The Nature Research Center (NRC) represents a breakthrough in museum interior design that shatters the paradigm that a museum must be a windowless black box. Open since April 2012, this 105,000 sq ft facility has won rave reviews from the public and become the most visited tourist attraction in the state. The NRC’s interior program is designed to help visitors explore nature, science, and environmental issues.
The client brief asked for a museum experience that was filled with daylight and opportunities for hands-on learning. To achieve this, the design includes glass curtain walls and interior walls that create a sense of openness atypical in the museum typology. Visitors enter through a daylit, multistorey lobby. While elevators to the upper exhibit floors are available, most visitors choose to circulate through the space via a dramatic central staircase. Once in the exhibit areas, glass walls aid in wayfinding and provide visitors with a naturally-lit environment in which to examine exhibits. Instead of “do-not-touch” the exhibits themselves are largely hands-on, and visitors are invited to open drawers, look through the collection, conduct experiments, and interact, touch, and feel the objects. It is exciting, and from the central lobby you can see it all.
Gallery windows open to functioning laboratories allowing visitors to watch scientists work. Learning is aided by an open, four-storey volume inside the Daily Planet: a spherical auditorium space that allows for large demonstrations, interactive opportunities, and the display of digital, science-oriented art.
Because education on environmental issues is a critical to the NRC’s mission, the client also asked that the interiors closely integrate sustainability technology in ways that not only reduce energy usage, but enhance the quality of the museum program. Shading and light shelves both reduce glare and refract light deep into the interior. A 10,000 sq ft green roof is open to the public and serves as a living laboratory for sustainability education. Importantly, these features aren’t hidden from public view, but are called out to visitors and openly celebrated, helping to illustrate the point that sustainability features can be attractive as well as functional. The NRC is expected to receive LEED Gold certification.
Located on a formerly blighted two-block site, the NRC’s innovative program adds cultural life to an area of Raleigh formerly known only for its government. Though only open for a little more than a year, the NRC has already come to be cherished by visitors and locals alike.
Architect of Record: O’Brien/Atkins Associates, PA
Interior Designer: O’Brien/Atkins Associates, PA
Owner of Photograph/Copyright Holder: Nick Merrick © Hedrich Blessing
Jason A. Knowles © Fentress Architects