Medical History Museum Serves as Beacon of Massachusetts General Hospital
The gleaming copper and glass of the Paul S. Russell, MD, Museum of Medical History and Innovation presents a welcoming new face of the Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH) to Boston.
Until the Russell Museum opened to the public on April 17, the numerous buildings on the 17-acre campus of the hospital didn’t have a significant front door or a remarkable presence on any of the major perimeter streets. The buildings looked “as if they were jammed together around some invisible center, like the members of a football team in a huddle,” as described by Robert Campbell, Boston Globe architecture critic.
Now, the Russell Museum, thought to be the only American freestanding hospital museum, provides a new gateway building to the main White Building entrance on North Grove Street. It celebrates the past 200 years of medicine and Massachusetts General Hospital history, and looks to the future of medical innovation.
Patricia Austen, RN, chair of the hospital’s Ladies Visiting Committee’s Arts and Antiquities Committee, reflects in the museum’s introductory video: “It now becomes a beacon, which is really what this hospital was in the beginning.”
Decades in the making
The idea of a museum has gradually taken form over the past several decades, most recently under the guidance of the hospital’s history committee. At first, the focus was on finding areas within the existing buildings to display medical artifacts and photographs to illustrate the rich history of the hospital, which was co-founded in 1811 by Dr. John Collins Warren and Dr. James Jackson.
As the hospital’s 200th anniversary approached, however, the concept of a freestanding museum came up. Paul S. Russell, MD, who joined MGH as a surgical intern in 1948 and became a renowned transplant surgeon and researcher, is a long-time member of the history committee and is its current chair. He recalls that two main principles governed committee discussions of the potential museum: (1) that the museum be vibrant, “an opportunity to declare the identity of the place,” and (2) that the museum be paid for entirely by philanthropy, without any impact on funds relating to patient care.
Leers Weinzapfel Associates Architects Inc. was selected as the architect for the museum in September 2008, in part because of the firm’s prior work in creating Harvard’s Putnam Gallery for the Collection of Historical Scientific Instruments. Construction started in 2010, and the building was completed in the hospital’s bicentennial year of 2011.
There were many significant site challenges in the creation of the museum building. The site was wrapped around an existing historic building, the 1892 brick MGH Resident Physician’s House; it included less than 6,000 square feet in area; and it measured only 26 feet wide at the narrowest end. It was part of the Charles River tidal marshes in the early days of the hospital, when patients often arrived by boat, and the 19th-century fill could not support a building.
The Boston Redevelopment Authority (BRA) wanted to create a continuous street wall with consistent eave heights along Cambridge Street with a visually open ground floor to maintain views through the building. Neighborhood input to the 2006 MGH Institutional Master Plan included a desire for active uses at street level on Cambridge Street and more green space, such as rooftop gardens, accessible to the public.
The BRA and neighborhood requirements were met by designing a two-story building with a roof garden topped by a painted steel pergola at 54 feet above street level to correspond with rooflines of adjacent buildings. A fully glazed ground floor museum gallery extends the full width of the block on Cambridge Street. The more opaque service core is tucked back beside the Resident Physician’s House, taking advantage of all portions of the irregularly shaped site, and a pocket park provides more green space behind the museum.
The building is supported on economical concrete caissons extending down to the ancient riverbed clay. Because of the high water table, no basement is included. Mechanical space is inserted into the building in three areas: under a rear terrace, on a mechanical mezzanine between the first and second floors, and within a copper-clad mechanical penthouse that provides a backdrop to the roof garden.
Even though it’s smaller than its neighbors, several exterior features give the Russell Museum an important presence. The transparency of the first floor, with a full wall of glass above a gray granite base, makes the museum exhibits an intriguing part of the streetscape. The copper wrapping of the second story is intricately detailed in standing and flat-seam panels, and combines with the copper-fritted glass to give the building the feel of a precious object.
A second-floor oriel window punctuates the copper plane and gives visibility to the museum from blocks away. The green trees billowing above the copper parapet and the pergola extending out toward North Grove Street complete the gem-like gateway building.
A modern core
Within the Russell Museum, a soaring entrance lobby and flight of slate stairs connect the first and second floors of the 9,540-gross-square-feet building, which includes reception and orientation space, a first-floor core exhibition gallery, a changing exhibition gallery, hands-on learning, and a simulation area. The Putnam Gallery on the second floor will provide a place for museum-sponsored lectures, events, and programs for both the hospital and neighborhood communities.
The space, which has more controlled daylighting, can also host temporary and touring exhibitions. The third-floor roof garden provides an additional 2,570 gross square feet of new public landscape with fine views of Beacon Hill and the gold State House dome. Its flowering trees, grasses, seating, and plaza terraces offer a place of contemplation for hospital visitors or a locus for spirited celebration of hospital events.
“I feel that this museum is a gift to the city,” says Leers Weinzapfel Associates principal Jane Weinzapfel. “It provides a welcoming place of entry for visitors to understand a complex institution and includes a place for medical colleagues to share ideas with each other and the public. This opportunity for dialogue between the medical community and the public in a comfortable yet exciting environment is very valuable both to the hospital and to Boston.”
Museum director Peter Johnson says that the museum looks like no other building in Boston. “It’s a very contemporary building. I think that its use of glass, its use of copper, the scale of the pergola on the roof, the sharpness of the detail, and the simplicity of the building itself make it in some ways starkly modern,” he says. Johnson compares this newest MGH building to the very first MGH building, a gray granite Greek Revival structure designed by American artchitect Charles Bulfinch, which was also very modern for its time.
Exhibits and displays
In speaking of the philosophy of the museum, Johnson notes, “History seems to be beside us here, not behind us.” The community involvement and medical breakthroughs over the past 200 years provide a context for those portions of the museum that examine current medical innovation and future possibilities. The introductory theme of the permanent exhibition is “Every Man Our Neighbor,” taken f
rom the phrase, “When in distress, every man becomes our neighbor,” first used in Warren and Jackson’s circular letter of 1810 to raise funds to construct the original Massachusetts General Hospital.
The exhibit brings this theme into the present with a look at current MGH interventions around the globe in response to medical and natural disasters.
Additional exhibition topics include the history of the hospital, the patient’s view of medicine, anesthesia, pain and pain management, understanding disease, and a peek inside past and present operating rooms.
Exhibits using interactive video technology are mixed with historical medical instruments that are displayed in glass cases. Johnson reflects, “For me, the objects are a way into stories of why they were used, why they were important; how did someone figure out how to do this?”
Upcoming exhibitions may explore the past by collaborating with other medical history collections, or look into the future and spotlight different areas at the frontiers of medical research at MGH and elsewhere. The museum sits alongside the Resident Physician’s House, the second oldest MGH building, which is viewed as an exhibit in itself from within the museum and will serve to house select hospital archives and related administration space.
The Russell Museum will also introduce the visitor to a “distributed museum” at MGH—the many other areas on the hospital campus that focus on current research or highlight hospital history, such as the original operating theater known as the Ether Dome in the Bulfinch Building. When current exhibitions are rotated out of the museum to make room for new ones, the previous exhibit may find a home in waiting room areas or corridors in the clinical portion of the hospital, thus enlarging the distributed museum.
At the formal Russell Museum opening, Boston Mayor Thomas Menino cut the surgical gauze ribbon and welcomed the museum to the city, hopeful that it would inspire more of the youth of Boston to go into science and health professions.
Winifred Ann Stopps, MD, AIA, LEED AP BD+C, is associate principal at Leers Weinzapfel Associates Architects Inc. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.