Museum Studies at Tufts University

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What Makes a Beautiful Museum?

With safe travel starting to become possible again, and folks thinking about engaging together in culture, art, and history to gain hope after a worldwide pandemic, it perhaps seems natural that people might seek out special beauty in the places they choose to visit. I was browsing the news online when I came across this National Geographic article entitled “These are the world’s most beautiful museums,” complete with short descriptions and breathtaking photographs of fourteen visually stunning museums across the globe. It speaks to the power of visuals to draw human beings in and entice us, and to the value of making an exterior as impressive as its inner contents, that I found myself longing to visit every single one of these museums.

Yet it certainly made me wonder. What, really, does make a beautiful museum? To each museum-goer, this question has a different answer. Is it simply its architectural design which makes a museum beautiful — the inside, the outside, or both? Is it the artwork hanging on the walls? The history that’s told within? The passion of the staff and volunteers who keep it operating? The discourse, questions, and ideas it sparks? The significance of the place itself, or the people who once lived or worked there? Or the visitors, bringing with them their biases, their problems, and their thoughts, and leaving with renewed knowledge, interest, and energy? Is it a combination of all of these things?

What, to you, makes a museum beautiful? Under your qualifications, what are the most beautiful museums in the world?

Below, find a list of just a few of the museums commonly considered the “world’s most beautiful.” But remember that — and it’s only cliche because of its profound truth — beauty is absolutely in the eye of the beholder.

Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art Africa, South Africa

 Upon its opening in 2017, the Zeitz MOCAA became the largest museum of contemporary African art in the world. The building was previously a grain silo, and both the interior and the exterior creatively and effortlessly incorporate and transform the remnants of this former function into something beautiful.

Niterói Contemporary Art Museum, Brazil 

The Niterói Contemporary Art Museum is, unsurprisingly, a main attraction in the city of Niterói, Rio de Janeiro. It took five years to build before its opening in 1996 and stands four stories high, overlooking the South Atlantic Ocean.

Guggenheim Bilbao, Spain

 The Guggenheim Bilbao is just one in a family of four surreal Guggenheim institutions. The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York, the Peggy Guggenheim Collection in Venice, and Guggenheim Abu Dhabi all manage to catch the eye and keep it.

National Museum of African American History and Culture, United States

The NMAAHC stands powerfully and beautifully on Washington D.C.’s National Mall, surrounded by monuments honoring men whose involvement in Black history is detailed within the museum. Designed with elements of African, European, and American architecture, the building gives an impactful statement on the African diaspora.

Museum of Islamic Art, Qatar

Built on an island in Doha Bay, the Museum of Islamic Art was designed by a 91-year-old architect who had to be coaxed from retirement. The building’s mesmerizing reflection on the sea alone is enough for me to be grateful they convinced him. The museum has become a cultural icon for the Arabian Gulf since opening in 2008.

Shanghai Astronomy Museum, China

Having just opened its doors in July of 2021, the Shanghai Astronomy Museum is already making a huge impact. It is the largest museum in the world dedicated to astronomy, and each architectural component of the building is also an instrument that tracks the sun, moon, and stars. In imitation of the universe’s complex geometry, the museum is designed with no right angles or straight lines.

State Hermitage Museum, Russia

This is by far the oldest museum on the list. Founded in 1764 with Catherine the Great’s own art collection, the Hermitage still manages to impress. It was once home to Russian Tsars and remains the largest art museum in the world. It’s been said that with a minute spent looking at each item in the Hermitage for eight hours every day, it would take fifteen years to see the entire thing.

So what do you think? Would any of these museums make your list of the most beautiful in the world? What else would you add?

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Please Touch: The History of Museum Accessibility for Blind Visitors

Though it might seem paradoxical to expect blind and low-vision visitors to enjoy a visit to an art museum—after all, the contents of art museums are often called the visual arts—museums have a long and rich history of proving that this is absolutely not the case, and that they actually have a lot to offer to the low-vision population. And contrary to popular belief, museums’ efforts to make their collections more accessible, educational, and enjoyable to all began long before the passage of formal accessibility legislation like the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1990. As early as 1909, the American Museum of Natural History in New York City created a designated space where blind visitors could touch taxidermied specimens. Six decades later, in the 1970s, there was a proliferation across the globe of art exhibitions curated specifically for blind and low-vision visitors. Most of these exhibitions centered around sculpture, because sculpture is typically more tactile than two-dimensional paintings, drawings, and photographs.

During my final year of undergrad, I chose to research the history of museum accessibility for blind and low-vision visitors for my honors thesis. My research took me to archival collections in New York City, London, Cape Town, Sacramento, Raleigh, and beyond, and the information I found proved fascinating. I learned that art museums have made great strides in the past several decades towards improving their accessibility for all visitors—but at the same time, there’s still a lot of work to do as museums move into the future.

