Each year since 1977, 18 May has marked International Museum Day. The aim of the initiative is to celebrate cultural institutions and raise awareness about their important role in society. The word “museum” derives from the Ancient Greek “museion” which means “a place where muses — patrons of art in Greek Mythology — live.” Their purpose: to collect, display, interpret and preserve important objects from history and current interests of humanity. The earliest public museum was established at the end of the Neo-Babylonian Empire in 612 BC. Later, a modern version emerged in the 16th century in the form of “cabinets of curiosities”. Besides asserting special items, these often-private storages indicated hierarchy in the community. The oldest public museum in the United Kingdom was the Ashmolean in Oxford which opened in 1683. For centuries, the neo-classical style was the official manner of these institutions but, since the mid-1900s, their characteristics have evolved. Besides exhibiting extensive collections, these buildings display some of the most striking and pioneering architectural solutions. The following list comprises museums from around the world that celebrate the forward-thinking design.
Studio Gang: Richard Gilder Center for Science, Education and Innovation, New York (2023)
Designed by Studio Gang, founded and led by Jeanne Gang (b. 1964), The Gilder Center is an extension of the Museum of Natural History of New York. It opened in 2023, offering spaces for gathering, exhibitions and research. The fluid, cave-like interior was created with an innovative technique of spraying concrete onto reinforced steel bars. Visitors can immerse themselves in the butterfly conservatory and floor to ceiling collections displays, as well as corridors pitted with otherworldly curves and voids.
Adjaye Associates: National Museum of African American History and Culture, Washington D.C (2016)
The National Museum of African American History and Culture opened in 2016 and, a year later, was named the Beazley Design of the Year — an award programme set up by Design Museum, London. The inverted ziggurat-shaped construction comprises over 3,000 bronze-cast aluminium panels. As well as acting as a large-scale monument, the design has embedded cultural significance. The characteristic shape of the building represents the creations of West African craftsmen from Benin, Nigeria and Togo.
JKMMArchitects: Amos Rex, Helsinki (2018)
The subterranean museum occupies one of the most significant public squares of the Finnish capital. Amos Rex opened in 2018 and has since been inviting visitors to explore its underground galleries. The organic domes and skylights offer a place for gathering, connecting the interiors to the outside. Since opening, it has hosted exhibitions on notable artists including Bill Viola, Hans Op de Beeck and René Magritte.
David Chipperfield Offices: The Hepworth Wakefield (2011)
Situated by the River Calder, The Hepworth Wakefield is named after seminal British sculptor Barbara Hepworth (1903-1975), whose sculptural works provided inspiration for the gallery’s monolithic forms. Over the past decade, it has become a hotbed for modern British art. In 2017, the Hepworth Wakefield received the UK’s Museum of the Year Award. Recently, Sir David Alan Chipperfield (b. 1953) was awarded the Pritzker Prize 2023. Its geometric shape is reflected in the surrounding water.
Estudio MMX: New Geology Museum, Yucatán (2022)
The New Geology Museum is located by the coast of the Yucatán peninsula in Mexico. Its shapes are based on a grid pattern and are covered in a finish called “chukum.” This is an ancient stucco that dates back to the Mayan period. In this way, Estudio MMX succeed in connecting past and present whilst also utilising an affordable local material. Its open arcade offers an array of spaces for a café, temporary and permanent exhibitions, offices and multifunctional areas for workshops and events.
Elizabeth Diller: The Broad, Los Angeles (2015)
Architect Elizabeth Diller (b. 1954) carefully designed The Broad to make it feel welcoming. The structure incorporates a unique “vault and a veil” system. The veil recalls honeycomb which surrounds the vault, the base of the design, to create unique atmosphere in the interior spaces. The institution was commissioned by philanthropists Eli and Edythe Broad, because they wanted to open their art collection to the public. The institution houses modern and contemporary artworks, by the likes of Jenny Holzer and Julie Mehretu.
Tadao Ando: He Art Museum, Guangdong (2022)
“The Chinese character 和 (HE) stands for ‘harmonious’ and indicates ‘balance’ and ‘good luck.” This is the ethos of the family-established non-profit museum. Pritzker Prize-winner Tadao Ando (b. 1941), who designed the space, was shortlisted for Cultural Building of the Year at the Dezeen Awards 2020. The cylindrical museum, which stands out for its layers of concentric rings, was founded by entrepreneur He Jianfeng and exhibits works by local and international contemporary artists.
Jean Nouvel: Louvre Abu Dhabi (2017)
The Louvre Abu Dhabi opened in 2017 after three years of construction. The most significant feature of the building is the geometric dome that spans 180 metres in diameter. Made from almost 8,000 metal stars, the structure recalls symbols of Arab architecture and filters the light. Besides the 23 gallery spaces that house the permanent collection, the museum has a 270-seat assembly hall. The structure is situated where sky means sand and sea, and is considered one of the modern urban wonders of the world.
Zaha Hadid: MAXXI, Rome (2009)
As Zaha Hadid (1950-2016) specified in the brief for MAXXI, the museum is: “not an object-container, but rather a campus for art.” The building officially opened to the public in 2010 and since has been hosting blockbuster exhibitions such as an Aldo Rossi retrospective, as well as displays of work by Thomas Hirschhorn and Sebastiano Salgado in 2021. The building is an active part of urban Rome, with its interior volumes imitating the exterior guidelines of the city. Through fluid spaces, fragmented geometry and multiple forms, the future-forward structure echoes the rhythms of modern life.
Frank Gehry: Guggenheim, Bilbao (1997)
Since its opening in 1997, Guggenheim Bilbao has become an icon and was named the ˝greatest museum of our time” by architect Philip Johnson (1906-2005). Part of a large-scale infrastructural project, the museum was intended to transform the Basque town of Bilbao into a cultural destination. It imitates the shapes of a boat and a fishing net, significant elements of local culture. The interior houses 19 gallery spaces; the largest features Richard Serra’s iconic snaking sculpture The Matter of Time (1994-2005).
Words: Fruzsina Vida
1. Iwan Baan
2. Alan Karchmer
3. JKMM Amos Rex. Photo Mika Huisman, Amos Rex
4. The Hepworth Wakefield. Photo: Iwan Baan
5. ©Dane Alonso
6. Logan DeBorde
7. Loegunn Lai
8. Juliana Malta
9. Kurt Cotoaga
10. Willian Justen de Vasconcellos