The Impact Of Spaces In Museums Cultural Studies Essay


The main aim of my final project is to find a relation between the interior and exterior design and their connection in public buildings, by an ultra modern sculpitecture form, especially in museums, guided by the belief that interiors and spatial organization are main aspects in the design of a museum and are as important as the exhibits themselves. Museums can be found in either specially dedicated buildings or in buildings which had formerly different functions. The way the interior and exterior spaces of a museum are designed is expressive in many ways as it conveys information and reflects different concepts. In order to approach a solid connection between the interior and exterior aspects, a detailed study of spaces, materials, environmental aspects, lighting as well as construction details should be performed.

This essay will study the impact of spaces in museums, the interaction between display layout and spatial design and how they affect the journey of the visitor. In order to do so, this essay first defines spaces and their importance in architecture. "Dimensions, Space, Shape and Scale in architecture" written by Charles Moore and Gerald Allen is one of the reference books useful in defining space and its elements as well as the importance of space and 3D thinking and enhancing the feelings of height, width and depth. This essay will then go onto discuss the relation between space and objects as well as objects and people. It goes into details to discuss the types of movements affected by the spatial organization of objects and its influence of the informational and social dimensions of the museum. Furthermore, it studies the psychology and most important architecture properties of the design of museums and their layout patterns. The books that were particularly useful for these sections were "Intimus Interior Design Theory Reader" written by Taylor and Preston for it discusses the relationship between people and space as well as the different types of movement in the museum interior space have been studied; and "People and Buildings", written by Robert Gutman for its Psychological study regarding the personal space and territories and their relation to the spatial organization. Lastly, this essay will apply all the aspects discussed in a case study of two museums, the Alexandria National museum in Egypt and the Griffith observatory in the USA.

Definition of space:

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"Space is the dimensions of height, depth, and width within which all things exist and move". (Oxford dictionary:2012) Space is a three-dimensional place where objects and people exist and move and where events take place. In psychology, space is defined as the recognition of objects' appearance and how it's perceived. (Moore and Allen.1976:4)


Fig 1 ramp leading to the reception area in Sterlings Olivetti building(1997)

The architectural space is a special form of free space which the architect creates by giving it form, shape and scale.(Moore ,Allen.1976:7). "Space is prime material is the designer's palette and an essential element in interior design" (Ching D. K.. 1943:10). The function of space is first defined in two dimensions, breadth and width, but the manipulation of space bring out the third dimension, the height, giving the opportunity for the inhabitants to develop yet further dimensions. In reality, architects don't make or create a space, they just cut off a part of the continuum and design recognizable sub-spaces. Each space has special function and represents a special entity expressing the relationship between humans and things besides creating architectural boundaries. Space is a fundamental element in architecture, since architecture is about spatial creation and depends on the disposition of space and form relating to human behavior.( Moore ,Allen.1976: 7)

Museums are special buildings designed around a set of characterizing attributes. The main concerns in designing a museum are its interiors and spatial organization. The kind of interior space differs according to the function of the building. Interior spaces in museums are expressive in many ways, not only because they provide information but also because they reflect different concepts. So, space can be seen as a medium of communication and interpretation in museums. It can provide a division in zones, each with its own activities and uses. This paper is mainly concerned with the importance and effect of space in public places, mainly in museums. The relationship between space defined and space defining elements as well as the relationship between objects and the observers are studied.

Relationship between space defining elements and space defined:

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Space itself has no definition or meaning unless visual objects or elements are placed inside it, establishing a relationship between space and the elements and between the elements themselves. Narrowing it down to architectural scale, the main elements defining a space are walls, roofs, floors, columns and beams. Interior design considers a deeper definition of space concerned with its layout, furnishing and planning. In design philosophies, the space and form are always regarded as the negative and positive, where the solid is the elements filling the big void, which is the space. "Architecture can be considered as a creative expression of the coexistence of space and form on a human scale but its understanding together with all other concepts, is rooted in psychological space of our thoughts."(Porter. 1997: 26).

