Cleveland’s Museum of Natural History, famous for its annals of ancient Earth, will no longer count its building among its collection of dusty fossils. “Our current facilities frankly are not inspiring,” said the museum’s executive director and CEO, Evalyn Gates. A $150 million renovation and expansion project led by Denver-based Fentress Architects seeks to change that.
The plan, which will break ground this spring on a $20 million first phase, will transform the museum’s physical presence and improve public access to a world-renowned collection of artifacts that includes the remains of the early hominid dubbed “Lucy.”
“It’s a totally new vision,” said Curtis Fentress, a founding principal of Fentress Architects. The project totals more than 200,000 square feet, 132,000 of which is new space. That includes a 78 percent increase in interior exhibit galleries, allowing the museum to show off more of its vast collection.
Gates recalled sharing an elevator with a young girl visiting the museum. They bumped into a paleontologist on staff, who invited the girl to explore some of the museum’s collection. A few hours later, Gates said, she left declaring that she wanted to be a paleontologist when she grows up. “Do not underestimate the lasting impact of an early visit to the museum,” said Gates, who is also a physicist. “We want to break down the wall between research scientists and the public.”
Fentress took that notion rather literally. Two towering glass walls open up the museum’s facade, one welcoming guests into the main lobby, the other displaying life-size dinosaurs. Within the museum a series of “science studios” will let visitors interact with educators and scientists more directly than the traditional exhibition format allows.
Fronting onto Wade Oval Drive, the expansion cradles the existing Shafran Planetarium, added in 2002. Shafran’s sliced cylindrical form plays off Fentress’ craggy entryways, whose sharp angles, the architects said, are meant to evoke natural landforms. The lobby is surfaced with local stone and natural materials, the exact specifications of which are currently being discussed during design development.
As part of the vibrant University Circle neighborhood, the museum is the latest in a series of Cleveland institutions to announce major architectural overhauls. The Cleveland Museum of Art, The Cleveland Institute of Art, and the new Museum of Contemporary Art Cleveland (MOCA) designed by Farshid Moussavi have helped buoy a rebound of Uptown, the arts district around University Circle, surrounding Case Western Reserve University.
The design team also includes BuroHappold, AECOM, and Osborn Engineering, with Thinc Design and Reich+Petch in charge of exhibits. One of the exhibits includes an elevated walkway for rescued animals encircling the relocated Perkins Wildlife Center. Enveloped by a landscape replete with native plants, the center will be part of the expansion’s first phase, along with a 300-space parking garage off East Boulevard.
Gates said the museum hopes to keep most if not all of its exhibits open throughout the building process. Construction of all phases is expected to wrap up in time for the museum’s 100th anniversary in 2020.