Higher learning: Goppion and University Museums

Article – 16 May 2024

Image © Vanderwarker

As we move further into the 21st century, museums around the world continue to evolve in response to changing demands. They are no longer simply amassed collections of objects organized by the rules of a bygone age. Instead, they are living, changing social spaces that offer unique experiences and focal points for cultural engagement and exchange. This fundamental shift in identity has also transformed university museums.

Once perceived as the cloistered, niche preserve of a small number of specialized academic disciplines, they now integrate in vibrant, positive and inclusive new ways, with both their host institutions and wider communities. They have become accessible visitor attractions as well as collections for research and teaching. And they are also more visible and permeable: their collections are opened up, re-imagined and explored in many ways that engender new meaning and cast new light.

Goppion has been an enthusiastic partner in this age of collective activism across the university museums community, supporting many projects that have regenerated and re-energized this unique cultural ecosystem. Our unrivaled understanding of display case design and public museum environmental experiences has informed a host of successful collaborations with some of the world’s finest institutes of higher learning.

In the USA, Harvard University involved Goppion in their transformative 6-year renovation and expansion which opened in 2014. Goppion contributed over 300 unique cases to The Harvard Art Museum, distinguished by clean lines, simple shapes, and unwavering conservation standards. They share the same lines, transparency, and luminosity, creating a captivating synergy with their surroundings. This impressive endeavor was brought to life with the architectural finesse of Renzo Piano and the exhibit design expertise of WHY Architects.

Later, in 2021, Harvard returned to Goppion, this time for a series of display cases as a core feature of the new, welcoming lobby at the Houghton Library. These display cases serve as an introductory ‘window’ for the Library’s valuable repository of rare books and manuscripts.

In Texas, we worked with A&M University on a renewal of the Cushing Memorial Library and Archives. Our brief there focused on creating a bespoke new showcase for one of the few surviving 1830 first editions of Stephen F. Austin's Map of Texas.

Across the Atlantic, at Trinity College Old Library in Dublin, Eire, we were chosen to create a new display case and supportive plinth for the priceless Book of Kells. Dating from around 800 CE, this famous illuminated manuscript is justly celebrated as a thing of rare beauty. It is widely regarded as a masterpiece of Western calligraphy, and a lasting testament to the incredible skill of the three Columban monks who labored over the book, using handmade materials.

In the UK, there are over 170 university museums, which hold some of the nation’s most important collections. Goppion has worked with both of England’s oldest, most famous universities: Oxford and Cambridge.

At Oxford, we were commissioned to provide 25 superior conservation-grade showcases for two new public galleries at the Weston Library – part of the larger Bodleian Library complex – to support its vision for increasing public access and driving repeat visitation. The focus here was changing displays: partly to support the Library’s temporary exhibitions program, but also to create opportunities for the display of precious highlights from the permanent collection, which are rarely on public view.

At Cambridge University’s Fitzwilliam Museum, we provided new display cases for the Ancient Egypt Gallery. These were specifically designed not only to meet stringent conservation requirements, but also to allow visitors an unhindered 360-degree view of the gallery’s dramatic sarcophagi centerpiece.

In Padua, Italy, we worked closely with the Museum of Nature and Humankind (Museo della Natura e dell’Uomo), the largest university science museum in Italy. There, we designed and built a host of new display cases at different scales, to hold a broad range of specimens – from fragile moths and minerals to hulking mammoths.

Like all museums, university collections can be highly varied, requiring multiple display strategies. Goppion’s ‘group design’ principle was employed when developing a display solution for the Art Museum of the Chinese University of Hong Kong. The brief required four new showcases for changing displays of very different – and often very fragile – material, drawn from the University’s own permanent collection, and loans from other international museums. The success of this close collaboration led to a further project, with Goppion delivering two modular showcases for the Museum’s new extension.

University museums have a wonderful opportunity to be a nexus for arts, science and culture; a hub for experience and exchange that reaches far beyond the campus walls. Goppion is proud of its work in this sector. And it’s very much an ongoing strand to our mission: we are currently working once more with Princeton University on its major new art museum at the heart of the campus.