Museum Musings: Architecture = Experience

What is/are the purpose(s) of museums? What about the shell in which the museum is housed? That structure is considered by many the largest item of the institution’s collection! For more than a century, the world’s treasures were laid out for the public in former palaces and purpose-built temple-like buildings,  all proclaimed the reverence with which their contents should be held.

New York City – The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Change to the built structure as we approached the more recent “turn of the century” – that is from the 20th to 21st, not the 19th to 20th centuries. Reaching into the third decade of this newer century, museum buildings have taken new democratic forms as museums’ goals and proposed audiences have also been democratized, or as in the jargon of the day – decolonized.

These past few months in my personal Hotel California, I’ve been catching up with my magazine reading in between zooms, streaming movies and other programs (I think I’m caught up with the British Baking Show), and library books. A recent, October New Yorker, included an informative and insightful article about the architect of the new building for the LACMA (Los Angeles County Museum of Art), a self-proclaimed encyclopedic museum (https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2020/10/12/the-iconoclast-remaking-los-angeles-most-important-museum). Lots of heated discussion has been published over the past few years about the architectural changes ahead for this museum. LACMA’s goals reflect current approaches to historically and culturally diverse collections; as the largest art museum in the West it strives to inspire creativity and dialogue and connect with cultures from ancient times to the present day.

The New Yorker article and reflections of what the makes the museum’s physical envelope reminded me of a Korean museum experience a few years ago at Jeju Island. My hosts generously arranged a three-day get-away there after an intense teaching and speaking schedule. Somewhere in the island’s promotional material that I picked up at the airport I read about the museum at Biotopia, a collection of villas and town houses, and was intrigued. Jeju is a remarkable island rich in heritage museums as well as collections assembled to attract curious visitors and, I suppose, Instagramers! My friend had never heard of this museum, but knew about where it was located. Actually, we were staying in an on-site villa there.

Biotopia is promoted to “blend themselves into the curves of volcanic cones and the topography and the environment … preserving the ecological park” in which they are sited.

Biotopia, walls made of local lava rock

We started our third and final day on the island with an elegant Korean breakfast at their PODO Hotel.

Amazing and delicious breakfast

The Museum at Biotopia, designed by architect Itami Jun, is four individual small buildings. Each was designed on the theme of Water, Wind, and Stone, the most prominent elements of Jeju. Rather than exhibiting art works, the museum is based on the idea of “space for meditation.” Conceptually, this museum is where architecture becomes an artwork by experiencing nature.

Our visit to the museum was self-guided; we walked from building to building through intermittent drizzle. Now, visitors take guided tours. First was the Water Museum – a space where the movement of nature is felt as the water’s reflection changes according to the movement of the sun.

Water Museum, exterior
Water Museum, interiof

The Wind Museum is an elongated wooden building into which you walk and sit on a stone object and listen to the sound of the wind passing through the cracks of the wooden walls.

Can you hear the wind?

A stone sculpture of an oversized hand holding a peach greets visitors to The Seok Museum or Stone Museum.

Stone Museum, exterior

Finally, the building of the Duson Museum is an abstract form of praying hands.

Looking at the Duson from the Stone Museum

Duson Museum, Interior

And here, we had an entirely distinctive concept of museum. We were and wonderstruck and drawn to the meditative spaces each building offered.

One other remarkable building on the Biotopia property is the Church of the Sky, also designed by Itami Jun. Air and light are dynamic components of this remarkable building

Church of the Sky

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