State Of The Art

Museums Embrace Innovation With Structures That Make A Statement—Inside And Out


The ARoS art museum in Aarhus, Denmark



Exhibits alone don't command massive crowds. In a world full of buzzy next big things vying for the attention of cultural jet-setters and the general public alike, the onus is on museums to craft a building that makes a statement. And they need to make sure the experience inside is just as stunning.

The upshot? Museum project teams are boldly exploring new turf. In Cape Town, South Africa, a project team transformed a grain silo—once the country's tallest building—into the Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art Africa (MOCAA).

Other institutions are turning to tech. The American Museum of Natural History in the U.S. is launching augmented reality projects designed to allow more active engagement with the museum's specimens, data sets or, in one case, the inner workings of a shark. The museum has also deployed a robot developed by Suitable Technologies, Palo Alto, California, USA. Forget the old-school audio tour guides: This machine allows visitors in the Hall of Northwest Coast Indians to virtually connect with curators and artists from the Haida Gwaii Museum in British Columbia, Canada. “It provides people with historical context for the objects in the collection and brings their contemporary indigenous culture alive as well,” explains Christa Cliver, director of education business development at the tech company. And in Xi'an, China, Emperor Qinshihuang's Mausoleum Site Museum and web company Baidu announced a joint project to digitize the museum's famous Terracotta Army, with 3-D images incorporated into mobile apps.



“The key is not only what the building looks like, but what the person who enters that building experiences.”

—Mark Noble, V&A Waterfront, Cape Town, South Africa

Given the dizzying array of options, project and program managers must weigh the need to create avant-garde experiences that draw big crowds against the cold, hard realities of budgets and schedules.

The Louvre in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, for example, promises to enchant those who enter—if it opens this year as planned. Composed of 55 buildings that appear to be floating on water, the US$650 million project is already five years late.

It's a delicate balance—and making the wrong call can reduce a cultural masterpiece to just another mundane building, says Frederik Schou-Hansen, associate partner and director at Schmidt Hammer Lassen Architects, Aarhus, Denmark.

“That's the trickiest part—and the most exciting part—as a project manager, because you are dealing with something else, not just the budget, schedule, deliverables and quality,” says Mr. Schou-Hansen, a veteran of multiple expansion projects for the ARoS art museum in Aarhus. “You have to deliver a project that is a piece of art.”

V&A Waterfront, the property owner and developer behind MOCAA, had a vision: It was convinced that with the right redesign, a historic grain complex built in 1921 could morph into an international icon. Embracing the beauty of the building's massive concrete grain silos, the team got to work on the ZAR500 million project in 2010, carving the museum from the 42 tubular silos and connecting it to the adjacent elevator tower. Alongside the facility, the team simultaneously developed the rest of the new mixed-use Silo district, constructing offices, luxury residences and a hotel.

A rendering of the interior of the Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art Africa



“We worked closely with the museum's executive director to ensure the maximum value was extracted from every rand spent.”

—Mark Noble

In a symbolic nod to the crop that once drove the region's economy, the central atrium recalls the shape of a single corn kernel. And hollowed-out grain storage cylinders show off the facility's structure and machinery, encouraging visitors to imagine how the silos used to work, says Mark Noble, senior development manager at V&A Waterfront in Cape Town.

“The key is not only what the building looks like, but what the person who enters that building experiences,” he says. “What is going to be memorable for them? What are they going to go home and talk about?”

At the same time, the team had to keep a close eye on costs. When the budget was approved, the exchange rate for the South African rand was 8-to-1 with the U.S. dollar. In the middle of the project, it weakened to 16-to-1. That put a lot of pressure on the team, which needed to import construction materials, to get creative to complete the museum as planned.

It helped that from the start, says Mr. Noble, the team focused its budget on the design's signature elements: the atrium, pillowed facades and glass elevator shafts, as well as a cutting-edge gallery climate control system.

“We kept the galleries simple, as that's where the art's going to be,” he says. “We spent the money on those key features that make it memorable for anyone who comes and visits the building.”

When the rand's value sank, value engineering informed each decision, allowing the team to cut costs without losing some of the museum's most important elements.

“We worked closely with the museum's executive director to ensure the maximum value was extracted from every rand spent,” Mr. Noble says.


