Museum design with equity and dignity

The spiral design concept of Guggenheim Art Museum remains one of the most inclusive design concepts. That’s because everyone experiences the museum in the same way. It delivers equity and dignity, and of course accessibility for everyone. It’s universal design.

View of exterior of the museum showing a giant box shape cantilevered over the building's ground level glass facade.

Designers of the new Olympic and Paralympic Museum in Colorado Springs re-imagined the spiral theme. And they involved Paralympic athletes in the design process. 

Similarly to the Guggenheim, all visitors enter the museum on the ground floor. They take an elevator to the top of the building, and gradually wind their way down the spiral. The architects say that connectivity was the biggest architectural idea of the project.

Their initial idea was to have the spiral at the centre. The early design concept evolved after consultation with Paralympians and the spiral moved towards the outer edge of the building. This was so the ramps are more gradual and more circulation space was included. And it’s not just about wheelchair users.

The Museum website has a Plan Your Visit page that gives information about accessible media, audio descriptions, wheelchair access, tactile information, open captioning and American Sign Language. There are more personalised services available. The website has a great video giving an overview of the building design and the museum experience. 

The title of the article in FastCompany is, The U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Museum, celebrates all athletes – and was deigned for all visitors.  Perhaps we need more public buildings designed on the spiral theme. And more public buildings involving users at the design concept stage.

Universal Design for Museums

Many museums and historic buildings were built before anyone thought about accessibility and universal design. So, what’s the best way to keep the heritage values? A group of researchers decided a universal design approach would work. 

In their paper, the researchers discuss universal design in the context of historic buildings and evaluation checklists. Each of the 7 Principles of Universal Design are discussed in the museum context and applied as if they are a checklist. 

A view of the historic museum showing single story buildings.

The origins of museums are linked to one of the basic human activities – collecting.

The Graz Museum Schlossberg is used as a case study and exemplar of universal design. The researchers claim that universal design principles are incorporated well. This is largely due to recent renovations where architects would have current knowledge of access and inclusion. The short video below gives an overview of the building.

The article, Universal Design Principles Applied in Museums’ Historic Buildings has several photographs to illustrate points. There is a chart with the 7 Principles showing what aligns with each of the Principles and what doesn’t. 

“This article demonstrates theoretically, and practically, through the case study, that it is possible to apply UD principles even in a difficult terrain and historic environment, and combine it with the effort to preserve the historical value of the place in a very aesthetic way.

Editor’s note: The concepts of the 7 Principles of Universal Design were devised in the 1990s and the concepts have evolved. The Principles are a good beginning, but applying them as a checklist defeats the objects of learning through iteration and co-designing with users.

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