the museum by cutting a new sequence of doors through the galleries, making it possible to sidestep most of the collections’ historical sections. It was a practical and elegant solution for day-​to-​day movement in the building, but it also contained a philosophical shift of emphasis. Minimally invasive as the surgery may have been, it is difficult not to feel that this has changed the nature of how this museum has come to be used.

Nor was that all the work done during Armstrong’s directorate. The Bruce Galleries were redesigned, not very radically and none too successfully, and, behind the scenes, storage was extensively redesigned. The opportunity to create “open” storage, the long-​term aim of many great museums, was not grasped. Another Armstrong project — to create a new entrance on Forbes Avenue with some radical alteration to the gallery space in that area — failed to attract sufficient funding and appears to be in limbo.

All of these are normal changes in the life of any ordinary museum anywhere in the world. Normal procedures help bring these things to fruition: complex discussion, fundraising, design and architectural considerations, balancing of priorities and, above all, a careful analysis of need. Inevitably problems may arise. Shutting down the entrances to the Music Hall and the old main entrance to the Institute are regrettable. The effect of the grand staircase in the Institute has been entirely lost by closing its doorway to Forbes Avenue. Other museums have done the same thing and have later changed their minds. The same may happen here.

The Westmoreland Museum of American Art in Greensburg reached the age of 50 in 2009, 10 years after its first major renovation. A strategic plan indicated that there might well be a case for expanding the museum with additional renovations to the existing structure (which is much loved). In June, an architectural steering committee announced the selection of New York City’s Ennead Architects from a group of 63 firms from across America. Ennead will provide two design and management partners for the project, Susan Rodriguez and Tim Hartung, to effectively double the space of the museum to 70,000 square feet.

The museum has an interesting architectural history. Although it opened in 1959, its inception took nearly 10 years. Architect Philip Johnson provided the original drawings, which still exist and plan for a clean modernist structure. This building’s footprint was actually used in construction, but a more conservative brick façade was substituted, with a somewhat impure classical stone pediment and stone windows. A sculpture garden on the west of the building was rejected, and that space was incorporated into a larger building. This modification has proved to be a popular solution, much loved by the community, although some may well lament the failure to carry through the design of the now much celebrated Johnson. Forty years later, in 1999, considerable alterations were made to the entrance hall and the configuration of the galleries and offices, providing for the increasing number of outreach projects common to museums. Johnson’s planned theater never materialized. However, reading the original plans for this museum, one is struck by their similarity to the ambitions of the later Scaife Galleries at the Carnegie in anticipating future needs.

Ennead’s work at The Westmoreland is at present only preparatory, but it seems likely an entirely new wing is anticipated, with groundbreaking sometime in 2012. Substantial gifts of modern and contemporary art have been announced, no doubt motivated by knowledge of the coming construction — notably the donation of 130 works of art, mainly from the second half of the 20th century, by Dr. Peter Jannetta and Diana Jannetta, a museum trustee. The Westmoreland’s collections have never concentrated on work produced after 1950, so this gift is crucial to a more modern thrust in the museum’s mission.

No museum comes at change in exactly the same way. The Andy Warhol Museum evolved in Pittsburgh as the joint venture of the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, The Carnegie Museums and the Dia Foundation in New York. Here only one architect was involved, New York City’s Richard Gluckman, who took a Beaux Arts building and infused it with a cool, white, modernist interior with a few flashes of understated chic. He worked on the project with Thomas N. Armstrong III and Mark Francis, director and Curator respectively. By and large the space worked well, especially in the configuration of the galleries on the building’s seven floors; only one gallery has been lost to staff expansion. In finding a role for the museum and its younger habitués, subsequent directors Thomas Sokolowski and Eric Shiner have departed from the cool in favor of more luxuriant treatments of surface, which may not be exactly what the architect intended. But it has been built, and they continue to come.

Among all Pittsburgh museums, the Mattress Factory on the North Side is the most special case. I would compare it with Kettle’s Yard at the University of Cambridge, England, as essentially the creation of one individual. Jim Ede, sometime of the Tate Gallery, created and shared his living space for Cambridge art enthusiasts, and years after his death the museum bears his unmistakable stamp. Even today, with new building work in progress, this ambiance is assiduously preserved. At the Mattress Factory, on a much more ambitious scale, Barbara Luderowski, the daughter of an architect, has created a museum that has evolved into a major venture. However, its gallery spaces, raw and available, respect the spatial excitement they must have conveyed when she first took on her project. The “offices,” which Luderowski largely designed herself, act as clean, distinct interventions from the core buildings of the museum.

In a city like Pittsburgh, with so many redundant buildings, new museums tend to colonize the old. This includes the Heinz History Center, the Children’s Museum (doubling up an old Post Office with the Buhl Planetarium), and the Cultural Trust’s Wood Street Galleries. The region’s universities all have their galleries. Some are endowed by alumni, including the Regina Gouger Miller Gallery at Carnegie Mellon University and the Palmer Museum at Penn State; others tend to be run on a shoestring.

One might think that purpose-​built museums are a thing of the past, put up by private money from Pittsburgh’s historic industrialists, such as the two Frick Art Museums and the Carnegie Institute itself. Yet the Carnegie Science Center and the August Wilson Center for African American Culture manage to buck the trend. But even they are not impervious to change. Watch them and see. Needs, ambitions, retrenchment, boredom with the present, and pure altruism bring about these changes. It is also possible that some museums will fail altogether, like Lambdin’s Museum in the 19th century. I, for one, hope not.

Graham Shearing

Graham is a collector, critic, curator, consultant and writer who has lived in Pittsburgh for nearly 20 years. After studying law at the University of Cambridge and reading for the English Bar, he was distracted by the lure of art and has been so ever since.

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