Signs of the Museums

By R. Jay Gangewere

The Palace of Culture that Andrew Carnegie and his architects dreamt up a century ago was designed to be a Victorian mansion brimming with art and artifacts. That quality of the building is still part of the unique charm of the Carnegie Museums and Carnegie Library in Oakland. The dramatic great rooms still surprise, and corridors and galleries lead unexpectedly from art to science collections, or to the Music Hall and the public library. But this amazing architectural pile was never designed to move contemporary crowds of people efficiently from one place to another. It is no wonder visitors get lost in the building.

The new sign system and information desks now in place at Carnegie Museums of Pittsburgh will help the public plan their visits and find their destinations. The signs direct people to the permanent and special exhibitions, to public areas, rest rooms, phones and elevators, and the desks are in the main corridor where they can help visitors, reduce confusion and provide clear information.

Creating a user-friendly sign system for a maze-like building with 17 acres of floor space is not easy. Detailed surveys of visitor preferences and patterns in using the building began in 1995, followed in 1996 by expert analysis of the data, and finally by the flexible signage system tailored for Carnegie Museums by an experienced team. The complex structure offered so many variables for visitors to use, and posed so many physical problems typical of grand 19th-century landmark buildings--such as how to wire or install signs in marble corridors or halls--that several years elapsed before the goal of a comprehensive system could be achieved.

The surveys revealed many insights into visitors' behavior. Most people entering a museum will ask where they can pay admission, for example, and a great many people will have specific destinationsùsuch as Dinosaur Hall. At the same time, visitors first entering Carnegie Museums have many choices and often need some time to orient themselves before they feel ready to ask questions. Perhaps they really want to go to the shops or the cafe, or to the Music Hall or libraryùinstead of entering directly into the museums' galleries.

Originally everyone entered the museums from Forbes Avenue, after arriving by trolley or on foot. Today there are four entrances on Forbes Avenue, and one of them can be closed with no hardship to the public. A century ago there were no automobiles, hence nobody needed directions to the gigantic facility at the rear of the building, where there is now a 700-car parking area.

The museums have changed physically--notably in 1974 with the addition of the Sarah Scaife Gallery of Carnegie Museum of Artùbut the expectations of the public have changed too. There are now three theaters in the complex, located in different corners of the building, and there are classrooms in the lower level that attract people after hours. People come for films, musical performances, lectures, classesùin addition to wanting to see the great permanent collections and changing exhibitions.

From now on, the self-standing steel "kiosks" with their flexibility of having up to six "highlight" panels on a side (or 18 directional messages) will help you find your way. The signs and maps on the walls are carefully hung from the seams in the marble or granite surfaces. The information desks are placed where the sight-lines make them easy to identify and use, and they offer useful literature and guides to the collections. The conservative-yet-contemporary feel of the typeface for the signs was selected after seeing it in use successfully at the Musee D'Orsay in Paris.

Beginning in 1994, with the support of the Howard Heinz Endowment, museum designer Carol Schpiro Balk shepherded the signage project towards completion. The original design and drawings of the kiosks and desks were done by Richard Gluckman Architects, of New York. Three of PittsburghÆs most talented designers worked as a team on different parts of the program. Project manager Frank Garrity focused on structural design and physical models for testing; Rick Landesberg concentrated on graphics; Rob Henning did the wall maps and layout of the spaces.

Through a complex team effort our great 19th-centure home of art, science, music and literature has been made more accessible, without losing the wonderful eccentricity that makes it unique in American cultural facilities.