Audience engagement – rather than education – is key for museums that want to survive in today’s experience economy. To achieve this, deleting any type of distance between institute and audience is of great importance. The renewed Naturalis Biodiversity Center in the Netherlands shows how taking an evocative rather than educative approach to museum design helps to eliminate barriers – between both the presentation and its public, and the archive and architecture.

‘Our aim is to design buildings that express the nature of the institutes they house in an associative way,’ says Michiel Riedijk, co-founder of Neutelings Riedijk Architects. The firm’s extension for – and renovation of – the Naturalis Biodiversity Center in the Dutch city of Leiden, which houses one of the biggest natural history collections in the world, does just that.

The newly opened museum-cum-research centre isn’t just impressive, but also expresses its content. Both the exterior of the building and the interior of the 36-m-tall atrium were inspired by the institute’s archive. Here, geological references abound. The new-build features a stack of shifting rectangular volumes that resemble rocky outcrops and accommodate the exhibition halls, while the impressive entrance hall is wrapped in a kind of three-dimensional concrete ‘molecular lace’ that filters the daylight to form an ever-changing pattern of shadows.

In fashion designer Iris van Herpen, Neutelings Riedijk Architects found an unexpected ally for its venture, one that seamlessly matches the firm’s belief that the architecture should be an extension of the archive. ‘Apart from being well-known for working with modern production technologies, reinterpreting shapes found in nature is also one of her trademarks,’ Riedijk explains his office’s choice. Inspired by fossils and the way water can curve rocks, Van Herpen designed a series of 263 one-off panels that seem to be as fluid as fabrics. In reality, they are made of a slightly porous material and developed with a process that was created especially for the project. The resulting 1000-m-long delicate and silky white concrete friezes contrast with the rough shimmering travertine stone that the architects sourced from Iran.

Van Herpen praises the way Neutelings Riedijk Architects managed to show the evolution of time through its design: ‘You can see crystals growing in the stonework as you make you way up the stairs,’ she says. ‘Sometimes buildings are designed to make one immediate impression, but lack the detail to keep you intrigued. In the case of Naturalis, you can discover something new every visit.’

Bombarding visitors with an overwhelming amount of information before you’ve sparked their curiosity is simply not effective

Just like the architecture, the scenography of the thematic exhibitions feels ‘alive’. Traditional ways of displaying based on categorization are rejected in favour of setups that convey a sense of wonder and awe. ‘In the past, going to a museum was all about education. Today, visitors want more from their museum visit – a complete day out that is actually fun. They want to be moved emotionally, and to be enchanted,’ says Kossmann.dejong’s Niels de Jong, lead designer of the centre’s permanent exhibitions Life and Death. ‘We asked ourselves what the exhibitions should convey. We want visitors to become fascinated by the richness of biodiversity, not to learn all the Latin names of animals.’

The team at Kossmann.dejong translated its own experience of exploring the centre’s depot into more loosely curated displays. ‘We saw someone registering bird skeletons. Seeing all the different types together, not sorted by habitat, you immediately start to imagine a little scene where they talk and interact. You start to imagine personalities and characters for them. By displaying a group of tiny mice at the elephants’ feet, you trigger the imagination of visitors, they start to see stories.’

If you remove this protective layer between spectator and object, something happens on an emotional level

Accessibility is a leading theme throughout Kossman.dejong’s contribution to the museum. Their spaces quite literally bring the public closer to the presentations. Display cases and ropes were a no go. ‘If you put an object behind glass or on a pedestal it becomes a museum piece, but if you remove this protective layer between spectator and object, something happens on an emotional level. Just like movies, we try to break the fourth wall,’ says De Jong. ‘It’s challenging, as curators will always want to protect their objects. This is the traditional contradiction in museums.’

Another challenge was finding ways to serve a public of all ages and compositions. Kossmann.dejong did so by including multiple layers and storylines. ‘Ideally, a family can be in one location in the museum and all discover something that fascinates them,’ says De Jong. ‘Especially the exhibition Death is very dense. There is an informative layer, but also a poetic layer, a layer for children, a squirrel layer and a layer for people who have lost someone. We focused on bringing some low-tech interaction to the exhibition. Deliberately, nothing human is included in the exhibition Death, but the museum visitors themselves are, of course, human. This is why we made some interactives that have a relation to the visitor. There is a scale where they can measure how many of their cells have died, and a place where they can scan a hand and learn about the four basic atoms that we all consist of: the same atoms that dinosaurs and Albert Einstein were made of. Visitors thus discover that death is not so clear-cut, and that in a way life is endless. What matters is that they can have a full experience in 20 minutes, but also look around for three hours. If they have a positive experience but are limited by time, they will want to come back.’

To truly emerge visitors in the content of an exhibition, the design of the spaces that host them should facilitate a strong connection between public and presentation. Offering a visceral experience rather than an educational one will do just that. That doesn’t mean leisure should overshadow learning altogether. A successful, barrier-free exhibition will encourage visitors to gather knowledge on their own initiative.

This piece will be featured in our forthcoming November-December issue, Frame 131.