Thursday, January 10, 2008

Creature Comfort: Where are the Couches in Museums?

In the final installment of Museum 2.0’s four part series on comfort in museums, we get down to the basics: creature comfort. When it comes to content, programs, and interactives (parts 1-3 of the series), the challenge is to push the barrier towards less comfort, not more. Sadly, when it comes to the simple world of seating, bathrooms, and signs, we’re already deeply rooted in the uncomfortable camp. So for this last piece, we look at going the other way: making museums more physically comfortable.

I visited a friend last weekend who works at a coffee shop in downtown Santa Cruz, right next to the Museum of Art and History. There was funky music. There were lovely couches. There were people working and eating and chatting and reading. And on the walls, my friend explained, was art from the museum itself.

I walked out somewhat perplexed. Why doesn’t the whole Museum of Art and History look and feel like the coffee shop? Why do you go next door and enter a world of harsh benches and harsh lighting? Why would anyone choose the museum space over the coffee shop?

To address these questions, I sat down with Steve Tokar and Beth Katz, evaluators who deal with design for visitors. In 2003, Steve completed his master’s thesis in universal design (UD) in science museums, and has spent several years working on both UD and more general ergonomic design issues with museums.

Why are museums so darn uncomfortable?

We both (Steve and Beth) do visitor evaluation work, a lot of data gathering, Beth for several art museums. We always walk into these places and wonder: how is it that museums get designed without worrying about what it’s like to be a visitor walking in the door and wanting a bathroom, or a cup of coffee, or a seat?

I’m particularly interested in seating in art museums because we visited the newly redesigned MOMA and said, where can you sit down to look at all this? There are very few places to sit, and visitors are clinging to the few benches that are there. The hallways have benches, but not the galleries. From calling around, I learned that the gallery design is in the hands of curators, who see their job as serving the art, not the visitor. Ironically, benches sometime get castigated as ADA trip hazards. And some curators say they are visual distractions.

But what about the visitor? Nobody involved in the gallery design actually walks through and asks, “where would I go if I’d been here for an hour and I’m getting tired?” A lot of museums are designed with non-resilient floors that create a lot of fatigue, so you just want to sit down.

At the Boston MFA, they are building in seating as an integral part of each gallery design. They are using seating appropriate for the era of the art on display so as to add to the general design aesthetic of each space.

We go to a lot of German museums. Berlin has the Gemalde gallery with many masterpieces, with standard square box galleries. But about every fourth gallery has bay windows that look out on the street with window seating that look into the gallery—for seating and eye relief. They create the seating so it doesn’t compete with the art, and give you a chance to rest your feet and eyes.

And they were able to do that because they built it in right from the get-go. At the De Young, there is some well-placed seating built into the museum space itself—therefore it doesn’t interfere with flow.

Walk me through the most egregious errors that hit you when you walk into a museum, from the moment you enter.

Ah—I’ll give you an example from MOMA again. At MOMA, before the refurbishment, there was always an awkward line for the coat check. They had all the opportunity in the world to remove that, and instead they replicated it and made it worse—there are two lines for drop off or pick up, but they both lead to the same window! The ergonomics are unconsidered.

Beth observes that visitors searching for the bathroom often have an expression somewhere between stress and panic, as if they're fearful they won't find the place in time. There are never enough, and they always seem hidden. And the bathrooms themselves are poorly designed—there are several new museums with right angles and tiny little stalls that are challenging to maneuver.

Places to eat and drink. It makes sense that you don’t want food and coffee in the gallery, but why have only one eating place in the entire museum? Why not set up a coffee cart separately in an atrium or off a gallery? Why do you have to go offsite to get a snack? In Europe, they seem to have figured this out.

Signage. People are always saying “Where are the…?”

The Met is one place does an excellent job. They have a vast space, but they have these atriums in which they’ve installed little cafes. It’s very civilized, a great space just to sit and look outside. The wayfinding signs are good, with lots of signs everywhere. It could be a very confusing experience, but they’ve made it pleasant and usable.

In your dreams, what would you add to museums to make them more comfortable? I know that for me, the dream is couches. I have another friend who wants to eat lunch right in the gallery, while enjoying the exhibits.

In my dreams, there’s a visitor lounge where people can face each other and just talk—like business lounges in airports, with beverages and coffee.

The Denver Art Museum has some spaces like that. The older part integrated a lot of interesting spaces into the museum—like for example for a James Turrell exhibit they had a lounge outside with comfy chairs and materials and places to share your reflections on the exhibit. Friendly lighting so you don’t have the scary feeling. It was an educational space with content, just different, focused more on a social experience. They had a library designed like a British library with cabinets and books and couches to stretch out on and nooks and crannies for kids to slide into. They also have one with chairs with iPods for listening to music.

When we saw these little spaces in Denver, they really had the hand of the educational department, taken as learning opportunities. They were put outside the art spaces—which gives people a differentiated experience.

We’re mostly talking about very large institutions here. There are several small museums, especially in the interactive field, where there’s such a heavy premium put on square footage. When visitors are saying, “I’ve done it all,” how can we justify replacing exhibits with lounge spaces?

