Night (and Day) in the Museum

At a time when many firms are diversifying, Verner Johnson, Inc.’s expertise in museum design is still in high demand

Verner Johnson, Inc. began specializing in museum design long before it was common for firms to focus on one particular type of client. In 1965, Verner Johnson, the man for whom the architecture firm is named, was working at the Museum of Science in Boston, which was planning a big expansion. Though the museum had hired an architect to design the addition, they preferred the suggestions Johnson offered. With bachelor’s and master’s degrees in architecture from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Johnson decided to create his own firm and was hired for the project.

The Boston museum was the firm’s first design. After that, it designed a number of projects—schools, libraries, and public facilities. It wasn’t until Johnson separated from a business partner in the late 1970s that he committed solely to museum architecture and museum master-planning. “If clients wanted to build a new museum, Verner’s team got involved early on,” managing principal Brad Nederhoff says. “They would offer an approach that would lay the ground work for comprehensive planning.”

The exterior of Manhattan, Kansas's Flint Hills Discovery Center is primarily limestone, a regional material, with irregularly shaped windows breaking the monolithic façade.

For anyone unfamiliar with museum design, Nederhoff says, there is more to consider than aesthetics. A series of technical requirements are exclusive to the process. “A big part of it is how display pieces are brought in and moved around,” he says. “The environmental conditions must also be maintained.” Extensive thought also goes into the visitor experience. Because of the intricacies involved—and the joy they get from planning museums—principals at Verner Johnson, Inc. keep their hands in the design work.

Designed by Verner Johnson, Inc., the museum’s circular lobby reaches 65 feet.

Museums can be of similar size and type, so where they’re located and who designs them are major influences on how one-of-a-kind each one ends up being. “We design each structure to be what it should be, not to match a particular style,” Nederhoff says. “Large museums tend to get added on to over the years—we strive to make them simpler to navigate and easier to [expand] in the future.”

The Flint Hills Discovery Center in Manhattan, Kansas, is a current project for which the firm led the planning and design. The museum piques visitors’ interest by blending nature and culture in a way that tells the story of the tallgrass prairie. “Even though it isn’t big in square footage, it is grand because the spaces and exterior forms are dramatic,” Nederhoff says. A second museum Verner Johnson is currently working on is the Discovery Park of America, a project in Tennessee sponsored by retail guru Robert Kirkland. The museum is on a 50-acre parcel of land in the middle of agricultural fields, and it features 60,000 square feet of exhibit space for science, art, and history—and a 200-foot-tall tower as its signature element.

The goals and requirements of designing museums have stayed relatively consistent, Nederhoff says, although sustainable design has started getting more attention in the industry. “Almost all museum clients are now interested in sustainability and LEED building to various extents,” he says. “Not all pursue LEED certification, but they still look for design that is done in a sustainable way.” He says the next step will be to make museums self-sufficient when it comes to energy.