Expanding the museum since Bilbao: the influence of architecture and technology on museums

Rosemary Willink, University of Queensland, School of Architecture, Australia


This year marks the twentieth anniversary of the public opening of the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao, reigniting debates about museums and their potential to influence economic growth. Twenty years on, the sector has taken many lessons from this bold project. "If you build it they will come at least for a while," is a play on words by The Art Newspaper to describe the attendance trend line for recently built or enhanced museums. This will not, however, stem the tide of new museums being built by celebrity architects, driven by visitation figures and the likelihood of success when raising donations for new capital projects, as opposed to critical asset replacement or staff salaries. The Bilbao Effect has turned 20, and new infrastructures for cultural institutions are now emerging, such as Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa’s innovation hub "Mahuki," and the Australian Centre for Moving Image (ACMI) co-working space ACMI X. This paper will draw from a number of recent examples of risk-taking across the cultural sector—both public and private—to build a better understanding of the implications for museums adopting new business models, and what "core business" means today.

Keywords: Business Models, Expansion, Infrastructure, Strategy, Architecture, Funding

This year marks the twentieth anniversary of the public opening of the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao, reigniting debates about museum expansions and their potential to influence economic growth. The sector has taken many lessons from this bold project, giving rise to new types of museum expansions, with the ultimate ambition to boost attendance. The Art Newspaper’s tongue-in-cheek headline “If you build it they will come at least for a while” (Halperin, 2016), describes this attendance trend for recently built or renovated museums. Together with the proliferation of new museums and renovations, technology-based initiatives are being developed to enhance visitor experience, both physically and online, pushing the notion of expansion far beyond the physical surface area of the museum. At the same time, these initiatives are changing the relationship between museum and visitor, raising a number of questions about the spatial and technological organization of the museum in relation to visitor engagement.

In broad terms, this paper aims to explore the relationship between museum architecture, technology, and cultural infrastructure as part of the four-year research project “Is Architecture Art? A history of categories, concepts and recent practices,” a collaborative project between the University of Queensland and Ghent University, funded by the Australia Research Council and the University of Queensland (http://www.isarchitectureart.com). Initiated in 2016, the aim of the project is to investigate how recent developments in contemporary visual art and cultural infrastructure bear on the concept of architecture as it is understood in the wider community of cultural workers and audiences (Holden & Macarthur, 2016). Specifically, this paper is divided into two parts. The subject of the first is devoted to how museum expansion has diversified since the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao, and the contributing factors for this expansion. The second will investigate the relationship between museum expansion and technology, and draw on the example of ACMI X, a new initiative developed by the Australian Centre of the Moving Image (ACMI) in Melbourne, to understand how this relationship has evolved.

 In 1997, the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao opened to the public, fundamentally changing the perception, both inside and outside the industry, of cultural infrastructure and its potential for economic revitalization. While this example may seem outdated and the novelty worn off, the impact of this particular museum on the Basque economy has not, and is worthy of attention in order to understand the current context for museum expansion. In the early 1990s Bilbao’s economy was not in great shape. While it was and remains today the headquarters for Spain’s leading banks, its steelworks had shut down and its heavy industry was in decline. Meanwhile, Spain’s other major cities were thriving: Madrid was chosen as the Council of Europe’s Cultural Capital of Europe (1992); Barcelona was staging the Olympic Games (1992); and in 1992, Seville inaugurated Spain’s first high-speed train. (Klingmann, 2007)

Surrounded by other national examples of economic stimulation, in 1991 the Basque government approached the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation to participate in a wide range of initiatives that would reposition Bilbao as a city of culture and services. Incidentally, this proposal fit neatly with the Guggenheim’s long-term development plan to establish satellite museums throughout the world (Ellis, 2016). In 1992, renowned architect Frank Gehry, awarded the Pritzker Prize three years prior, was appointed to design what would become the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao: the cultural flagship for the Basque region.

