Closed to the Public: The Impacts of Closing a Museum for Construction

Published Writing

The following publication was written in 2006 as part of a graduate research project at The George Washington University.

Executive Summary

The end of the 20th century marked the beginning of a multi-billion dollar building boom in the museum field. While in the past few years several major construction projects have been dropped or scaled back1, the “Age of Expansion”2 in the U.S. and across the globe has continued to produce new, renovated, and expanded museum spaces at a considerable rate. While the building trend is fairly recent, thinking about how facilities fit into the mission of a museum is not. In a 1917 essay, American librarian and museum director John Cotton Dana wrote that the worth of a museum “is not in direct ratio to the cost of its building . . . A museum is good only insofar as it is of use.”3

Nearly a century after Dana penned these words, museums are working to sustain and increase their usefulness to the public. Renovation and expansion projects offer the opportunity to extend the museum’s mission by increasing exhibition space, for example, or by adding and improving facilities for educational programming. A museum in the midst of a building project, however, must balance staying useful and open to the public, on the one hand, with completing the project in a safe, cost-effective, and timely manner on the other. In this study, I explore how and why museums make the decision to close their facilities during construction, focusing particularly on the impact the decision has on the museum and its audiences. I also pay attention to ways in which museums attempt to stay “open” to the public through alternate spaces, partnerships, and outreach activities.

Much has been written in the past ten years about the building boom, about the architecture of the latest museum structures, and about the financial issues involved in construction projects.4 However, very little has been published on the fact that these projects often involve some sort of closure. The goal of this investigation is to present a comprehensive view of the issues surrounding closing a museum facility and to provide case study and best practice recommendation for museums considering such projects in the future.

In order to successfully recover from closing a building, museums must carefully plan and orchestrate the work of the museum in the name of the mission. Feasibility studies and strategic planning help to keep the organization on track while a marketing communications plan nurtures the institution’s ongoing relationship with its constituents. Special events to mark the closing and opening of the building generate buzz and create fundraising opportunities.

Closing a museum facility impacts key stakeholders in significant ways. Visitors, members, researchers, staff, volunteers, sponsors, partners and affiliates, and local schools and businesses are all affected. A museum must work diligently to minimize the negative impact of closing in order for its overall building project to be considered successful.

Museums considering building projects can learn from the insight of other institutions that have recently completed similar projects. It is, therefore, to the benefit of all museums that institutions conduct and publish evaluations based on their experiences and suggest best practices to others in the field.


  1. Morris, Martha. “Expansionism.” Museum News, July/August 2004. 30-35.
  2. Dan Monroe suggests that the “Age of Expansion” covers the period between 1995 and 2010. Monroe, Dan L. “View from the Top.” Art Museum Network News, October 2005.
  3. Dana, John Cotton. As quoted in Perspectives on Outcome Based Evaluation for Libraries and Museums. Institute of Museum and Library Services (2000).
  4. See, for example: Victoria Newhouse, Towards a New Museum, for architecture; Lord & Lord, The Manual of Museum Planning, for finances and project management; and major newspapers for general commentary on construction projects in the museum field.

Full Report

Read the full report (62 pages) including a list of 38 case studies.

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