How Buildings Speak


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  • Title: How Buildings Speak: Architecture and Ambiance in the Construction of Art Museum Discourses
  • Author(s): Wendy Quinlan-Gagnon
  • Publisher: Common Ground Research Networks
  • Collection: Common Ground Research Networks
  • Series: The Inclusive Museum
  • Journal Title: The International Journal of the Inclusive Museum
  • Keywords: Architecture, Ambiance, Representations, Visitors
  • Volume: 9
  • Issue: 3
  • Year: 2016
  • ISSN: 1835-2014 (Print)
  • ISSN: 1835-2022 (Online)
  • DOI:
  • Citation: Quinlan-Gagnon, Wendy. 2016. "How Buildings Speak: Architecture and Ambiance in the Construction of Art Museum Discourses." The International Journal of the Inclusive Museum 9 (3): 47-61. doi:10.18848/1835-2014/CGP/v09i03/47-61.
  • Extent: 15 pages


This paper explores the exterior and interior of several different art museums to determine to what extent art museum buildings can be considered inclusive or exclusive, welcoming or deterring, depending on their architectural construction and internal ambiance. That is, this paper asks what messages do these art museum buildings and interiors send and how might their various publics interpret them? To try to answer these questions, I take a semiotic approach, assuming that each building (inside and out) is itself a signifier and that each visitor receives a unique signified or sign that depends upon his or her sociocultural background and past experience. I begin with a brief review of the building exteriors (constructions, materials, locations, accessibility, etc.) and continue with a discussion of how interior design, layout and museum protocols could affect the behaviour of potential visitors. I follow this with an analysis of the shops, cafes, bars, and restaurants to determine what role they, too, might play in constructing welcoming or deterring discourses. To support my analysis I use theoretical works by Roland Barthes, Julia Kristeva, and Umberto Eco. In addition, Jameson’s analysis of the Bonaventure Hotel and Benjamin’s Arcade Project, as well as Baudrillard’s discussion of Beaubourg, provide useful reading for my project as they help to legitimize my belief that buildings, the space around them and the space inside them, can, in and of themselves, send powerful messages to their visitors. Other theorists, most noticeably, Pierre Bourdieu and Herbert Gans, are also useful in helping me to articulate my argument.