With a huge park, Shanghai's glass museum gives reason to return (again and again)

A sprawling 40,414-m2 site dotted with 31 buildings is now home to the work-in-progress museum park surrounding the Shanghai Museum of Glass. Coordination Asia was commissioned to transform the former glass factory into an unparalleled cultural destination. The project is being built in stages, with an expected completion date of 2031. So how do you conceptualize an ever-expanding attraction capable of navigating the public’s rapidly changing – and growing – appetites?

Shanghai – ‘What’s now the Shanghai Museum of Glass was once a busy glass factory on the edge of the city, until the industry slowly withered and policies turned unfavourable in the late-1990s,’ said Tilman Thürmer of Coordination Asia, the studio asked to turn the industrial legacy into a living, growing attraction. Since opening in 2011, the project has evolved from a 3,500-m2 museum into a 17,800-m2 multifunctional museum park where visitors can spend an entire day. And Coordination Asia is only partway through phase two of a 20-year-long, three-phase master plan that will eventually result in ‘a glass-related ecosystem that merges art, culture, research and leisure into one community’.

The Shanghai Museum of Glass set out to become a Type Two museum, an institution that is larger than a Type One and prioritizes visitor experience over collection. Over the past eight years, Thürmer and team have introduced new spaces – ‘not limited to exhibitions’ – to enhance the journey. ‘Aside from following the master plan, we considered both the analysis of data collected from visitors as well as trends in museum design to perfect the visitor experience.’

Sometimes a simple, well-designed, hands-on exhibit can be more inspiring than a complex VR programme

New spaces or exhibitions appear each year, coinciding with the museum’s anniversary. This method gives the team the chance to reflect on what the park is missing and respond accordingly. Following the launch of the museum and the Radiance Theater in 2011, for example, a series of satellite hospitality and exhibition spaces were added. Soon, a café, members-only club and DIY creative workshop opened their doors to serve growing visitor numbers. Responding to the resurgent maker movement, a building was repurposed as studios so that glass artists can work within the museum. In 2015, the Kids Museum of Glass completely changed the park’s landscape by incorporating an area specifically for children. This year, the museum has included more artist studios as well a number of outdoor spaces. The ultimate goal is to have ‘a vast range of activities’, said Thürmer, ‘bringing the art of glass closer to the public’ and ‘effectively extending the visit duration’.

What currently makes up the museum park has been implemented over a decade, a period that has witnessed great technological advancements. How have such developments impacted the design of the project’s experiential spaces? Nowadays, said Thürmer, designers and curators are challenged to reimagine the visitor experience, integrating it in the digital and physical worlds. ‘However, applying the latest technologies won’t guarantee more satisfying results. We often need to consider whether these technologies will be difficult to maintain, or will distract instead of enhance. What museums offer is the chance to learn through meaningful interactions: seeing, touching and sometimes even tasting knowledge in an immersive environment. Exhibits, no matter what technology they adopt, will never be able to compete with the smart phone in our pocket. But sometimes a simple, well-designed, hands-on exhibit can be more inspiring than a complex VR programme.’

THE TAKEAWAY 
One of the main challenges museums face today is finding the right voice to communicate with their audience. Many exhibition-goers are now after the Instagram shot instead of a content-driven encounter. Larger institutions – even those centred on a single theme – can develop a vast variety of experiences to appeal to a wider audience and prolong attention spans, thus extending the duration of visits.

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