It was a busy day at the University's Museum of Art. Students were filing in and out as tour guides led their groups through the galleries. Visitors from all ages could be seen wandering the museum. Young kids on tours were running through the hallways trying to keep up with their groups, students were typing away at their computers and middle aged and elderly adults were walking freely and admiring the art. From my point of view, sitting at a bench by the gift store, I could see all of this, and I could see the students who walked past the building on their way to class. Some of them walked determinedly, with their gaze forward and at a quick pace. Most of them, however, averted their eyes.
The UMMA is known as Ann Arbor’s meeting place for the arts. It “contains a comprehensive collection that represents more than 150 years at the university, with nearly 19,000 works of art that span cultures, eras, and media.” Works by artists like Pablo Picasso and Claude Monet are permanently exhibited in the museum galleries, but it also hosts around four or five travelling exhibitions every year. From ancient artifacts to modern paintings and digital media, art in all of its mediums can be admired in the museum. The space provided by the UMMA is unparalleled by other buildings on campus. There are few other buildings at the University that are versatile enough to hold such a wide array of events and attract such a diverse group of visitors.
Despite its versatility and prestige, walking through the UMMA may seem a scary undertaking for students and community members who know little about art. The UMMA has a reputation among students as being a place designed only for a specific audience. When looking at the building itself, it is not hard to imagine that art history majors, Stamps professors, art amateurs and museum experts are the intended consumers of the art inside. On one side of the building — the original wing — the neoclassical style architecture appears somber and heavy. On the other side — the new wing — the design is modern, sleek and has an airy feeling given by the wall-sized windows. The dichotomy between these buildings is sometimes confusing and hard to decipher for visitors.
To join into the conversation between the two sides of the UMMA, it is important to understand the history and ideas behind the creation of both wings. On May 11, 1910, the building that we know as the original wing of the UMMA was inaugurated. Then known as Alumni Memorial Hall, this opulent building was the product of “a desire to honor those University men who had fallen in the Civil War.” one hundred years, a renovation and an addition later, the building stands tall on the corner of State Street and South University. With its four grand pillars, bronze doors and stone exteriors, the original building is a quintessential image of a memorial hall.
The solemn mood exhibited by this building can be off-putting to many visitors, especially when seen in contrast with the design of the new wing. Inaugurated in 2009, the new wing of the UMMA was created to look and function as an art museum. The boxy, simple architecture of the new wing invites visitors and allows for art to spill from within the walls into the paths of passersby. The distinction between the two was not accidental or a product of chance. According to David Lawrence, the communications manager at the UMMA, “when people saw the old building they didn’t think art museum; they saw something more serious and less approachable.” The UMMA addition was deliberately designed in a more transparent, less somber way in an attempt to attract more visitors, to expand gallery space and to make the art housed in the museum more visible and public. In addition to the outdoor construction being designed in a contemporary and more transparent way, the interior of the museum, according to Lawrence, was “built as a wandering museum.”
The stark difference seen on the façades of these two wings becomes more interesting as the wandering journey through the museum starts. In the midst of the chitter-chatter and flows of people entering and exiting the galleries, I was getting a private tour. I was guided by a staff member, and even though he said that the point of entering the museum was to wander, I was taken on the correct route through the UMMA. We started at the old wing with Western art, and we ended at the vertical gallery — which displayed some of the University’s biggest modern paintings.
When we were on the highest floor of the vertical gallery, I could see the African art gallery, the photography gallery and the contemporary art gallery. Even though I could see most of the galleries displayed in the new wing, the path to any of these places wasn’t clear. My guide effortlessly cruised through and took me to every gallery without a problem. I was kind of disappointed that I did not get to discover the museum by myself, but throughout my tour I started picking up bits and pieces of other people’s experiences.
My guide was quickly divulging every fact about the history, design and most famous art pieces in the UMMA, but the rest of the visitors did not have this advantage. Rather than being promptly walked by a guide, most of them stood in front of and questioned the art pieces for as long as they wanted. I was getting all of the information, but they were getting the adventure. Quietly but in a determined manner, I could see how each of the visitors I observed were carving their own space within the galleries. Some were adamantly admiring the photography, and others were interested in the Picasso pieces. The maize within the museum allowed every visitor to adventure and create their own personalized tour of the galleries, and, in that way, the mezzanines and four-foot-high paintings seemed less intimidating.
The experience of visiting the UMMA cannot be described without talking about the design and layout of the building. Walking through the galleries and exploring is directly affected by the layout of the space. With the wandering museum design, visitors at the UMMA can take advantage of the secluded rooms and nooks to make the space their own and consume the art in their own terms.