Charles Stanford, the museum educator who spearheaded the Mary Duke Biddle Gallery for the Blind at the North Carolina Museum of Art, guides a group of blind students through a tactile encounter with sculpture.

Of the many “exhibitions for the blind” that took place in the 1960s and 1970s, a few stood out to me as the most interesting and best documented: the Mary Duke Biddle Gallery for the Blind at the North Carolina Museum of Art (established in 1962); Dimension (1970) and Perception (1971), two touring exhibitions created by the California Arts Commission; the Touch Gallery at the South African National Gallery (which produced a series of tactile exhibitions throughout the 1970s); the Tate Gallery’s Sculpture for the Blind (two different exhibitions by the same name, in 1976 and 1981); and the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s To Touch and Hear (1975), Shape and Form (1977), and In Touch with Ancient Egypt (1996). While each of these exhibitions highlighted different content, all offered visitors the opportunity to touch a range of sculptures in regulated circumstances, often with the help of a museum educator on hand to explain the unique details and contexts of each piece. Based on contemporary reviews of these exhibitions, it’s clear that they were extremely popular with visitors both blind and sighted: a blind student named Michael Esserman, who visited the Met’s Shape and Form and had the opportunity to encounter works ranging in time and place from the Ancient Near East to the twentieth-century United States, wrote in a letter to the museum that visiting the exhibition was “a most interesting and rewarding experience.”

Then-governor of California Ronald Reagan greets two children visiting “Perception” in 1971.

In my research, I also looked at more recent—that is, post-ADA—efforts by art museums to welcome blind and low-vision visitors in an equitable, authentic way. I’ve found that while museums consistently offer ramps, handrails, and Braille and audio versions of their content, the spirit of creativity that reigned fifty years ago and led to the tactile exhibitions mentioned above seems to have waned. Is it possible that museums’ focus on binding accessibility legislation has caused them to prioritize offering more tokenistic accessibility measures that do little more than meet legal obligations? This is up for debate, but in any case, museums can always do more to make their collections more accessible to people of varied abilities. Physical accessibility measures like ramps and elevators are not enough in themselves—museum educators need to take more creative approaches as well to make sure that art collections are intellectually accessible as well. Maybe by recognizing the rich precedent of museum accessibility, especially the efforts that were made before accessibility legislation was passed, art museums can reignite their commitment to genuine accessibility measures and challenge misconceptions about who is welcome within their walls.

A visitor guide for the Met’s “In Touch with Ancient Egypt,” designed to help blind visitors experience ancient Egyptian sculpture by touch.


Historic Changes for Historic Times at the Smithsonian

The Smithsonian Institution felt the same pains that museums around the world experienced in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic and its global shut downs —massive economic loss, sweeping reductions in staff, and an intense burnout as they, and museum professionals across the globe, struggled to adapt to a “new normal.” Fortunately, it appears that we are finally seeing the other side of this pandemic, and the Smithsonian has joined the likes of many others in reopening its doors to the public.

This era in the Smithsonian’s narrative will also be marked by none other than Jeff Bezos, founder and CEO of Amazon and soon-to-be astronaut. Just days before his historic voyage to space through his rocket company Blue Origin, Bezos made a personal $200 million donation to the Smithsonian Institution’s National Air and Space Museum, the largest philanthropic donation to the institution since its founding in 1846. The gift will help complete ongoing renovations at the museum, but the majority will go towards the development of a new education center that encourages learning and exploration in STEAM fields.

Smithsonian Institution’s National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C.

The Smithsonian’s Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden is also in the midst of historic change. In 2019, artist Hiroshi Sugimoto’s proposed re-design for the Hirshhorn’s sculpture garden was approved, but not without major backlash. Sugimoto’s design drew heavily from Japanese culture and many felt that this detracted from the original concepts of museum architect Gordon Bunshaft and landscape architect Lester Collins. Though Bunshaft and Collins also used Japanese architecture as in inspiration for their work, the Hirshhorn has a largely Modernist aesthetic, and opposers of Sugimoto’s concept feared that his re-design would clash with this existing aesthetic. Some even called for Collins’s work on the sculpture garden to be included on the National Register of Historic Places. Ultimately, the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts has voted to approve Sugimoto’s design, and this change will hopefully bring a new sense of design unity to the Hirshhorn and its sculpture garden.

Render of Sugimoto’s concept for the Hirshhorn Museum’s sculpture garden.

Since it’s founding, the Smithsonian Institution has had an incredible story of creation and change, and it is promising to see the institution continue to follow this narrative even in the wake of a global pandemic.

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