How can museums be more inclusive and welcoming of the world around them? It starts with thoughtful approaches to planning and design, says architect Erin Flynn, a leader in the cultural practice at Cooper Robertson, with success through a wide-ranging focus on diversity, starting in the earliest phases of programming and conceptual design.

“Today’s museums have evolved into cultural centers that engage all visitors and especially their neighbors and local community,” said Flynn, RA, LEED AP, a partner at the firm behind such projects as The Studio Museum in Harlem, New York, the new Princeton University Art Museum, the Gateway Arch Museum in St. Louis and the Buffalo AKG Art Museum, among many others. “They’re designed as accessible, magnetic centers of diversity that arouse visitor interest and evoke a desire to connect. This is done through universally appealing public galleries, ample gathering areas and specialized program spaces that boost inclusivity across ages, interests, ethnicities and abilities.”

The architecture and design of today’s best museums engage by reflecting their communities’ cultural underpinnings and the long arc of their places, says Flynn. She points to four key principles of successful inclusive museum design:

Cooper Robertson Inclusive Museum Design Picture 2

Photo courtesy of Cooper Robertson


1. Inclusive planning and programming ensures a richer plan for the design of a museum emerges from a variety of vantage points.

Architecture and design programs that are grounded in an inclusive and equitable planning processes rely on close collaborations from the start between the project team, local and regional officials, and members of the public and other key stakeholders. In this way, the design’s outcome is best able to reflect the museum’s intended goal and cultural histories, inspiring a heightened level of awareness and reflection. It creates museums that are an inclusive, vibrant extension of their community.

Cooper Robertson’s early-stage planning study for the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City, Missouri, for instance, contributed to early thinking about the museum’s future. Beginning with research related to climate change and an emphasis on flexible and adaptable spaces, the study also considered attracting broader audiences, plus evolving social, demographic and economic trends. The collaborative, rapid programming process with Nelson-Atkins staff and leadership identified key spaces and expansion areas to meet the institution’s needs and strategic goals for the next 30 years, underscoring the value of the inclusive programming from the start.

2. Accessible museum spaces allow people of all abilities to celebrate, honor and grow from these cultural centers.

As a part of the design team for the expansion of Gateway Arch Museum and visitor center in St. Louis, for example, Cooper Robertson incorporated standards for universal design in the museum’s expansion, exhibit areas and grounds. This not only made the cultural venue fully physically accessible for all ages and all abilities, but it also created a more appealing and elegant spatial experience for all. The resulting intuitive design reduces sensory, psychological and physical barriers, creating a comfortable and friendly environment for all.

Cooper Robertson Inclusive Museum Design Picture 3

Photo courtesy of Cooper Robertson


3. Architecture that pays homage to the region’s cultures contributes to the cultural life of their communities, both as works of distinguished architecture and as expressions of each museum’s mission.

At Princeton University’s new Art Museum, the expansion, designed in collaboration with Adjaye Associates, employs a mix of traditional materials — including stone, bronze and glass — that speaks to the present moment and the historic Princeton, New Jersey, context. Exposed timber structures are revealed inside, while the new building’s exterior presents alternating rough and polished stone surfaces inspired by the rich history of the surrounding environment.

Cooper Robertson Inclusive Museum Design Picture 4

Photo courtesy of Cooper Robertson


4. Technical expertise grounded in research enables innovation that supports the presentation — and preservation — of more varied cultural works.

From the building envelope performance — critical to maintaining interior temperature and humidity controls — to daylighting design and controls, sustainable design and resilient design that protects museum collections from extreme weather events, these modern technologies are essential for successfully inclusive cultural repositories. Cooper Robertson’s improvements to Museum of Modern Art’s off-site cold storage vaults ensure the preservation of the New York City museum’s distinguished collection of original historic nitrate and acetate films. Serving current and future generations of visitors and scholars, these archives are a key to ensuring inclusivity over time.

With more than 20 years of experience in cultural and museum work ranging in subject matter from fine arts to material culture to moving images, Flynn, along with firm partner Bruce Davis, AIA, LEED AP, among others at Cooper Robertson, have advanced the quality of museum architecture through their inclusive approach. The firm is called on frequently for realizing their unique blend of consulting, design and research.