Fig 2 Figure ground Model(1997) C:\Users\user\Desktop\Reem\refe.jpg

The display layout depends on some main configurational properties such as control, connectivity and integration, as well as some spatial qualities like hierarchy, symmetry and perspective. Different combinations of these properties result in three different spatial-display relationship strategies: objects enhancing space, space enhancing objects and fully autonomous independent space-display relation. In the first setting, the qualities of the objects are used and exploited to emphasize the qualities of architectural space instead of bringing out the qualities of the exhibits themselves. Curators use objects to enlarge the spatial potential and strengthen the visitors' experience of space. In the second setting, the architectural space maximizes the impact of the objects while keeping the space in the background. Curators can decrease the importance of the architectural experience of space by distancing the exhibits from the space design. This places the objects in the foreground and the space design becomes just a background. Curators might emphasize certain exhibits by displaying them in high hierarchy areas. These galleries are privileged with respect to others by being directly accessible, visible from far distances and have many connections to and entrances from other parts of the building.

To conclude, the link between design choices and display goes far beyond the visual and aesthetic aspects. The spatial aspects and the proximity of spaces combined with the exhibited objects in a certain layout form a correspondence relationship. This helps the observer to identify the relation between the exhibited objects and become a part of their history.

Relationship between observers and space:

People perceive the interior and exterior spaces in a sensual way, involving movements. Movement can be described as a transition between spaces and different spatial impressions. Each movement in space causes a variety of experiences to the visitor which affect their senses. This causes a huge number of stimulations inside the human brain resulting in different responses and feelings. For example, being in a theme park gives a different response as being in a cathedral. .(Porter. 1997:43) , (Taylor & Preston.2006:15)

Nature as well as man-made environments are rich in spatial diversity. Wherever you go, you experience different types of spaces. Unlimited spaces could be experienced standing on tall buildings, on high grounds or from vantage points. You can also experience partially defined spaces while moving in canyons or through streets and totally enclosed spaces from inside caves or windowless rooms like elevators. The movement from one type of space to another, such as from restricted to a more free space or vice versa, makes the experience more impressive.

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Fig 3 Sketches showing the 3 different experience of spaces(2012)

Psychologically, the volume taken by one's body is related to the one's perception of the space. Animals and humans share similarities in that each creature has his personal space bubble of a certain size, which fluctuates according to the psychological spatial relation. For example, the size of this personal bubble grows in small spaces like elevators and oppositely diminishes in enormous spaces such as cathedrals and auditoriums. That means that humans feel their body larger in small spaces. (Porter. 1997: 43)

In museums, space is of huge importance, since users don't only read the information on the exhibits and look at them, they also fully recognize the space and become a part of it. The experience of the visitor is more inclusive, unlike reading the information in a book or in the internet, which is spatially unequal. Space is formed by the relationship between the observers and the elements defining the space.

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In order to enhance the observers' experience the exhibits background, space must be interactive. This means that there should be a physical response from the visitors or receivers. Visitors can be guided by the designs of the space to move in a particular way. Observers can be guided by the designs to an exploratory movement in the space, where they are introduced to an unknown environment with prominent and strange surroundings where the architecture of the space is a foreground element. People move more slowly and whisper. On the other hand, visitors can be guided to a more habitual movement, where the architecture is a hardly noticeable background and people move without awareness of the surroundings, only thinking of their goal. (Porter. 1997:44)

The Psychology behind designing a museum space:C:\Users\user\Desktop\Reem\Scan0012etb.jpg

The architectural design of a museum can be very difficult and varies with the purpose of the building. The exhibits of the museum must be preserved and yet visible and exposable for the visitors. When designing a museum space, one must understand the psychology of the visitors in crowded rooms. For example, it has been proved that people prefer making right turns than left turns as well as sitting or standing at the edges of a room instead of in the middle feeling more secure and giving themselves the chance to observe others without being observed and without their privacy being endangered. (Porter. 1997: 44)

In a museum, the objects must be arranges so as to encourage exploratory movement of the visitors. The structure of space and organization of exhibits should work together to enhance local exploration and decrease the speed of movement of the visitors and slow down the rhythm of perception in order to

Fig 4 Box of standing(1961)

make them take in all the information conveyed by the displayed objects. For example, statues are always placed in the far distance and displayed from the back to encourage the visitor to come closer and move around it to fully explore it.

