Back of House, Front of Mind: Designing for Contemporary Museums

By Ashley Merchant AIA
The newly renovated Mattatuck Museum, Waterbury, Connecticut. Image credit: Chuck Choi

The needs of clients are central to the way architects work. When designing museums, we pay close attention to the visitor experience as well as the behind-the-scenes operations. Back-of-house spaces not only support the proper management and care of the permanent collections, but they also determine the museum’s ability to borrow works from other institutions. Being able to host temporary exhibitions of loaned artwork is often vital for a museum’s ability to attract repeat visitors, driving attendance and revenues, especially for smaller institutions.

The ground floor exhibition space looks out onto the town green. Image credit: Chuck Choi

This attention to the requirements for borrowing art was a critical piece of ABA’s recent renovation and expansion project with the Mattatuck Museum in Waterbury, Connecticut, a community-centered institution with a focus on regional art and history. As the Mattatuck matured as a museum, opportunities to borrow from collections of larger institutions were restricted by the existing building’s embedded physical infrastructure. For instance, the small elevator required that artwork be transported up the stairs to upper-level galleries, which isn’t permitted by most lending institutions.

American Alliance of Museums General Facility Report. Image credit: AAM

Museum Lending

The American Alliance of Museums provides a template for a General Facility Report that institutions can fill out and submit with a request to document their facility. This form includes:

  • Insurance Coverage
  • The Physical Environment
  • Staff Procedures
  • Emergency Response Plans
  • Building Systems
  • Security

The facilities document is the first step in a negotiation process between the lending institution and the prospective borrower. Most institutions require it to be submitted, though some also require supplemental information. Close attention is paid to the loading/unloading process and the physical path the object must take through the building to reach its display location. Some requirements, such as security procedures, may be put in place temporarily for a specific exhibition while others are deeply embedded in the design and infrastructure of the museum.

ABA’s renovation converted a former administrative space in the existing building into a new climate-controlled gallery. Image credit: Chuck Choi

The Mattatuck Museum

During the design and construction process, ABA worked with the Mattatuck to ensure the completed building would meet common lending requirements, allowing the museum to expand its list of potential lenders. For examples, it’s customary practice to require that objects remain crated until they reach the location where they will be displayed. Therefore, elevator and door dimensions must accommodate not only the size of the works, but the crated dimensions as well. The Mattatuck’s new, oversized elevator allows the transport of art into the upper galleries. Similarly, the design team carefully coordinated motion sensors, glass breaks, door contacts, camera locations, door hardware, and the HVAC systems and controls to meet standards often required by the larger institutions from which the museum wished to borrow.

Since reopening, the existing historical galleries on the second floor have hosted exhibitions from the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston and the Norman Rockwell Museum. Image credit: Chuck Choi

The completed project incorporates two distinctly different types of exhibit spaces. On the second floor, both the existing galleries and a new gallery are now tightly controlled in terms of light and climate. In addition, museum staff can separately lock off these galleries as required by lending institutions. The second type of exhibition space falls within the museum’s gathering and circulation areas. These higher traffic zones, such as the ground-floor event space and the elevator lobbies in the new tower, while secure, prioritize daylight and visual connections with the surrounding neighborhood, making them more suitable for a rotating selection of less light-sensitive objects from the Mattatuck’s permanent collection.

The elevator lobbies in the tower double as display spaces for works from the Mattatuck's collection. Image credit: Chuck Choi