In the article “Beyond Bilbao: Rethinking Flagship Cultural Development and Planning in Three California Cities,” Carl Grodach (2010) defines flagship cultural projects as “…institutions that are generally over one hundred thousand square feet each, among a city’s major cultural attractions, and are intended to attract development to the immediate area and positively affect the city’s image.” As one type of museum expansion, the success of the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao is dependent upon a range of factors centering on the Basque community and government support. Since 1997, many attempts have been made by governments to replicate “the Bilbao effect,” and only a few have achieved the same degree of success, both in terms of economic impact and public response. This is largely due to the misguided assumption that a flagship building is the determining factor in achieving positive economic outcomes through arts-based initiatives (Westbury, 2015).

The second type of museum expansion explored in this paper comes in the form of renovation, addition, or extension by a recognized architect or “starchitect” who will draw media attention and corporate or private funding for its construction. While this is not unlike “the Bilbao effect,” in which architecture is leveraged for its branding potential, the scale and intended outcomes differ. Unlike the Bilbao’s coordinated approach between the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation and the Basque Government to stimulate the regional economy and fulfill the Guggenheim’s global branding strategy, this second type of expansion by an individual institution is largely shaped by pre-existing cultural infrastructure or lack thereof.

This type of expansion is also driven by the potential boost of onsite visitors. Like it or not, for the large majority of museums, attendance is the key performance indicator and universal benchmark for the industry. A survey of almost 500 art museums by The Art Newspaper found that those who had undergone an expansion between 2007 and 2014 saw a significant increase in attendance. This same survey found that after the opening hype, visitor numbers were subdued but remained well above the attendance figures recorded in the years prior to the expansion (Halperin, 2016).

The proliferation of new museums and extensions is not a new phenomenon and continues to be at an all-time high, however, research and analysis into the prolonged sustainability of these construction projects and their return-on-investment is limited. According to Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) CEO Michael Govan, for every one hundred million dollars spent on expansion, the museum should attract 100,000 to 120,000 more visitors (Halperin, 2016). This particular ratio raises questions in relation to the scale and core business of the museum, and to the sector’s somewhat unhealthy reliance on attendance as the key performance indicator. For example, to continue to meet expectations, must attendance increase year-on-year? What models for expansion beyond the physical are available to the museum sector? However, before exploring this in greater detail, it is critical to address the often contradictory relationship between museum attendance and individual and societal expectations.

As long as attendance remains the sector’s key performance indicator, museums must balance the need to accommodate large numbers of visitors with the expectation of creating intimate spaces to contemplate works of art, and many believe the solution lies in technology. In response to questions regarding LACMA’s renovation project, Govan explained that technology would enable an experience that is at once intimate and inclusive, to which the highly regarded architect and mastermind behind the renovation Peter Zumthor added, “a private palace for everybody” (Little, 2016). The renovation project at LACMA is scheduled to be completed in 2023.

While attendance remains the ultimate measure for a museum’s effectiveness, it is important to note other contributing factors for museum expansion. For example, to accommodate a growing museum collection (both in number and size of the objects), to encourage donations of artworks for which the museum is priced out of the market, and to upgrade museum infrastructure, both physical and technological, to be in line with individual and societal expectations. This paper deals specifically with how museum expansion has evolved and diversified as a result of integrated physical and technological infrastructure.

The second part of this paper will address the relationship between museum expansion and technology in order to better understand how architecture influences perceptions of what core business means for a museum; or, as curator Wouter Davidts succinctly states: “Buildings do not only give shape and identity to institutions, they also provide them with a material framework to purport their program.” (Davidts, 2009). Corresponding to the rise of iconic contemporary buildings for museums in the past two decades, the number of significant technology projects has also increased, both in scale and sophistication. More often than not, these projects coincide with major capital development projects, whether these are renovations, restorations, or new buildings. For example, the “o,” an iPod touch reconfigured by the Museum of Modern Art in Hobart, Tasmania, for visitors to interact with and navigate the underground museum; the Pen by the Cooper Hewitt Design Museum, which was produced during a complete guttering and renovation of the landmark Andrew Carnegie Mansion on Fifth Avenue in New York City (Chan & Cope, 2015); and SFMOMA’s API and app, which were developed during the planning and construction of the new building extension by the internationally renowned architectural practice Snøhetta (Winesmith & Carey, 2014).

