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The Whitney as Workspace

I was incredibly fortunate to take part in a behind-the-scenes tour of the new Whitney Museum of American Art building hosted by Henry Adams Consulting Engineers and led by staff from Cooper Robertson, the executive architect. While there are many elements that make the Renzo Piano-designed structure beautiful and amazing (its outdoor spaces connect directly to the High Line! The architectural team completely changed the design in response to flooding from Hurricane Sandy when the building was already under construction!), I was especially struck by the museum’s workspaces.

As I’ve explored in prior posts on museum workspaces, these areas have historically been an afterthought in the building design process. I was beyond excited to see that the new Whitney does everything right in terms of staff workspaces, and even pointed out a glaring omission in my own thinking about the issue.

Museum work(ers) on display

In the vein of the Lunder Conservation Center, the Whitney places staff workspaces on public view. As you can see in plans and sections of the building, almost half of each gallery level (floors 5-8) is devoted to staff workspace (in the linked ArchDaily plans, green is gallery space and aqua is staff space), and gallery visitors can see into the staff workspaces through glass doors. I love this arrangement because it lets the public see just how many staff it takes to keep a museum running, and what they do – your tax dollars and charitable contributions at work! – and also reminds museum staff that they’re working for the public.

Dream conservation spaces

The conservators’ workspace is especially impressive, considering conservation labs tend to be relegated to a museum’s basement. All of the furniture is on casters, so it can be reconfigured to suit the task at hand. It looks like the fume hoods can be moved around on that room-spanning track as well. Those enormous windows let in a ton of natural light – you’ll notice that even though a conservator is at work in there, he doesn’t have any electric lights on. This amount of natural light in art handling spaces is made possible by crazy advanced glazing that filters out 99% of UV radiation.

Don’t forget the educators!

Like the staff offices and conservation labs, the education spaces are transparent and well thought out (and not in the museum’s basement). The classrooms are located near the theater, so school groups can use the coat check for backpacks.

Museums as artist workspaces

I’m ashamed to admit that in the course of my previous posts on museum workspaces, I never considered the museum as a workspace for artists. The Whitney’s design team did, though – the flooring throughout the galleries is reclaimed wood with an intentionally rustic finish so that artists installing their work won’t hesitate to, for example, drive nails into the floor.

In conclusion

The new Whitney is great and you should go see it. Everyone else is, as evidenced by by line around the block to get in at 11:00am on a work day.

Image Credits: Main image ShutterStock / All other images from author

About the author – Kristina von Tish

Kristina von Tish uses her experience in museum exhibition design to create winning architectural proposals and award submissions, focusing on the museum and higher education markets.

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