Museum projects require a flexible mindset to ensure the end product doesn't miss the creative mark, says Mr. Schou-Hansen. On his first ARoS project, for instance, his team had to find a way to manage unexpected engineering costs that arose when it discovered a massive glass installation by Danish-Icelandic artist Olafur Eliasson couldn't be installed on the museum's rooftop as planned. The team's first instinct was to identify ways to make the exhibit smaller and simpler.

“We looked at the contract in a traditional way, as a project manager and as an architect, to deliver the result on time and within budget,” he says. “But we were almost losing the artist in this process.”

Instead, the team decided to approach Mr. Eliasson on his terms—and put his vision at the center of the plan. Ultimately, that required doubling the project's initial €4 million price tag. To gain additional funding from the foundation footing the bill for the piece, the project team and Mr. Eliasson worked together to make a case for increasing the budget to the steering committee. Once the funding was in place, representatives from the city of Aarhus, which owns the museum, accepted.


Art Meets Life

Slated for a September opening, the new Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art Africa (MOCAA) aims to reinvigorate the waterfront area of Cape Town, South Africa. But it's just one project in a larger mixed-used redevelopment program built around the city's historic grain silo, which closed in 2001. That meant the V&A Waterfront team was juggling work on the 10,000-square-meter (107,639-square-foot) museum with seven other projects:

A No. 1 Silo: 18,500-square-meter (199,132-square-foot) office building completed August 2013

B No. 2 Silo: 31-unit luxury residential development completed August 2013

C The Silo Hotel: Luxury 28-room hotel by The Royal Portfolio, located above the Zeitz MOCAA, completed March 2017

D No. 3 Silo: 79-unit residential development completed May 2017

E No. 4 Silo: 4,000-square-meter (43,056-square-foot) Virgin Active Classic Health Club completed October 2016

F No. 5 Silo: 14,500-square-meter (156,077-square-foot) commercial office completed June 2016

G No. 6 Silo: 252-room Radisson Red hotel opening September 2017

“No one could live with a situation where the famous artist could walk out on this project,” Mr. Schou-Hansen says. “So we joined forces to present things as one unit.”

Mr. Schou-Hansen now makes it a point to look for engineering and construction risks early on. He found some during a project to expand the museum into the hill that one-third of the structure is already built within. Because it's located near a river, Mr. Schou-Hansen and his team have worked closely with a specialized contractor to mitigate risks related to water flowing through the soil. The solution they settled on will cost more than a traditional dig-out, so to avoid a budget crunch during execution, the team is focused on building buy-in—and donor support—before breaking ground.

A rendering of the new Postal Museum. Below, the Mail Rail exhibit in London, England


The ARoS art museum in Aarhus, Denmark


“It's a matter of having the right finances in place,” he says. “So we made a construction animation to send to potential donors and funds.”

The Zeitz MOCAA project team also needed to tread carefully around project site constraints. The silo cylinders were slip-formed in one continuous pour, so the team had to do significant feasibility testing before it could slice into century-old concrete.

“The minute you mess with the horizontal reinforcements or break the structural integrity of the tubular silo matrix, the building becomes structurally impaired and it's going to fall over,” Mr. Noble says.

To secure the building's structural integrity, the team cast new concrete inside each bin, tied each piece together and connected them all to a new floor slab, essentially constructing a new building within the old one.

But landing on that framework took some serious R&D. Fortunately, the site came with “some sacrificial structure that we could mess around with,” he explains. So the team spent a year experimenting, trying out cutting techniques on the tubes slated to be demolished and testing construction theories to determine the proper sequence for the renovation.


“You have to deliver a project that is a piece of art.”

—Frederik Schou-Hansen, Schmidt Hammer Lassen Architects, Aarhus, Denmark


Even the best planning won't necessarily protect a museum project from delays.

After 13 years of planning and construction, the Postal Museum was finally slated to open in London, England in July. The first version of the project, launched in 2004, folded as part of a larger program cut by sponsor Royal Mail Group Ltd. The second attempt failed in 2009 when project funding fell through. When the last reboot began in 2011, the team spent the first two years focused primarily on securing project funding and support.

“We signed something like 18 different legal agreements governing the way the project would be funded going forward and our rights to exploit certain intellectual property from our stakeholders,” says Tim Ellison, deputy director of the museum. “That took an awfully long time, but it gave us a really important platform on which to build the rest of the project.”



“Make sure every decision that you make, every rand or dollar or pound that you spend, is put toward that memorable visitor experience.”

—Mark Noble

While securing funding for the core museum through this process, the team realized it would need to raise additional capital if it wanted to showcase the most captivating feature of the new project site: the historic letter delivery rail line lying dormant underground.

