Lookout Cove Outdoor Exhibit

Topic: Life Sciences

Case Study

of an Exhibition

by Justine Roberts

Published on September 30, 2010

  • Description and goals

    Lookout Cove, a 2-acre outdoor exhibit and the largest exhibit at BADM, was part of a larger redesign of the Museum to realize a new conceptual framework: My Place By The Bay. There was huge potential with this exhibit for a number of reasons.

    (1) The Museum sits below the Golden Gate Bridge and has unparalleled views of San Francisco to the South, the structure of the bridge above, and the Bay itself. In addition, the Museum is on 7-acres of national park land. The My Place By The Bay framework is place-based and, as Janet Petitpas, former Deputy Director recalls, “staff saw Lookout Cove as the place where they could make that connection to the immediate natural environment and show how the natural, cultural and built environments can be looked at in an interdisciplinary and multi-disciplinary fashion.”

    (2) As a campus of small, historic buildings visitors to the Museum are often outside moving from one exhibition area to another. Once outside there is very little to distract visitors from the magnificent view. Yet there had never been anything explicitly interpreting the site. This outdoor space had a lot of dramatic potential that was not available in the indoor exhibits – since the buildings are governed by strict historical commission and parks department design guidelines.

    (3) In the past, everything outside had to be temporary. This was a chance to do something more complex, larger, and exciting. A chance to take advantage of the exceptional location and to use the backdrop of the historic context with its modest buildings in a sensitive, yet dramatic way.

    For all of these reasons, Lookout Cove was the crown jewel of the new exhibit plan and a priority for the Museum to put resources.

    The combination of the amazing site and the Conceptual Framework’s focus on cultural and natural history of the area meant that the possibilities for interpretation ran from shipwrecks and Spanish explorers, to sea life and wildlife, to bridge building and lighthouse optics.

    One of the design goals was to frame the view and integrate it into the multiple level changes of the exhibit platforms. We also wanted to introduce dramatic elements that took advantage of unstructured, outdoor play opportunities not available in the smaller indoor exhibit spaces.

    As captured in the evaluation, the goals included:

    1) Challenge and delight 5-8 year olds; engage their intellects, imaginations and emotions, involve them in science learning behaviors as well as full body play.

    2) Create an environment in which families can play and learn together.

    3) Communicate a connection between Lookout Cove and real local organisms and places.

    4) Create a place that is beautiful, evocative, inspiring and engaging and that fosters visitor understanding of and concern for the natural world.

  • Development process and challenges

    The site presented unique and important challenges that informed the final design.

    Lookout Cove is a natural bowl. The sloped hillside is not accessible due to concerns over erosion, the native plants, and the steepness of the existing terrain. Everyone on the team felt strongly about getting kids up and getting access to views. We created paths up the hillside, called the Scramble, and a series of platforms and forts at the top. This was also part of a conscious decision to motivate the older kids to climb higher by providing something they would be attracted to at the top and designing experiences that could be more challenging for more skilled users.

    The design intentionally created a juxtaposition between the view of the environment and the visitor interactives. For instance, the real Golden Gate Bridge is visible from the exhibit structure of a bridge which was designed to be a whole body climbing activity. The idea was to provide the raw materials for visitors to make connections between their exploration, imaginative play, and inquiry, and the world around them. The real bridge serves as a point of reference, inspiration, and provides content.

    We also wanted to integrate the exhibit with the site, just as we would with an indoor exhibit, to create a seamless sense of place, encourage discovery, and stimulate wonder. We approached it as a gradient where elements closest to the existing buildings are designed to reference cultural history – like the shipwreck and the bridge – while those further away interpret the natural setting. Here there are more intimate places to explore – climb-on webs, water features, paths and plantings, and natural materials to build-your-own forts and nests.

    Similarly, the art pieces follow this same gradient such as a large kinetic fish positioned near the boats and shipwreck, whereas a site-specific installation by Patrick Dougherty is located closer to the native plantings.

  • Lessons learned, mistakes we made (and what we did about them)

    There were a number of challenges on this project. The parks department had very clear opinions about what was allowable. For example, even fake plants had to be based on native species. And commissioned installation works had to be called “artist executed exhibits.” But overall NPS was in support of the project and approached it as a partnership. The Museum built strong relationships and developed advocates within the department who helped them find solutions to issues along the way. This all added up to create a one-of-a-kind exhibit unique to the site and contributed to its success.

    There were many staff changes during the project. At the end of the project the team sitting around the table was almost entirely different than the starting team: the executive director had moved to take a new position, the education director changed mid-stream, and a new exhibit manager was hired part way through the project. Each new person brought new expectations, processes, experience and ideas to the conversation which meant rebuilding the consensus. Although the central vision remained a touchstone throughout, it was complicated for the team and for the timeline to absorb each change.

    Lookout Cove involved a complex team and the Museum had multiple contracts that they were managing. In addition to the exhibit designers (Gyroscope) there was a landscape architect (The Office of Cheryl Barton), structural and MEP engineers, a number of artists doing site specific pieces, and of course the board and donors. The contracts were set up so that each firm reported directly to the Museum meaning that BADM had to negotiate coordination issues directly when anyone wanted to make a change that impacted the others. For instance the design team was dealing with infrastructure issues and landscape issues that needed to be coordinated with the exhibit design.

    On every project there are different interpretations over where scopes and budgets start and end and how flexible to be when new ideas crop up later in the project. The complexity of these types of projects means there will always be discussion and there is a need for a referee – wether the client rep or someone else – who can evaluate priorities, balance agendas, and make decisions. So this isn’t necessarily solved through contract structure. It is really an issue of how decisions are made, and communication systems and it is probably one of the most difficult aspects of any complex project.

    There was also another way the contract affected the process. The exhibit design contract did not go through Construction Administration. As in all projects, there was a VE process during fabrication. Because we weren’t at the table, we couldn’t help find solutions. But whatever last-minute decisions were made – and there were some cuts – the exhibit is hugely successful.

Latest Comments (1)


by Abhishek Ray - November 23, 2010

Hi Justine
Great post. I am an architect currently developing a museum project in Srinagar, Jammu Kashmir. The JK state museum will prove to be the single best cultural icon for the province which has been plagued by conflict.
There are possibilities of developing new concepts for children’s play area in the open landscape and as a gallery. Hope to use some new concepts in restructuring this museum in a city where an entire generation of children have grown up amidst violence and militancy and never had any culture of heritage based reference

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