Cleveland Museum of Natural History breaks ground on $150 million expansion and reinstallation

Anything But A Fossil

Cleveland Museum of Natural History breaks ground on $150 million expansion and reinstallation

The Cleveland Museum of Natural History (CMNH) is breaking ground today, June 24, on an ambitious $150 million expansion and reinstallation project. Integrated design firm DLR Group is leading the design of the project, alongside museum planning and design practice Gallagher & Associates, which will oversee the redesign of the exhibits at the century-old museum.

Established in 1920, the CMNH campus is located within Cleveland’s University Circle cultural district, containing a multitude of other storied arts and educational institutions. That includes, among others, the Cleveland Institute of Music, the Cleveland Museum of Art, the Museum of Contemporary Art Cleveland, Case Western Reserve University, and Severance Hall, which is home to the Cleveland Orchestra. In addition to a collection comprised of five million artifacts and specimens spanning the fields of paleontology, zoology, archaeology, mineralogy, and ornithology, the CMNH oversees over 11,000 acres of nature preserves in and around the Forest City.

rendering of visitors exploring an interactive space at a natural history museum
The Ames Family Curiosity Center, a forthcoming new space at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History. (Rendering courtesy Gallagher & Associates)

Timed to coincide with the museum’s centenary, the expansion and reinstallation project, described in a press release as “a rare opportunity for a natural history museum to reinvent its entire complex to tell a unified story of life and the forces that shape the universe,” will see the CMNH gain 50,000 square feet of new public space while its existing exhibits are retooled and redesigned. As noted by the museum, the makeover, developed by Gallagher & Associates with the CMNH’s curatorial, educational, and collections teams, will eschew “traditional compartmentalization by time period, geography, and types of living things” and instead be reorganized to “form integrated storylines of planetary and biological processes and make these powerful forces tangible and relevant to contemporary life.”

Outside of the exhibits, the CMNH, in its current form, is a bit of a structural hodgepodge comprised of the original museum building and a half-dozen expansions executed over the years and cobbled together to form a larger complex. To better meld these parts, DLR Group has envisioned a unifying design that includes soaring exterior glass walls to open up new sightlines between the exhibits and the Wade Oval, a public green space between the CMNH and the Cleveland Museum of Art. The revamp will also see undulating white forms of glass-fiber-reinforced-concrete wrapped around the museum’s rooflines to “evoke the alluvial forms shaped from the glaciers that created Lake Erie and the Great Lakes, while revealing how the forces at play in the region have also shaped the planet and the universe and continue to affect life today,” according to the CMNH.

interior rendering of a natural history museum with dinosaur bones on display
A view of the Visitors Hall, a newly built gateway to the rest of the museum. (Cleveland Museum of Natural History, ©DLR Group)

The expansion part of the museum-wide overhaul will include a new Visitors Hall located on what is currently a parking lot. Per the museum, the addition will showcase select specimens—including the famous “Lucy” model— while serving as a “central welcome and orientation area.” From the Visitors Hall, museum guests can venture into two distinct exhibition wings, one with galleries dedicated to planetary processes and the other to biological processes. Each will be anchored by a major attraction: the Nathan and Fannye Shafran Planetarium & Ralph Mueller Observatory for the planetary processes wing, and the Ralph Perkins II Wildlife Center & Woods Garden for the biology-focused wing.

What’s more, the transformative revamp also includes new and enhanced visitor amenities, event spaces, educational labs, and a new self-guided interactive space named The Ames Family Curiosity Center. Per the museum, the Center, made possible by the B. Charles and Jay G. Ames Foundation, will “foster real-time connections between CMNH’s collections, visitors’ lived experiences, and science-related news from across the world.” In conjunction with the expansion, the museum has announced that it will also add new curatorial posts including an assistant curator of environment and an assistant curator of planetary systems.

exterior rendering of a museum building with curving concrete forms on the roofline
Large glass walls and curving concrete forms will redefine the museum’s exterior. (Cleveland Museum of Natural History, ©DLR Group)

“The events of the past year have underscored the ways in which human life is inexorably bound with natural forces, and how a robust understanding of current science is needed to make critical choices in our daily lives,” said Sonia Winner, the CMNH’s president and CEO, in a statement. “We are creating a new model for natural history museums that uses the past to inform our present to build a better future together. Our reimagined museum will illuminate the interconnectedness of human life and the natural world, and how science is essential to our lives.”

While the CMNH will not be closed in its entirety during its metamorphosis, various sections will be shuttered while others will remain open. That said, visitors should plan ahead if there is a particular exhibit or area of the museum they’re keen on visiting. Phased openings of the new and revamped spaces will commence sometime next year.