Developed in the 1920s, the driverless Mail Rail train system was a major feat of engineering for its time. Yet few Londoners even know it existed. Mr. Ellison and his team wanted to change that—but they didn't want to bite off more than they could chew. So the team created multiple project plans that reflected different final budget numbers.

The uncertainty couldn't continue forever, however.

“We got to a point in the design process where we realized our designs were suboptimal because we weren't sure of our funding situation,” Mr. Ellison says.

Although they didn't start construction until all necessary funds were in hand, the team committed to the full €26 million project plan in late 2015. The museum now features a ride that takes visitors down to the original underground depot space and train platforms, a central attraction that Mr. Ellison believes will bring in a wider audience.

“There's nothing else really like it,” he says.

And that's what every museum project team should be driving for, Mr. Noble says. “You have to make sure every decision that you make, every rand or dollar or pound that you spend, is put toward that memorable visitor experience.”


Making History

A fast-track approach helped accommodate changing requirements on a landmark museum project.

The Smithsonian Institution is the world's largest museum and research organization, home to a vast array of artifacts from across eras and cultures. But until last year, its collection of museums on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., USA did not represent the country's largest racial minority population.

The Smithsonian's newest addition, the National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC) now fills that gap. But the high-profile project faced schedule pressure from the start.


“We took the Smithsonian through a series of risk assessments and educated them on various delivery methods that would help them get to their goal.”

—Lisa Anders, McKissack & McKissack, Washington, D.C., USA

When the Smithsonian brought architecture, engineering and construction management firm McKissack & McKissack on board in 2008, the design competition was still in progress and the museum had a target opening date of November 2015. Right away, McKissack project leaders knew there wasn't enough time to deliver the US$540 million project using the standard design-bid-build method the Smithsonian was accustomed to, says Lisa Anders, vice president of business development at McKissack in Washington, D.C., and project executive for the NMAAHC.

“We took the Smithsonian through a series of risk assessments and educated them on various delivery methods that would help them get to their goal,” Ms. Anders says.

The company held a panel discussion that included public-sector and institutional project owners who had used alternative methods like fast-tracking and guaranteed maximum price construction. The education push paid off—and the Smithsonian signed off on taking a new fasttrack approach.

The National Museum of African American History and Culture, Washington, D.C., USA



The team divided the project into eight packages designed and developed in tandem. The first revolved around site utilities. Civil engineers designed them, and the Smithsonian selected a general contractor to begin constructing and putting them in place before the team even knew the building's final design.

“We had an initial concept design and the programming document—that was all,” says Charlie Yetter, national operations manager at McKissack & McKissack and senior project manager for the NMAAHC. “But that let us get started with work that we had to get done in advance of the final design.”

At the same time, the museum's curators were identifying and acquiring the artifacts that were the institution's raison d’être—like pieces of a slave ship hull and a plane flown by the Tuskegee Airmen, a group of African-American World War II pilots. As the team moved forward with construction while also working to accommodate changing exhibit requirements, deadlines loomed.


When the team was digging the foundation, for example, an exhibit designer realized the history gallery would need to be lowered an additional 20 feet (6 meters). That change required the team to rework the schedule, setting its sights on a new September 2016 opening date. All other shifts were then absorbed into this revised schedule.

“Sometimes the curators found huge artifacts that required us to change our construction logistics—the sequencing of work—and redesign the space to allow that artifact to best fit the story and the flow of the museum,” Ms. Anders says.

When the museum acquired a 100-ton Pullman rail car, for instance, the team had to find a way to bring it into the museum's basement before the construction of walls, floors and ceilings made the task impossible. To get the job done, the team coordinated with the National Park Service, the Secret Service, the local government and the FBI to shut down streets surrounding the National Mall.

The team prepared for this type of unknown from the outset by setting aside both contingencies and allowances for unanticipated additional tasks, says Mr. Yetter. “We already knew the design hadn't been completed, so we held money to cover those issues,” he says.

When the museum opened in September 2016, it delivered the emotional punch the Smithsonian was looking for.

When Mr. Yetter took a group of young students on a tour, he thought they'd be drawn to the sports or music sections of the museum. But the students were most interested in the history gallery, which educates visitors about the brutal reality of slavery in America.

“They said, ‘We hear it from our teachers, read it in books, but now it's real,’” he recalls. “That's what it's all about: Those kind of moments are where you really get a sense of accomplishment.” PM



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