Museum Bathrooms

This is not about art, nor exhibitions, even though it is about museums. It is about their use of a space that is often overlooked but has an enormous impact on the visitor experience.

The bathroom at OGR, or the former gigantic railway repair shop in Turin, Italy, now an imposing contemporary art center.

Bathrooms are a non-place that not only is transitory, it is also supposed to remain unnoticed by its users. Attention is paid to a bathroom only when something is wrong with it, but it inevitably leaves a subliminal impact on its users’ minds. However, in a museum, a bathroom has a special place in the visitors’ consciousness.  This is especially so since attention to visual detail is stimulated during the visit, so a bathroom break is a welcome pause in that attention tension – during which the impact can strike even harder. Smart museums use this opportunity to give shape to visitors’ sensibility to moving through space and pay more attention to art when they continue on with their visit.

The Rachofsky Warehouse, Dallas, TX

As the only place where photography is allowed on the premises, the bathroom at the Rachofsky Warehouse is not artless, of course, and features this installation by Shuji Mukai. In addition, paper towels are collectible napkins also designed by him. The space is definitely not a visual pause but an artwork in itself, with irreverent references to bathroom graffitti especially. However, because photography is allowed here only, visitors almost feel prompted to take pictures and as a consequence, pay more attention to their surroundings.

The Triennale, Milan, Italy

The modernist building of La Triennale in Milan couldn’t miss the chance for its bathroom to reinforce its long rectangular shapes, multiplicity of spaces and especially the feeling of being lost in its halls. The bathroom is bare, allowing for a subject to insert themselves in a potential selfie – and by doing this, reinforce the feeling of conflicting perspectives. Light is subdued and recalls the perception of viewing in the rest of the museum.

Armani Silos, Milan, Italy

Much care has been given to the bathroom of this singular museum exhibiting art and Armani fashion. The interior uses colors (black and reflective ochre) that tie with the second floor jewelry display and recalls the shimmer of Armani accessories. I was especially struck by the light – strong but at the same time hidden in surfaces and angles one would not expect. The bathroom here is on message but also is bland enough to allow for reflection.

The Uffizi, Florence, Italy

One can say that Uffizi’s is just a generic utilitarian bathroom meant first of all to withstand the constant waves of visitors (and their huge lines). But its interior design actually weirdly recalls the exhibition halls’ feel of white walls (mostly) and wood. And since it is always full of people, the figures in this interior totally connect to the scenes of at least a few paintings in the collection.

The New Museum of Contemporary Art, New York, NY

Finally, The New Museum of Contemporary Art in the Bowery in New York City. The floral design of the walls may seem a bit out of place for this museum, but a close look will reveal how the tiles remind of pixels. A combo of traditional motifs and new media references, in a relaxing nature-like environment is a great strategy. Nature calls – get it?

This list is just tongue-in-cheek field research on how museums brand themselves via their public bathrooms and integrate a visit within the general experience. Sadly, it is also one-sided as it is limited to ladies rooms only; my assumption is that men’s bathrooms will look similar.

The list is also incomplete. There are many amazing museum bathrooms that I’d recommend: the state of the art white limestone one at the Amon Carter Museum of American Art in Fort Worth, TX, the chartreuse green at the Prada Foundation in Milan or CampoBASE, also in Milan, where light projection is the meaning maker as well as a practical tool.

Or, if you have suggestions for others that I should look at, please recommend!

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