Museums of all sizes have this problem with tradeoffs: they perceive the choice as cases of objects or seats. In most cases the attitude is: “we are going to choose the objects because we are paying a lot of money for these objects.” But making that choice again and again can lead to a cluttered gallery space. You don’t have to pack the gallery or museum with art in all places—you can overwhelm people.

We have to reconceptualize what is legitimate to do with museum spaces. Lounges do fit our mission because they allow visitors to reflect on what they are experiencing, maybe in conversation with another visitor—and that also supports our mission for education and community.

What do you think? What kind of lounge or comfortable environment do you feel you could justify to your visitors, donors, and staff? I’m not totally sold on the idea that these spaces should be separate from exhibits—is there a way to integrate food, discussion, and hanging out without segregating the space?

12 comments, add yours!:

POW! (Paul Orselli Workshop, Inc.) said...

One of the goofiest things I've heard (especially from children's museum folks) is "we limit seating so that adults participate with the kids and don't just veg out!"

One of the first things I've done at many museums I've worked for is buy (or build) more seating for the public spaces and exhibit areas.

BTW, stools are even more "2.0" than couches since visitors can move them around more easily and they work better for people of different sizes. ;-0

Anonymous said...

One of the interesting correlations unearthed in our annual visitor surveys is the fact that the exhibitions in which people spend the most minutes also happen to offer stools or benches.

The "non-resilient" floors point is also well taken. At the hardwood MOMA or the marbled Louvre, I find myself continually searching for the next bench; those places are exhausting.

In the MOMA's Kandinsky room (my favorite), I've been yelled out by security guards for sitting in the middle of the floor. Fascists.


May said...

It does seem amazing that museums have ignored their visitor needs for such a long time and yet they're still in business!

Rohan D'souza said...

One the lines of the web revolution i think. Museums can collect users experience with each of objects attached to the displays. This would enable users to see so many other perspectives to the displays. And can truly bring the people participation and interactivity to museums.

Anonymous said...

Once you find a museum that provides couches, you realize how much you miss them in others. This autumn i visited Fondation Beyeler in Basel; wonderful architecture beautifully set in the landscape and lovely welcoming big white leather couches inside. You suddenly really feel like a guest!

Liza said...

Stools are great from an exhibit development perspective. Sure, you can move them around, which is great, and they don't take up a lot of room. And you can stand on them, sit on them, put your stuff on them, ignore them entirely...

But you know what? If you're suffering from museum fatigue, a stool is a bit of a help, but not much. It's no substitute for a seat with a back.

Museums just haven't cracked that nut yet. There probably isn't a single solution. We need a variety of seating types--stools, crates, armchairs, couches, etc.--and way more of it.

Unknown said...

This sounds like an issue ripe for a smartmob action.

1. Gather a group of friends. The more the merrier.
2. Sync watches
3. Pick your favorite cultural institution (Museumasaurus Rex).
4. Go check out the wonderful exhibits.
5. All simultaneously sit down exactly at 1:13pm (or something like that). If you've got a bench, stool, or couch nearby use it. Otherwise you get to plop down on the floor.
6. Repeat monthly.

Nina Simon said...

A sit-in! I love it!

I sense a renegade AAM experience coming on...

Christopher1974 said...

If you look at older pictures of art museums, they did have couches and carpet covered floors. They were homey in a Victorian sort of way. But the museums themselves were clubby, often controlled or created by a single family and were presented to high classes as an extension of the social spaces that they knew and understood -- the lounge, the library, the club. With high modernism came, and the growth in audiences that came with rising middle classes, came a need to project authority. And to present the art not in the cluttered 19th century way -- but in an isolated way, to allow for serious contemplation while establish the authority of the curator and the institution itself.

As a museum guard (a part time weekend job), I'm always amazed at how little attention is paid to the visitors. Or frankly, to the guards, who are really the first line between the institution and the visitor and are full of information about what the visitor wants and needs from appropriate signage to curatorial narratives thats lost on the visitor.

But I've also seen a lot of resistance from visitors to any attempts to democratize the art museum experience. The art museum brand is established as an exclusive zone. So there are always complaints about children in the museum, about cell phone audio tours, about talking in the gallery of any kind.

So it's hard line to cross. I saw your example of the cafe and thought "Quelle Horreur!" It would be a madhouse. People talking, and drinking in the gallery. I can't imagine. And really eliminates the church like reverence for the art. To say nothing about safety concerns.

As an artist, there's nothing lower class than showing your art in a cafe. Because it's just not the right setting. It never looks good that way. And it's impossible to really contemplate. Plus, so much visual chaos.

So as you can see, I'm of really two minds about this.

Nina Simon said...


I love guards. I have an obsession with them. Let's do a post together about museum guards. I've always wanted to, but only have my own anecdotal stories to go on. Get in touch (nina @

But is church-like reverence really necessary in art galleries? I think that limits the clientele...

Steve Tokar said...

I believe there can be respect for the work, and respectful visitor behavior that might even include food and drink, without a need for church-like reverence.

Although personally, I admit I'm drawn to spaces that encourage quiet contemplation, such as the Cloisters in Manhattan -- which is an example of a literally church-like museum that's also popular, in all senses of the word.

JaneJames said...

Well if you're ever in England, go to Bantock House Museum in Wolverhampton for some of the most comfortable seating you'll ever find!