What defines a museum space is the existence of two types of spatial organization: the visit-able sequence as well as the gathering space which observers repeatedly visit during the tour. These two types of spaces help create two kinds of interfaces: the informational and the social dimension. The former (informational) is due to the arrangements of the exhibits inside the museum as determined by the curators, while the latter (social) is between the visitors themselves.

There are different geometrical layouts for museums which help us to draw a fundamental difference between museums, some give choice of routes, others give a choice of galleries. The former layouts give the visitor the freedom to choose the route from one part of the building to another which creates a probabilistic distribution of visitors, causing less crowding in central gathering spaces. The latter layouts give the visitors only a restricted choice between chambers or galleries and drives him / her back to the overall defined route.

In some cases the geometrical layout of a museum causes conflicts between the social and informational functions. This is especially the case when the layout separates the galleries for informational reasons, cutting off the social functions. In other cases, enhancement of the informational function strengthens the social function as well. This happens when the geometrical structure enforces proximity of the visiting areas and galleries. In this case, the randomness of encounter is maximized, causing social interaction. These geometrical layout strategies suggest that visitors don't only experience the objects (informational) and other people (social), another critical dimension is introduced, which is the experience of space itself.

While designing a museum space, we should consider the different patterns of exhibitions such as object-based exhibitions, demonstration-type exhibition and topical exhibitions. Object-based exhibitions concentrates on the exhibited object itself, its background and its social, cultural, historical and religious values. Demonstration-type exhibition is used to demonstrate the existence of non-visible natural phenomena such as heat, electricity, light, sound and wind. Topical exhibitions on the other hand use movies, scripts, articles, collages and stage performances to tell stories and present whole pictures about a certain field.

C:\Users\user\Desktop\Reem\object based.jpgC:\Users\user\Desktop\Reem\demonstration.jpg

Fig 5 Sketch showing object based exhibition(2012) Fig 6 Sketch showing Demonstration type exhibition(2012)

To conclude, a museum's space should be designed to be informative, interactive and enforce the discovery and exploration spirit of the visitor. A museum's architecture must connect, sense, move, show and site. Not only a museum's design must encourage the visitor to learn and discover, but it must also teleport the observer into another world. Besides, a museum's space must be easily accessible and should allow for many public functions including workshops, informative lectures and social events. To do so, the designer must consider the tension between three things: the spaces organization into sequential tours and central gathering space; the social and informational function as well as the organization of the exhibits within its spatial layout. (Gutman. 2009:97)

Case study of two different museums:

Alexandria National Museum (Alexandria - Egypt) VS Griffith observatory (LA - USA)

Alexandria National Museum

Alexandria National Museum is located in an Italian style palace in downtown Alexandria on the main street of Alexandria (Tariq el Hurreya). The building was first built in 1928 and owned by one of the wealthiest wood merchants in Alexandria. It was turned into a museum in 2003. Nowadays, it contains more than 1800 artifacts, revealing the history of Alexandria. The historical building consists of 3 stories, each floor exhibits a different era of the Egyptian history starting from the oldest in the ground floor and exhibiting more modern pieces as the visitors move upstairs. While the ground floor is concerned with the Pharaonic era, the 1st floor exhibits Greco Roman antiques and the 2nd floor demonstrates the more modern Coptic and Islamic eras. The museum is considered as one of the most important in Egypt.


Fig 7 Alexandria national museum plan (2012)

The museum is considered an object-based exhibition, where the observer enjoys walking around the objects and focusing on them, understanding their history and the era where they come from. The building consists of a central gathering space, from which the visitors can decide which exhibition room to enter first on the same floor. Its layout can be considered a partly guiding layout, since the visitors are forced to move from the older eras in the lower floor to the more modern eras upstairs in a sequential way. However, it still gives the observer the freedom to choose which gallery to visit first on the same floor when standing in the central area. The interior design of the museum separates each era by exhibiting it in a different floor, but connects the objects from each era together by displaying them on the same floor in adjacent galleries. This partly guiding layout minimizes the control that the layout enforces on the visitors and increases the randomness in the movement, which causes exploratory behavior of the observer. However, the layout may cause the visitor to miss some of the objects and the fact that the central area is entered every time the visitor goes from one gallery to another may cause local crowding.


