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street view of Cleveland Museum of Natural History, a two section building with curved white roof, large metal sculpture center

Placemaking Through Interpretive Space

Mark Morris

At all steps of the design process, from visioning to schematic design to groundbreaking, designers must work closely with project stakeholders to ensure that each design choice aligns with the overall vision for a space. In an interpretive space, where varying forms of media are incorporated to facilitate interpretation of the subject matter, a connection to the overall vision is vital.

Designers work closely with museum exhibit designers and curators to understand the themes and messages that should be conveyed not only in specific galleries and exhibitions, but in the space and architectural expression overall. Factors such as spatial relationships, natural light, sustainability, and accessibility are key components to take into consideration.

Ultimately, the designer’s role in placemaking through interpretive space is to create a functional, beautiful, and educational space for visitors, while also respecting the history, culture, and environment of the surrounding area. We have worked with the Cleveland Museum of Natural History since 1955, whose mission is to “inspire, through science and education, a passion for nature, the protection of natural diversity, the fostering of health, and leadership to a sustainable future.”

On our most recent project within CMNH, our team fulfilled this vision through intentional design that creates a sense of place and connection.

exterior view of Cleveland Museum of Natural History, a two section building with curved white roof, floor-to-ceiling windows, walkways, greenbelt, landscaping, trees

Cleveland Museum of Natural History, Cleveland, OH. Rendering © DLR Group.

A Learning Environment Shaped by Local Surroundings

To give an interpretive space a sense of place, designers involve local materials and motifs that reflect the history, culture, and natural elements of an area.

A major inspiration for the CMNH transformation was how the natural history of the site could inform the future. The design brings together the original museum building and its six expansions into a unified complex. The curving forms of glass fiber-reinforced concrete evoke local land formations. Thousands of years ago, periods of glaciation shaped Ohio and carved out the Great Lakes, and now these brilliant glaciers of long ago return in the design of the museum’s facade and ceiling expression.

The new additions flank the planetarium, a space that exists as both an astronomical instrument and an educational tool: it is a cylinder with a sloping edge fixed at the latitude of Cleveland (41.5 degrees North), which results in an elliptical roof whose longitudinal axis is aligned with polar north. Thanks to this design, the planetarium acts as a star finder, with the North Star always found at the tip of the roof.

Massive exterior glass walls wrap around the building to open sightlines between exhibits and the surrounding landscape, embodying the museum’s mission of revealing interdependencies between people and the world around them. The connection between the building and its surrounding landscape helps visitors consider their agency in their everyday environment.

street view of Cleveland Museum of Natural History, a two section building with curved white roof, large metal sculpture center

Cleveland Museum of Natural History, Cleveland, OH. Rendering © DLR Group.

Sustainability, Education, and a Global Perspective

Placemaking through interpretive space must prioritize connection. At the CMNH, the space will connect visitors to a real-life look into the future through sustainable design elements, prioritize connection between visitors through programs in new classrooms, and connect the local community to a global vision.

Sustainable design elements connect the museum to its environment while educating the public. The new additions use bird-friendly ­glazing to help preserve natural diversity by eliminating fatal bird collisions. The new addition’s roof expression allows for water collection and reuse after weather events. Strategically oriented passive solar shades on the addition’s curtain wall will aid in energy reduction and conservation.  Renewable energy sources such as solar arrays are visible from the new community green. Large windows allow visitors to experience the interplay between the natural world and the built environment.

interior of museum, people standing viewing exhibits, floor-to-ceiling windows provide natural light, two bald eagles exhibit, large dinosaur bones articulated, seating

Cleveland Museum of Natural History, Cleveland, OH. Rendering © DLR Group.

Investing in the Future

Part of the museum’s mission is to inspire learning and encourage leadership. In pursuit of this goal, the design incorporates a new education wing with three renovated classrooms with state-of-the-art technology, a new lunchroom, and an interactive gallery for young museum visitors. There are also virtual studios for distance learning. An updated auditorium will allow new types of media to be utilized for educational purposes including 3D movies. A focus on education and leadership will empower everyone to make informed decisions based on scientific facts, contributing to the overall health and well-being of the community.

interactive museum room with facilitator and children at work tables with web tablets, white room with overhead tube lighting

Cleveland Museum of Natural History, Cleveland, OH. Rendering © DLR Group.

A Local Focus

The design and operation of the CMNH is intentionally local, aiming to give Cleveland residents a fun, educational, and centralized space to expand their global perspective. The Visitor’s Hall will always be free of charge, displaying the museum’s most prized artifacts such as Lucy, Balto, and the Haplocanthosaurus known as Happy. By investing in their community, the museum helps local visitors gain a better understanding of their environment.

When the transformation of the Cleveland Museum of Natural History is complete in 2024, the city will have a design that firmly makes a place in and alongside the local environment without losing sight of its larger global community. It’s with these two perspectives held side by side that visitors will understand the urgency of caring for the future of our planet by connecting with those around them now.

Read more about our work with the Cleveland Museum of Natural History and Cultural+Performing Arts institutions around the world.

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Mark Morris
Connect with me to start a conversation ➔ Mark Morris, Design Leader


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