MuseumLab Carves Space for Radical Reinvention

Tucked beneath the stately granite entrance to the world’s first Carnegie Library, an unassuming sign marks a new kind of place. Neither an exhumed monument nor a flashy modernist sculpture, MuseumLabTM makes art from decay, sculpting its history into a breathtaking demonstration of innovation and ingenuity. MuseumLab is GBA’s 2019 Vanguard award winner, and true to its name, the project is a perpetual experiment in how we provoke, evoke, and ultimately inspire.

Stepping inside the Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh’s newest educational campus, visitors are immediately struck by the building’s 130 years of life. The vaulted ceilings and carved arches echo the structure’s formidable glory, but the scars of its reuse remain carefully frozen in place. Columns boast decades of chipped paint, while brick walls are gently pockmarked where the library’s beams once lay. In the early stages of design, each feature was catalogued with archeological precision, preserving rather than obscuring the layers of disrepair. “MuseumLab is just an endless experience of texture,” describes Project Director Chris Cieslak. “There’s this rich tapestry of history and feeling, and it’s an incredibly immersive experience of the building’s story.”

Jane Werner Children's Museum

Indeed, every corner and crevice was carefully designed to spark creativity. In the Make Lab, spools of brightly colored thread form elegant patterns, while a pair of giant knitting needles nearly beg to be taken off the wall. The main Grable Gallery is framed with a laser-cut fabric ceiling and a corten steel fireplace, made from recycled bookshelves. These are subtle nods to the library’s central receiving room, the leaded glass and intricate wainscot replaced by LED lights and optical illusion. Even the plaster received thoughtful treatment, made of thermally insulating lime to improve energy performance without compromising the historic windows.

“Just as libraries created a new space for people to learn, MuseumLab reinvents how we understand education.  I think Andrew Carnegie would be very pleased by our use of his space.”

In many ways, MuseumLab represents the Children’s Museum’s own legacy of commitment. After taking over the Allegheny City Post Office and Buhl Planetarium in 2004, Executive Director Jane Werner has restored the Museum’s Northside neighborhood with no less radical a vision than her industrial predecessors. “Just as libraries created a new space for people to learn, MuseumLab reinvents how we understand education,” notes Ms. Werner. “Along with museum staff, we house researchers who test ideas that you simply can’t try in a formal classroom.  I think Andrew Carnegie would be very pleased by our use of his space.”

museumlab children's museum

More than an impeccable exhibit hall or painstaking restoration, MuseumLab leaves the inescapable feeling of a building in progress. There are artists concocting new installations in basement workshops, and a giant mosaic dinosaur under construction for all to see.  This of course is the project’s guiding ethos. Explains Ms. Werner, “It’s called a lab for a reason. There is something kind of wonderful about not knowing what will happen here. We have ideas, but the possibilities are even more exciting.”

MuseumLab is the 2019 recipient of the Vanguard Award, and also the host of GBA’s Emerald Evening Gala on September 12th. Join us as we celebrate 5 people and projects transforming Western Pennsylvania, and inaugurate Pittsburgh’s UN Center for Excellence on High Performance Building.

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