Fig 8 Sketch showing basic layout pattern of Alexandria museum(2012)

From a psychological point of view, the Alexandria museum considers the privacy of its visitor and their subconscious willingness to be at the edges of a room instead of in the middle under the spotlights. The showcases are made of clear glass from all sides and are placed at a 45 degrees angles at the corners of the gallery, leaving enough space for visitors to move around and inspect the exhibits from all angles. It has been found that this arrangement encourages the visitors to stand behind the showcases in the corners of the room, where they feel more secure and intimate while giving them full overview of the exhibits.


Fig 9 Sketch showing basic layout pattern of showcases in Alexandria museum(2012)

The Alexandria museum enhances the informational dimension, as the objects are placed in the foreground. The objects are clearly defining the space and are emphasized by the layout of the building. However, the social dimension is clearly weakened, as there is no well defined guiding route of the tour, which separates visitors from each other. Showcases placed on the edges of the room and viewed from different angles separate observers even when they are in the same gallery exploring exhibits from the same era. Although the museum has a central gathering space, it doesn't serve the social dimension well enough, since it has neither exhibits nor any public services. It's merely a place where visitors move fast to cross from one gallery to another.

Another major disadvantage of the museum is that it lacks the interaction between observers and objects. The visitors are only allowed to view objects visually through glass cases and are not allowed to touch or interact with the exhibits in any way. This preserves the well-kept exhibits but decreases the excitement of the observers and might prevent them from teleporting to the era of the exhibits. No physical response is expected from the visitors whatsoever.

Griffith Observatory, Los Angeles:

Griffith Observatory is an iconic museum in Los Angeles, southern California, and one of its most popular attractions. It's placed on the slope of Mount Hollywood, 1,134 feet above the sea level. The observatory expands the knowledge about space and other science-related topics. The observatory has been constructed in 1933 and opened to the public in 1935.

Like Alexandria museum, the observatory can be considered an object-based exhibition as the spatial design is rather in the background, focusing on the exhibits, while the topical exhibition pattern is also used to show the movement of planets and space bodies. Besides, the planetarium of the observatory, which is found in the main dome, displays short movies and visual demonstrations of the sun and planets. In addition, a theatre is found in the basement of the observatory building, which shows stage performances and screenplays. Moreover, a kids' area is located inside the observatory, which allows children as well as adults to interact with the exhibits and show physical response, like playing with puzzles about the outer space. The interaction between the observers and the objects enhances the learning experience of the observers of all ages. The observatory's object layout enhances both the informational as well as the social dimension.

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Fig 10 Griffith observatory Main Level Plan(2012)

When the visitors first enter the observatory, they first encounter a central gathering area with a huge pendulum, known as the Foucault pendulum, which proves the rotation of the earth. The gathering area attracts crowds since it accommodates one of the most famous physical attractions in the world. The central gathering space is not just the social gatherer, but also plays other important roles: it acts as a reference point in the sequence and provides orientation and gives the guidelines of the large-scale circulation that conveys movement along the sub-cycles. It's the space where the local movements meet the global movement. The central gathering space also plays a huge role in connecting the observatory wings and integrating the exhibits. Because it's most accessible, it maximizes co-presence and social interfaces. Furthermore, the central gathering acts as the way back which further strengthens the ordering sequence of the observatory.


Fig 11 Sketch showing basic layout pattern of Griffith observatory(2012)

The observatory gives its visitors no choice of galleries and only very limited choice of routes. From the central gathering space, the visitors are allowed to start their guided tour by either entering the right or left sub-cycles or wings. From there, the visitors start a single sequence of movement with strong rules in the movement pattern. This helps them explore the objects more extensively because they see the exhibits in the same sequence of spaces and order without changing their predetermined routes. Both sub-cycles form two independent routes, that can allow visitors to explore the whole observatory by crossing along the main axis of the building once from one wing to the other. This causes visitors entering the observatory together to split into two separated paths, but meet again probabilistically at the central gathering space. Although the observers have the choice to either start their journey on the right or the left side of the museum, their subconscious choice normally tells them to start it from the right and move counterclockwise.

