Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Cloverleaf floorplans are ideal

The National Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City has joined the ranks of my favourite museums. Of course, the collection is vast and the stories it has to tell are unique and powerful, but the Museum ranks in my Top Ten because the building supports the visitor experience in every way.

The Museum is built around a central courtyard which the galleries open onto. A fountain and a pond are the only features in the stone-paved courtyard.

Central courtyard of Museum of Anthropology

This simple layout allows a cloverleaf pattern of circulation wherein visitors keep returning to a central space.  The cloverleaf pattern is an ideal circulation path for museums because visitors can orient very easily and they have maximum flexibility to choose what they want to see. Each time they return to the centre, they can either go to the next gallery, or head off across the courtyard to explore any of the other galleries. Best of all, the cloverleaf path minimises the need to backtrack because the path returns to the central hub (hopefully services like cafe and toilets are near the hub).

In the cloverleaf circulation pattern, the central core is close to the main entrance/exit and pathways within galleries start from the core and return to it.

Cloverleaf circulation pattern

Of course, clover has three leaves, but museums can have as many leaves/galleries as they like. The floorplan given to visitors at the National Museum of Anthropology shows 12 galleries opening to the central courtyard.

Museum of Anthropology Floorplan

The floorplan also shows a second level of exhibition spaces that access the courtyard via staircases. Indeed, the floorplan looks quite complex. However, my experience was that the layout was very simple, just like the three leaf clover diagram. The Museum is huge and could easily occupy visitors for two or three days, but the layout was dazzlingly simple and easy to follow even for visitors with no Spanish.

Some Australian museums use the cloverleaf pattern for circulation. The Melbourne Museum was designed with a central spine with galleries opening to it on two levels. The Australian War Memorial has been extended (and extended!) around a central hub that gives access to the WWI galleries, WWII galleries, lower level and the Victoria Cross gallery. The Art Gallery of NSW has been extended (and extended!) down the hill using a central spine of open spaces and escalators.

After being immersed in WWI dioramas at AWM or the Western Art at AGNSW, the visitor returns to the familiar space of the central core. Here, they re-orientate and decide what to do next. Downstairs? Coffee?

I live in hope that one day I might see the National Museum of Australia rearranged so that the courtyard (so called Garden of Australian Dreams) becomes a central hub with a new main entrance and direct access to all the galleries from the hub.  The current layout sends visitors on a seemingly endless path that winds around and crosses various levels. It is confusing and disorienting for visitors and commits the cardinal sin of wayfinding by making visitors backtrack to get to the exit, toilets and cafe. Only those with great stamina and who want to see everything can avoid backtracking by making the full circuit to the First Australians gallery to return to the entrance/exit through the outdoor courtyard.

Mexico City's Museum of Anthropology opened in 1971. The excellence of the original design is evident in that 40 years later it still functions beautifully with  no need for renovation.

Posted by Gillian Savage

1 comment:

  1. Hi Gillian,

    I agree with you about the principles of a 'cloverleaf' pattern, which I have also heard called the 'hub and spoke' model.

    It maximises choice and works for visitors who move at different paces through exhibitions - they don't need to backtrack and there is an obvious meeting point for the streakers, strollers and studiers to regroup :-)