While this is not the only way to realize a major technological transformation in the museum, based on recent examples, it would seem to be the most effective. This is not to dismiss the challenges faced by ambitious technology projects; in fact, simultaneously dealing with architectural plans would suggest further complexity and opens up questions regarding the potential for technological expansion. Where is the line drawn between museum architecture and technological infrastructure? Why, in order to fund technology projects, must there be a spatial reconfiguration of the museum? Or alternatively, can technological transformations occur in the museum without an architectural intervention? This paper aims to explore these questions, and, building on the ideas of Ross Parry, Program Director of Museum Studies at the University of Leicester and Keller Easterling, architect, writer, and professor at Yale University, re-contextualize museum technology projects within the broader debates of museum expansion.

In “The End of the Beginning: Normativity in the Postdigital Museum,” Parry reports on the normative management of digital technology in museums based on several institutions in the United Kingdom. Parry describes the normative digital in museums today as a localized construction where “digital media has become part of the body of the museum—expected, routine, integral.” (Parry, 2013). What is interesting about this trend toward normative digital in museums is that it is a localized construction, influenced not only by work-place culture, but by the physical and technological infrastructure unique to the institution.

A recent example of normativity in the postdigital museum is ACMI X, the co-working space established by ACMI. Launched in April 2016, ACMI X is the first collaborative working space established by a cultural institution in Australia, providing creative industry professionals and organizations office space together with the operational teams and the Melbourne office of the National Film and Sound Archive. ACMI X offers two types of memberships: resident membership is the permanent option for individuals and teams that need a regular office location in the city for 660 AUD per month, and industry membership is 30 AUD per month and an additional 39 AUD per day for access to a desk and the facilities of ACMI X (ACMI X, 2016).

In an interview, ACMI Director and CEO Katrina Sedgwick explained that when the lease of ACMI’s Oliver Lane offices was ending, it was an opportunity to rethink ACMI’s role as a 21st Century Museum, saying “we pitched the idea by asking why don’t we bring in the people who we would work with at the end point of their work and work alongside them throughout the process?” (Shanti, 2016). In other words, ACMI X performs a dual role of diversifying the institution’s revenue streams while repositioning itself in relation to Melbourne’s community of creatives; both physically, by sharing office space, and strategically, through leveraging ACMI’s inherent resources to benefit audiences and industry. For example, members have opportunities to engage directly with ACMI’s audiences (over 1.45 million people visit ACMI every year) on prototypes or for audience research (ACMI, 2016, 2). All the while this exposes ACMI’s own staff to emerging technologies and a cross-section of industries that intersect with their own—marketing, Web design, entertainment, etc.

Working with commercial enterprises, particularly those specializing in technology, is no new phenomenon for cultural institutions. Public/private partnerships where both parties collaborate working toward a shared goal have replaced the more traditional model of director corporate sponsorship. SFMOMA and Detour, a San Francisco based start-up, who together developed the SFMOMA app, is just one example of this kind of mutually beneficial partnership. Cultural institutions have been experimenting in this space for years: so what makes ACMI X unique?