The relationship between the space and the objects in the observatory is most obvious. The spatial organization of the observatory draws the visitors into the deepest parts of the building and prevents them from skipping exhibits or bypassing rooms and causes an exploratory kind of movement. Moreover, the circular shape of the sub-spaces and the central gathering space drives the visitors psychologically to walk in a complete cycle in order to exit the circle at the same entering point. This forces them to take in all the exhibits displayed in both wings.


Fig 12 Griffith observatory interior(2013)

Moreover, the observatory offers its visitors to enjoy the view from the exterior terrace of the central dome. Due to the enormous height of the building, the observer experiences an unlimited space over the whole city and Hollywood mountain. The movement from the restricted inside of the building to the expansive terrace with the unlimited view makes the experience of the journey more impressive.


Space is the fundamental element in designing a museum or exhibition building. The designer uses space to deliver messages or information, as a medium of communication between the visitors and to stage activity and to clearly divide the building into zones specifying the area's use. The meaning of space is enhanced by the objects defining it as well as its size, shape and form. Especially in museums, all these elements combined together form a relationship between the observer and the space, which enhances the experience of the visitor during his museum tour and enlarges the capacity of the information he/she takes in.

Museums are supposed to convey information to the visitors not only in an informational way, but also in social interactive way. That makes any museum different than just reading about this exhibit in a book or the internet. That's why a museum should offer its visitor the chance to physically respond to the exhibits and its space should encourage them to take in the information delivered in an exploratory rather than a habitual way. The museum space and architectural design should teleport the visitors to another world and time where the exhibits come from in order to maximize the benefit for them.

For these reasons, designers should choose the appropriate exhibition pattern - object based, demonstration type or topical exhibition patterns - depending on the purpose of the museum. Moreover, the different layout of the museum has great effect on the visitor's experience as it ranges from completely guided and directional to completely giving to the visitor a free choice of routes and galleries.

The design of the museum space should conform with the human psychology when entering new places. First of all, it should encourage exploratory movements of the visitor and respect the fact that humans feel more secure when they stand on the edges of the room. The size and shape of the space must serve the purpose of the exhibition and enough transition from restricted to enormous spaces - thereby altering the size of the visitor's psychological personal bubble from large to small - should exist to leave a more exciting impression on the visitor. This studies in the essay put some guidelines that should be well considered when designing an interior of a museum to achieve the maximum excitement and impressiveness of the visitors besides that they should fully experience the exhibits.

List of illustrations:

Fig 1Porter,Tom(1997) ramp leading to the reception area in Sterlings Olivetti building [photograpgh]: The Architect's eye Visualization and depiction of space in architecture. :45. London. Weinheim, New York, Tokyo, Melbourne, Madras: E&FN Spon.

Fig 2 Porter,Tom(1997)Figure ground Model in: The Architect's eye Visualization and depiction of space in architecture. :46. London. Weinheim, New York, Tokyo, Melbourne, Madras: E&FN Spon.

Fig 3 Mohamed, Reem(2012) different experiences of space [Sketches] In possession of: Reem Mohamed

Fig 4 Morns, Robert (1961),Untitled : box of standing, Psycho buildings in: Psycho buildings:The exhibition Psycho Buildings. The Hayward, London , UK, 28 May - 25 August 2008.

Fig 5 Mohamed, Reem(2012) showing object based exhibition [Sketches] In possession of: Reem Mohamed

Fig 6 Mohamed, Reem(2012) showing Demonstration type exhibition [Sketches] In possession of: Reem Mohamed

Fig 7 Mohamed, Reem ,2012. Alexandria National Museum main plan. [photograph] in possession of: Reem Mohamed, Rochester

Fig 8 Mohamed, Reem(2012) showing basic layout pattern of Alexandria museum [Sketches] In possession of: Reem Mohamed

Fig 9 Mohamed, Reem(2012) showing basic layout pattern of showcases in Alexandria museum [Sketches] In possession of: Reem Mohamed

Fig 10 Griffith observatory team,2010. Griffith observatory Main Level Plan. [electronic print] Available at: <> [Accessed 1 January 2013].

Fig 11 Mohamed, Reem(2012) showing basic layout pattern of Griffith observatory [Sketches] In possession of: Reem Mohamed

Fig 12 Justin Donais,2006.Interactive exhibition inside Griffith observatory. [electronic print] Available at: <> [Accessed 1 January 2013].