Behind the Scenes: Unravelling Museum Design Process

Museums provide rich cultural offerings within our built environment. They have the potential to unite communities and the public who have a thirst to be educated. A building which can hold such social significance and function within our cities inevitably inspire well designed architecture to accommodate the multi layers of spaces serving diverse members of the public. Both the client and architect will share the common goal of wanting to get it right, to create a building which is inviting and perhaps iconic. To deliver such complex cultural projects there are some common pitfalls to avoid and be aware of to inform a successful design process.

Museum clients can vary from being long established institutions or a relatively small set up looking to expand and build their reputation. Either way it is unlikely the client will have experienced many construction projects in their time or be familiar with the design process. As lead consultant or designer, preparing client-facing documents to explain what the outputs of each design stage and what we need from them are useful tools from the outset. A client decision schedule is often appreciated by the client as it maps out when decisions are required and by whom. Identifying their governance structure early in the process is key and will avoid delays in the client approval process.

The briefing process

The design team should be prepared that briefing information may not be constrained to just the briefing and preparation design stage. It tends to continue into concept design and even beyond. We need to understand the client also requires time to establish their ‘one chance to get it right’ requirements, so understandably the client might be cautious not to commit too soon. This needs to be managed by confirming clear assumptions and sign off processes. Highlighting the risks associated with missing briefing information and the design impact it might have will be invaluable for the client. It will assist in their decision making by Itemising the brief into ‘bigger picture’ items verses finer details. You don’t need to know every small requirement by concept design. Mapping out when client decisions are required and by which user groups or stakeholders will allow for a smoother process. Planning ‘Day-in-the-life’ workshops with the Museums’ security, operations, educational, office, facilities management, exhibition, and curatorial staff will enhance the briefing process, as well as inform and streamline the later design stages.

If a museum specialist is not on board by the time the lead consultant is appointed, it is highly recommended they are. Their expertise in museum operations, exhibition design, business planning, strategizing and master planning of a museum will aid the clients brief writing process. Some specialists can assist with developing a clear business case. Their expertise will help the client establish their requirements from the early stages, leading to less changes arising later on in the design process when cost and programme impact is more significant.

The museums’ brief should consider projected growth as this will inform the area requirements for art collection storage and associated equipment which may be stored on site.

Other specialist consultants such as Security, Art storage racking designers, exhibition designers, catering consultants, crowd flow specialists, branding agency, signage and wayfinding will provide key input during the design process. Bringing them on board at the earliest suitable opportunity can avoid unnecessary abortive work and delays to the design programme.

For example, it’s not uncommon for the client to appoint a Branding agency later in the design process. Ideally, they’re appointed at the same time as the Signage & Wayfinding consultant, as some scope is likely to be impact by the Museums’ branding concepts. Misalignment can again lead to abortive work and changes. To minimize the risk, S&W scope could be split out into elements which aren’t affected by branding. Elements (of the signage & wayfinding scope) could be put on hold till an agency is appointed. However, there will be benefit in developing the other S&W scope elements for coordination with architecture, lighting, M&E, security etc to ensure alignment across disciplines rather than delaying appointment of S&W consultant entirely.

Similarly, it’s not uncommon for the exhibition designers to join the team much later in the design process of the base build. However, it is recommended there is a design overlap so that the exhibition designers’ requirements can be considered in the infrastructure before it’s too late. Changes in detailed design development or tender production stage can be costly to the programme due to the volume of design information produced at that stage.

The programme

Museum projects can’t be rushed. Enough time has to be factored into the programme for stakeholder engagement, public consultation, planning and pre-planning applications, fund-raising and client sign off process at multiple levels. A thorough engagement process will be rewarding and more efficient in the long run. Slow and steady wins the race.

Overall, Museum projects are complex and given their functionality in our society and built environment they are deserved of time. A well-planned programme and briefing process from the outset are fundamental to a successful design process.

Projects Practice