ACMI is located in Federation Square, while the ACMI X office is a ten-minute walk down St. Kilda Rd, inside the Australian Ballet Centre building, which is part of the Southbank arts precinct where many of Melbourne’s arts organizations are also located. While this delineation between front of house and back of house may seem typical of the kind of separation in museum buildings, e.g. the “staff-access only” sign or the museum dock entrance, it presents a very different type of expansion where boundaries are not entirely fixed. Not only is it expanding in the traditional sense beyond its museum site at Federation Square, but it is extending through networks of screen professionals on a daily basis. According to Sedgwick “The reality of this collaborative potential can only be realized by enabling proximity.” (Merritt, 2016). There is enough distance to allow for new modes of thinking, both critically and commercially, about culture, yet they are close enough for the institution to reap the benefits of its entrepreneurial arm. Another way of looking at the role of ACMI X is as a catalyst for a different kind of museum, closer to an open-source platform where the distinctions between audience and museum, user and maker, are in constant flux.

This paper has explored two types of expansion since the mid 1990s—the satellite museum and its potential to impact a regional economy, and the museum “face-lift” motivated in large part by the promise of increased visitor numbers. Both types are typically designed by “starchitects” whose daring designs push disciplinary boundaries; is it art or is it architecture? Until recently, the significant investment and corresponding innovation in museum technology was overshadowed by iconic museum architecture. However, these initiatives in technology have become an important factor in museum expansions, driven by the normative management of technology in museums and parallel shifts in visitor expectations. Such a prospect forces us to broaden our understanding of museum expansion, and by extension, rethink the relationship between architecture, technology, and the institution.

This confluence of architecture and technology within the museum is not a new phenomenon; however, historically this relationship has been mediated by the institution through exhibitions, online collections, maker-spacers, and programs. Today, visitors are establishing their own terms of engagement with the museum through personal devices, augmented and virtual reality, and the internet of things, all examples of where traditional distinctions between “digital” and “non-digital” have fallen away. Thus museums are forced to critically reimagine what core business means when it is no longer just the building but also the virtual and physical spaces where museum visitors can connect.

This broader understanding of the role of architecture has been masterfully explored by Easterling. In her book Extrastatecraft, she observes how architecture today creates what she calls “infrastructure space,” where “information resides in invisible, powerful activities that determine how objects and content are organized and circulated.” (Easterling, 2014). Applied to the museum context, these invisible powerful activities are the protocols and systems that inform decisions on privacy, conditions of entry, sponsorship, diversity, etc. Museum governance is increasingly determined not by the museum but by those who write the software for the museum. Seen through the lens where space itself is treated as information, initiatives like ACMI X could be understood as forms of museum activism, in which the museum engages with the systems and the ideas that challenge its own relevance in a society where culture is consumed on demand. By working alongside professionals engaged in more competitive fields than the museum sector, ACMI is exposed to the debates and the decisions that impact their core business. The ACMI X initiative is only possible when the notion of core business at a museum can be productively questioned and the concept of museum expansion broadened to include both architecture and technology, or as Easterling describes, “…treating space itself as information.” (Easterling, 2014, Introduction).

The 20th anniversary of the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao is an opportunity to look at how museum expansion has diversified over two decades. In particular, how the economic, political and social forces establish and shape cultural infrastructure. This paper has explored two common types of museum expansions in order to shed light on the corresponding developments in technology which until recently were often overshadowed by the museum’s architectural transformation. However, the recent initiative, ACMI X, suggests an alternative approach to museum expansion that treats space as information, combining and subsuming architecture and technology within the museum to establish new ways of working. While this is not the only model for museum expansion that challenges the status quo, it does call into question the notion of what core business means to a museum, and makes a strong case for a broader understanding of museum expansion.


My sincere thanks to Prof. John Macarthur, Dr. Susan Holden, Dr. Ashley Paine, Prof. Wouter Davidts, and Annalise Varghese for your advice and support as I bridge my interests in museums, technology, and architecture. I am grateful to the Australian Research Council and the University of Queensland for funding the Discovery Project, “Is Architecture Art? A history of categories, concepts and recent practices,” from which this paper emerged. I am also grateful to friends and former colleagues working in museums who continue to inspire my research in this field.


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Cite as:
. "Expanding the museum since Bilbao: the influence of architecture and technology on museums." MW17: MW 2017. Published January 11, 2017. Consulted .

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