Turning museums inside out: White paper addresses the value of exterior gallery space

Many contemporary museum designs are beginning to utilize the exterior wall space to display art that can help attract new audiences.

January 19, 2017 |

The new Whitney Museum of American Art. Photo: Shinya Suzuki, flickr Creative Commons

Space is at a premium when it comes to museums. Only the best of the best of a museum’s collection gets the prime real estate that is displayed to the public. In fact, it is estimated that only 2% to 4% of a museum’s collection is actually shown to guests.

As museums try to show more of their collections to visitors, many contemporary designs are beginning to incorporate the exterior of the building as a gallery. Now, you aren’t going to see the Louvre plastering the Mona Lisa onto the side of the building like a wanted poster anytime soon, but museums are starting to realize art installations specifically designed for the exterior of a building can prove to be quite valuable.

Buildings have made use of their exterior walls as a display in the past. Chicago’s Tribune Tower is covered with over 150 historically significant artifacts from around the world that are built into the structure’s limestone wall.

Col. Robert McCormick brought back the first piece from a church that was shelled in Belgium during World War I. Upon returning to Chicago, he then told his correspondents around the world to obtain pieces of famous buildings and bring them back.

Embedded in Tribune Tower’s limestone walls are pieces of the Greek Parthenon, the Roman Colosseum, London’s Houses of Parliament, and dozens more, all permanently on display for passersby.


One of the artifacts embedded in Tribune Tower's limestone exterior. Photo: Wikimedia Commons Public Domain.


While these artifacts aren’t necessarily art installations, the exterior walls have still been transformed into a display.

The Whitney Museum of American Art, however, took this idea one step further by actually designing the building with specific solutions to best utilize exterior wall space as a gallery.

As a new white paper, Exterior as Gallery, from the New York-based Cooper Robertson outlines, the new Whitney Museum of American has facades that face Manhattan’s popular High Line park and the Hudson River, making them ideal viewing galleries.

Works of art can be anchored to the building’s terraces or suspended from the facades. A combination of vertical anchor points on the façade and a grid of horizontal points on the terraces allows for the installation of two- and three-dimensional artwork that can be viewed from multiple angles and levels. In total, there are four art terraces connected by an exterior stair leading from one to the other.

For displaying pieces from the façade, the design team used a standard system of bolts that can be tethered to or removed and replaced with eye hooks or other hardware to enable the museum to attach a screen, stretch a canvas, or suspend a super-scale object from the side of the building, according to the white paper. The façade was also reinforced to accommodate the addition of a 600-pound pull load.

The terraces required a different solution in order to display art and to keep it secured, especially in instances of high winds. A cylinder is bolted to a base plate that is then fastened to the structure below. Each cylinder is filled with foamed-in-place insulation. These cylindrical anchors align with the beams of the building’s rigorous structural grid in order not to exceed weight limitations. The terraces also have technology consolidation points for displays that require electricity and other AV needs.

If these additions prove successful, odds are, the Whitney Museum of American Art won’t be the last museum to apply these strategies.


Read the entire Cooper Robertson Exterior as Gallery white paper, here.

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