How to make the museum future-proof: learning from MoMA at Frame Awards 2020

Every year, approximately three million visitors come to visit the work of Warhol and Matisse, Pollock and Picasso and so many others at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA). The famed NYC institution – first opened nine days after the Wall Street Crash of 1929 – has weathered many a changing cultural tide. A recent overhaul and expansion by Diller Scodifio + Renfro in collaboration Gensler is assurance that it too will survive the digital revolution happening today.

Ramona Bronkar Bannayan, MoMA’s senior deputy director of exhibitions and collections and Frame Awards jury member, spent the better part of three years overseeing the building of the ‘new MoMA’, tirelessly brainstorming with her team on how to future-proof the museum. ‘Every element of display has been rethought,’ she explains. In addition to new kinds of art on display, the museum’s galleries will be changing more frequently – MoMA has committed to reinstall roughly a third of collection galleries (approximately 2,800 sq-m) every six months.

The impact of the expansion and renovation has been tremendous: the proportion of visitors staying 3 hours or longer has almost doubled, and Bannayan points out that proud New Yorkers have come out – and more frequently – to see the new museum. At Frame Awards 2020, she will present a talk that will share key takeaway lessons about the growth and survival of art institutions and explain how the new MoMA uses spatial design to drive this kind of audience engagement.

In order to stay relevant, museums have to be metabolic institutions

You’ve been at MoMA since 1990, and in your current role since 2011. Since then, our understanding of engagement has changed dramatically with the growth of social media platforms and digital communication. How has this shift affected the MoMA-goer specifically and museum-goers in general? 

RAMONA BRONKAR BANNAYAN: Absolutely, even within just the last 10 years we all have definitely seen the development of a new cultural moment – William Gibson aptly foresaw this phenomenon with his book, Neuromancer.

One question I'm sure many people have in this new digital environment is 'do museums need to exist or are virtual experiences sufficient'? We at MoMA feel strongly objects do matter: they are seen and experienced differently in-person than online. Therefore, I'd say a more current idea for a museum is not just as a cultural or learning space, but a social space where people can interact with each other while looking at and experiencing the art in order to produce something new and unexpected. 

Competition has also increased outside of the digital world, as the number of museums in the past 20 years has grown from 23,000 to 55,000. In order to stay relevant, museums have to be metabolic institutions, not just in terms of building a collection, in terms of how we respond to and display these works of art. Of course, we need to embrace and support digital platforms, and we need to balance those platforms and complement that experience by strengthening our commitment to the physical environment: Responding. Reinventing. Renewing. Always.

We're thinking about environments that are conducive to connection and discovery

Why is spatial design an essential tool for creating a compelling museum experience?

Design can tell a story, create an emotional response within the visitor.  One feels differently in a light-filled space from a darkened space, from an open to a claustrophobic space, from a space in a neutral colour to one saturated with colour. Design elements, in concert with multiple points of entry, introduce new and different ways to intersect collections and break patterns. We're thinking about environments that are conducive to connection, to discovery and that are alternatively intimate and grand. What happens when you cross the threshold from the gallery space and enter the work, how do we make it contained as an impactful emotional space within a museum environment – these are the challenges that make me excited. 

You say in our Frame 131 interview with you that ‘museum visitors experience personal moments with works of art in a public forum’. Can you build on that?

Our most recent expansion had three main goals: expand the galleries so that we can have more space to show more of our collection in new and different ways, ensure that the museum is even more welcoming to our public and then, finally, engage the museum with the urban fabric of the city, both physically and conceptually. With that, embracing our visitors and ensuring that they feel at home and comfortable as they move in and out of the museum is an extremely important aspect to all of our planning. 

What do you hope that people take away from their visit? 

I grew up in Ohio and still remember my first visit to MoMA after an overnight Greyhound bus ride with art school friends. It was one of the most meaningful experiences in my early art foundation. If we can make the museum feel that full of wonderment, engagement, surprise and joy, whether it is as a first visit or 100th visit, we've done our job.

Join our team and Ramona Bronkar Bannayan at the forefront of spatial design – get your Frame Awards tickets here.

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