The Carnegie Museums of Pittsburgh, a Reflection in Shearing Layers

Carnegie Mellon University
Interaction Design Seminar, Molly Wright Steenson
Fall 2019

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Image of the juxtaposition of the Carnegie Museum of Natural History on the left and the Carnegie Museum of Art on the right. — All original photography was taken by me.

As I walked through Pittsburgh, I found myself drawn to the Carnegie Museums. The Carnegie Museums, are known as the Carnegie Museum of Art and The Carnegie Museum of Natural History.

Influenced by Stewart Brand’s readings from “How Buildings Learn” and his evaluation of shearing layers by Frank Duffy. Duffy argues that “… there isn’t such a thing as a building…A building properly conceived is several layers of longevity of built components” (Brand, 1994, p. 12). Through this lens I began to evaluate the structure of the museums and their relationship with each other from the outside looking in through the shearing layers perspective; starting with the site and then looking at the structure, skin, services, space plan and stuff associated with each entity.

Through my exploration, I reflected on how experiencing a museum is similar to how we interact with Spotify’s online music streaming service and how both museums and the music industry are evolving and adapting in efforts to stay accessible to their users.

Exterior | Site, Structure, Skin

The Carnegie Museums are located in the heart of Oakland between the University of Pittsburgh and Carnegie Mellon University’s campuses. They are resources shared by both institutions and the public as a whole. From the outside, you are greeted by a modern building with clean geometric edges. This building is the Carnegie Museum of Art. The modern architecture of the Carnegie Museum of Art is then quickly juxtaposed against the extravagant Beaux‐Arts exterior of the Carnegie Museum of Natural History.

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The juxtaposition of the Carnegie Museum of Art on the left and the Carnegie Museum of Natual History on the right, which is part of the original structure.

The original structure of the Carnegie Museum of Natural History is monumental, reflecting the extravagant Beaux‐Arts architecture of the 1830’s — 19th century. The history of the original building and how the structure has stayed relevant over time is a reflection of the power of Carnegie’s wealth and his influence on the city of Pittsburgh during the industrial revolution. However, the extravagant exterior of the original structure of the Museum is not without its flaws and adaptations to its skin. Walking around the outside of the original structure I couldn’t help but also notice additional adaptations of the exterior that included updates to accessibility and bricked in windows where outlines of the original space had been altered or changed.

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The exterior of the Carnegie Museum of Natural History.

Interior | Services, Space Plan, Stuff

My evaluation of the museums interior spaces included many similarities and equal differences. Starting with the Carnegie Museum of Art it was very clear that this space was newer and contained both old and new art objects. Experiencing these spaces viewers are expected to only interact with the work visually and the artwork is placed on walls or pedestals. The work is also organized based on when it was made in association with the art style of a specific time period.

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The interior gallery space of the Carnegie Museum of Art.

In contrast, the Carnegie Museum of Natural History is placed in the original Beaux‐Arts building and blends older architectural spaces with international relics that are interactive and include technology that spans a variety of topics and themes.

In the Museum of Natural History, guests are often encouraged to interact with the exhibits and the original architecture visually plays off ideas of collaboration and adaptations to the environment. In comparison, the Carnegie Museum also organizes its exhibits based specific points in time from Prehistoric to Ancient Egypt.

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Spotify | Reflection & Connection

Through my shearing layers evaluation of the Carnegie Museums, I began to fully understand the influence of architecture and how “shearing” can also be applied to digital architecture. Starting with ‘site’ Spotify shares a similarity as a resource that is shared by the public. In addition to its public accessibility, The Carnegie Museums contain different types of historical objects or ‘stuff’ including dinosaurs alongside contemporary art where Spotify provides a variety of music from classical Beethoven to contemporary R&B. Spotify’s digital library ‘structure’ is also closely associated with the ‘service’ structure of a museum. When you walk into a museum you are introduced to all the different exhibitions that you can experience. Spotify’s expansive music library, like relics in a museum, are organized based on the genre, the artist, and the year that it was made.

Diving deeper into the ‘space plan’ of Spotify in the “Browse” section of the user profile you are confronted with a prominent grid structure that organizes information into bucketed categories of ‘Genre & Moods, Podcasts, Charts, New Releases, and Concert Tickets’.

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Screenshot from Spotify browsing page.

This primary layer of organization shows how Spotify is continuing to adapt to the modern digital landscape by offering their users access to podcasts and concerts outside of their foundational music library. From this primary layer, Spotify users are then introduced to a secondary layer of genres including ‘Pop, Rock, and Country.’

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Screenshot from Spotify browsing page.

Initially, when interacting with this simplified structure it is seen as an accessible entry point. However, the further you dive into each category you are confronted with music that may not meet the criteria of the category you were originally interacting with. In some cases, organizing information within a broader context can obscure the complexities of an object and its relationship with other objects. This can also be seen when walking through a museum where you may be in an exhibit labeled dinosaurs but you also end up experiencing prehistoric mammals and somehow end up entering an exhibit on birds.

For example in Spotify, you may select ‘Rock’ music hoping to listen to The Rolling Stones but are confronted with the ’90s, ’00s and contemporary rock options. Then once you select ‘Classic Rock’ the first song you see is by Fleetwood Mac, a genre you associate as Alternative Rock.

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Screenshot from Spotify browsing page.

I believe Spotify and its digital system is closely coupled with the service structure of a museum and how both source and organize information from the present and the past. Time is a complex system and how we reflect on it and interact with it is typically simplified in a way that obscures reality. How museums and music streaming services adapt to representing relevance through the representation of time affects how users ultimately interact with their services over time.

References

Brand, Stewart. (1994). How Buildings Learn: What happens after they’re built. New York, New York: The Penguin Group.

The Carnegie Museum of Art

The Carnegie Museum of Natural History

Spotify

Written by

Carnegie Mellon University | School of Design | MDes 21'

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