George Lucas got a surprise when his plans for a massive museum on Chicago’s lakefront were met with lawsuits. But museum locations have always been a tricky proposition – and their role in cities is changing
Planting a museum in the parkland along Chicago’s waterfront seemed as natural an act, for most of its history, as planting a tree there. That city’s breathtaking waterfront parks are host to the Art Institute of Chicago, the Field Museum, the Shedd Aquarium, and the Museum of Science and Industry – a solid majority of the city’s premier cultural institutions.
It came as little surprise that George Lucas and other backers then chose a lakefront site for his proposed Lucas Museum of Narrative Art. Yet in 2016 their proposal prompted fierce opposition and a lawsuit from a local nonprofit group, Friends of the Parks, that eventually sent the museum all the way to California in search of a home.
Less than two months later, the desired location for the Obama Presidential Library was announced – in lakefront Jackson Park. Friends of the Parks won’t be filing a lawsuit against this proposal – but they are once again opposed. Times have changed.
Across the ocean there’s a very different museum shift underway, as the London Design Museum, which opened in 1989 in a former Banana ripening warehouse along the Shad Thames, has just completed a move to the former Commonwealth Foundation building in bustling Kensington. The Design Museum’s director, Deyan Sudjic, said: “When the museum opened on the Thames in 1989, it was a classic piece of dockland dereliction. By the time we left it had come to life as a place where people lived, worked and came to enjoy the riverside setting.”
For all of the dubious attention attracted by the “Bilbao Effect” theory – the idea that an iconic cultural structure can rechart a city’s fortunes and public image, as with as Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim – a more prosaic, and arguably more important aspect of museum location has received little attention: not which city a museum is built in, but where in that city. Locations that would once have seemed inevitable, such as Chicago parkland, are hugely contentious in the 2000s, while locations previously unthinkable in that year – an abandoned lumbermill in Bilbao, or, say, a disused warehouse on the Thames – are now commonplace. […]