Building Museums™ Reflections: Kerry Erlanger
Achieving Carbon Neutral Museum Design
The majority of museums rarely have a say in what building they’re housed in, so it was a
unique opportunity that the Peary-MacMillan Arctic Museum found itself in when Bowdoin
College, where the museum resides, announced the development of a new Center for Arctic
Studies that would house their collections. The museum currently lives in Hubbard Hall, which
was formerly the College’s library. Built in 1903, it has never been quite ideal in serving the
needs of an active, modern museum — artifacts aren’t as well protected as they should be from
the surrounding environment, and the staff has never fully figured out a workable solution to the
lack of a dedicated space for education programs. Still, they’ve made it work in ways that many
museum professionals would find familiar (no education space means the staff become furniture
movers whenever an in-person program demands it). The new space, though, promises to
change all that by giving the Peary-MacMillan Arctic Museum the power to mold a modern
space to fit their needs. It also gives them the ability to consider what’s important in adhering to
the institution’s values. For both the museum and Bowdoin College, one of those considerations
is climate change.
Bowdoin has embarked on some rigorous energy projects over the years, pledging to be both
carbon neutral (which they’ve achieved) and fossil free. It’s an important goal for the museum as
well, which understandably doesn’t want to contribute to the destruction of the area of the world
they’re devoted to studying. This led to several unique decisions in the design by HGA
Architects. For one, the building is oriented in a way to preserve as many of the surrounding
trees as possible during construction, and the decision was made to build up, not out, to make
the footprint as small as possible. The heating system is all electric and aided by strategic
placement of windows to control the temperature in the building, especially around the
collections. Materials were an important consideration as well. The team went with masonry,
because it contains lower embodied carbon than materials like metal, and — get ready for this
— made the decision to build the Center out of mass timber.
Lauren Piepho, Structural Designer for HGA, admitted during the session that wood is definitely
not the first thing you think of to build a museum, and I would imagine it’s not for everyone. For
the Center for Arctic Studies, however, it made perfect sense. One of the fascinating things the
team shared is that mass carbon actually has a negative carbon emission. Wood feeds on
carbon dioxide. When a tree is cut down, that carbon dioxide stays trapped in the wood until it
either decays or burns.
But what about all those trees being cut down, you say? Isn’t that bad for the environment?
Contrary to what we might initially think, demand for timber drives demand for forests. It
mandates replanting and, importantly, the sustainability of healthy forests. Maine’s economy is
rooted in forestry, but falling demand has forced many farmers to sell their land to developers.
As Piepho explained, using a material like mass timber encourages us to put value back into our
Of course, they can’t build everything out of timber, and so ultimately the building will come
close to, but not quite achieve, carbon neutral. Still, it’s a fascinating case study in what can be
gained when we emphasize our values in creative problem solving. The Center for Arctic
Studies could have taken the easy route, bulldozed the trees, and built a space that required
much less back and forth discussion and meetings. But what would the point of that been,
ultimately? Ignoring complex climate issues would’ve been easier, but it also would’ve been
insane. Our institutional values should be embedded in everything we do. Given the opportunity,
I hope that most, if not all of us would rise to the occasion the way the Peary-MacMillan Arctic
Museum has. The polar bears will thank us, if nothing else.
Building on a Legacy — Preserving a Historic African American Cultural Resource — The
Josiah Henson Park Visitor Center & Museum
Josiah Henson isn’t as well known as the novel he reportedly inspired (Harriet Beecher Stowe’s
Uncle Tom’s Cabin, no big deal), but the staff of the Josiah Henson Museum & Park are working
to change that.
Plantation museums have faced a reckoning in the last decade or so, forcing them to reconsider
what history they tell and for who. A few like the Josiah Henson Museum have been ahead of
the curve, choosing to focus on the story of the enslaved people who worked and lived there,
rather than the rich family who enslaved them. Josiah Henson’s story is compelling; born into
slavery and separated from his family at auction in 1794, he went on to self-emancipate himself
and his family, founding a community of free blacks in Canada and writing a memoir.
The museum that chronicles Henson’s life sits on the 4 remaining acres of what was once a 500
acre plantation owned by Isaac Riley, the man who enslaved him. I’s the only remaining
structure of the historic site. With 200 some odd years, suburban sprawl, and a six lane highway
separating its visitors from the past, the Josiah Henson Museum has worked hard to situate
itself firmly in its rich history. The visitor center was conceived to carefully choreograph the
transition between present and past. Sometimes it takes a moment to get in the right headspace
to absorb information. The museum lays the groundwork by sprinkling the parking lot with
interpretive signs, followed by a timeline on the exterior of the visitor center, an introduction
video, and a terrace with interpretive panels. By the time visitors reach the house, they’ve
scaffolded themselves away from the half eaten bag of chips left in the car and are ready to
engage with the content.
The Josiah Henson Museum makes some inspiring choices when it comes to interpreting their
historic home. Upon arriving, you’d expect to enter the house through the front door, but you’d
be wrong. Instead, you enter through the kitchen in the rear, the same as Henson and other
people enslaved at the plantation would have entered. It’s a seemingly simple decision made by
the museum staff, but it’s incredibly impactful. Similarly, the house itself doesn’t appear as it did
when the Rileys lived there. In fact, there’s no single period of significance reflected in its
interpretation. The house is merely a building to house exhibits (enhanced with 21st century
tools like iPads to compare Henson’s memoir with Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and artwork by graphic
novel artist Kyle Baker to illustrate Henson’s life in a contemporary way). The one exception is
the log kitchen, which has been restored, again emphasizing the importance of the stories of the
enslaved over the enslaver. However the Rileys decorated their home, it’s not important to the
story of Josiah Henson. The museum wastes no time with it.
It feels a little uncomfortable thinking of these curatorial decisions as “innovative,” as if the same
decisions haven’t always been made just in the opposite direction. It shouldn’t be remarkable
that a historic site choses to interpret its history through the stories of the enslaved. Museums
make choices every day about what to include and what to do without. Still, it’s exciting to
imagine the Josiah Henson Museum as a reclamation. The very place that sought to destroy
him now celebrates his life.