Designing an art museum where everyone belongs
When Maine’s most prominent art institution began to plan a major campus expansion and unification, it wanted to make sure the corresponding new visitor experience would embody its “Art for All” mandate. Through an international design competition, Openbox (along with our team including LEVER Architecture and Akomawt Educational Initiative) was entrusted with the work of welcoming and engaging communities that have historically been underserved by the Portland Museum of Art.
Our community research with Wabanaki people, immigrant families, and youth and young adults throughout Maine helped us develop and test design elements and architectural forms that elicit a sense of belonging inside and outside the walls of the museum. These learnings allowed us to create actionable design recommendations to inform concept and schematic designs, and a set of community strategies for the PMA to cultivate future partnerships and collaborations. Beyond the immediate applications of our work, our client observed, “Your work with communities that have been historically hard for us to reach is phenomenal. These findings are so generative and specific to our context, I can see how we can apply what you’ve done and shared across so many aspects of our own work.”
How we did it
- Identification of communities currently least served using quantitative and qualitative data collected by the museum, as well as input from a Wabanaki cultural expert embedded in the project team, in order to center these groups in our community research.
- Translation into six languages (Vietnamese, Cambodian, Arabic, Somali, French, and Portuguese) of our flyers, social media posts, and screeners; and corresponding interpretation during interviews to allow participants to dive more comfortably into complex conversations around belonging, welcome, art, and culture.
- Prototyping the spaces-in-between in and around the art museum campus, specifically the visitor’s approach to the building, places to pause between gallery spaces, and moments to slow people down through making.
- Community strategies guidebook that builds on the physical, spatial, and programmatic design directives, and identifies the opportunities and principles to guide ongoing community relationships that are essential to PMA’s efforts to be a museum for all.
Our community research grounded the pre-schematic through concept designs in learnings that addressed the specific barriers for communities that were historically hardest for the PMA to reach, and elevated the design outcomes of our partners. But creating an accessible museum experience extends beyond the physical campus expansion. The community strategies guidebook outlines steps for continuing this work with communities, including operational strategies and principles for how to show up in community spaces—ultimately equipping leadership and frontline staff with lasting concrete opportunities to engage communities.
Scaling inclusivity to Maine’s geography
In order to extend opportunities for collaboration to diverse communities, we traveled hundreds of miles to build working relationships with community organizations across Maine. We created the foundation for future PMA partnerships with diverse organizations that are not typical museum partners, including a local Salvation Army providing resources to recent immigrants, and an Indigenous community health group in Bangor.
Creating an equity North Star for the design team
We crafted an integrated approach with our project team to ensure that community research not only informed initial design thinking, but delivered design principles to guide all aspects of project development. These community design principles became embedded in project guidelines for both the architectural and landscape design teams, as well as the programming and operational ambitions of the campus expansion and unification project.
Prototyping architectural concepts in an accessible way
After ideating with our architecture partners, we distilled their design concepts into three future visions of the PMA. For one of our prototypes we crafted a series of wooden “viewfinders” around these themes, inserting them with simple drawings of design elements at different distances leading up to the museum’s front doors and through the main entrance. Using this low-resolution prototype and others like it, rather than polished renderings, created a more accessible starting point for community members to co-create with us.