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The liminal museum. An investigation of the socio-educational processes starting from architecture

O museu liminar. Uma investigação sobre os processos socioeducativos a partir da arquitetura
Fabiana Dicuonzo


A investigação pretende abordar o património do museu através da perspetiva da arquitetura, especificamente a dos espaços liminares. O estudo dos espaços liminares continua a ser subestimado, se não mesmo negligenciado, no discurso museológico, e o papel que a arquitetura desempenha na valorização das experiências dos visitantes é uma perspetiva não aprofundada nos estudos museológicos. Apenas uma investigação introdutória sobre os espaços liminares do museu abriu recentemente o discurso sobre as potencialidades desta dimensão multifacetada. Este artigo pretende aprofundar o potencial dos espaços liminares para a construção de um compromisso com o discurso patrimonial do museu. Para tal, o objetivo é destacar como o projeto arquitetónico pode ajudar a acomodar processos sociais e educacionais que são determinantes na formação do significado do património. É analisada uma comparação entre identidades e morfologias da arquitetura do museu, selecionando seis estudos de caso através das suas affordances e performances no limiar do museu. Restringiu-se a seleção a uma tipologia específica de museu caracterizada pela coexistência de edifícios históricos e extensões contemporâneas consideradas relevantes para o discurso. A análise dos estudos de caso demonstrou que as extensões arquitetónicas dos museus contemporâneos podem ser consideradas um dispositivo estratégico para valorizar o património e envolver os processos socioeducativos na construção de significados sobre o museu e o seu património.

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Notas da redacção

Artigo recebido a 14.02.2023

Aprovado para publicação a 11.07.2023

Texto integral

The concept of liminality

1The concept of liminality comes from the Latin word “limen”, which means threshold. The etymology draws to a spatial concept, that of the physical threshold that stands in the field of architecture. The derivation from this term accommodates a sense of openness and dynamicity that lets liminality acquire abstract and theoretical meanings, as well as concrete and physical ones. Before being applied in architecture, the notion of liminality has been adopted by humanistic and social disciplines. The text intends to consider philosophical, psychological and anthropological studies relevant to explain the liminal concept in the museum field and to investigate how heritage can be enhanced through this specific spatial area of the cultural institution.

2The first theorist who studied the concept of liminality was Arnold Van Gennep with the theory of rituals in society. According to the French ethnologist and folklorist, human life is underpinned by ritual ceremonies that are essentially universal, detaching the transitional stages in man’s life (Van Gennep 2019). The rites of passage involve a significant change of status in society, dividing the process into three moments: the separation from the role that is called preliminal, a consequent liminal period between roles called the margin, and a post-liminal condition representing formal entrance with the new role in society (Van Gennep 2019). Later, anthropologist Victor Turner expanded the idea proposed by Van Gennep, associating liminality not only with the social rituals of the individuals in society but also with the seasonal changes of an entire society, considering times and spaces as two relevant factors (Turner 1974). He said every social process implies a spatial passage in a physical environment, such as a gate or a specific building, that marks the inner transformation of the individual.

3Martin Buber, Austrian philosopher, pedagogue and theologist, investigated the sphere that exists between two entities, namely humans, patenting a concept very close to that that helped build this topic in architecture. He argued that human life's reality lies in the relationship between one being and another. The communication between two beings emerges in a common sphere called the in-between, a space where one gives meaning to the other thanks to the mutual presence in a new entity called the real third (Farhady and Nam 2009). In a space where neither I nor Thou exists, but only I-Thou (Teyssot 2008, 36), the in-between gives sense to the reciprocal existence. In this regard, the real third becomes the starting point for building a dialogue between individuals that can be conceived the base of sociality.

4Looking at the growing awareness of the self in relation to the other, the British psychoanalyst and paediatrician Donald Woods Winnicott contributes to the concept of liminality through the pedagogical perspective envisioned in the study on infants’ notion of possession. He demonstrated that the act of transition from the breast of the mother to a previously not owned object is an act of appropriation and ultimately a cultural experience that he called “transitional phenomena” (Winnicott 1989, 4). Encountering Buber’s theory, Winnicott stated that this phenomenon is a process that moves inner realities in relation to outer realities in the physical and pedagogical transition. The Buber’s real third becomes a potential space and a good enough holding environment for learning and creativity in the child (Winnicott 1953).

5In every above-mentioned theory it can be stated that liminality is a passage in sociological, anthropological, and pedagogical terms always defined by a spatial condition. Transposing the concept in architecture, this process takes the primary form of a gradual passage from one area to another involving the relation with the environment, the self and others.

6The Dutch architect Aldo Van Eyck, who borrowed the in-between concept from Martin Buber, was the first to discuss it in architectural terms in 1959 (Teyssot 2008, 47). He theorised that the in-between is the perfect space to develop a dialectic reconciliation of conflicting actors. Later this took the name of the twin phenomena (Van Eyck, Ligtelijn, and Strauven 2008), a non-conflictive or mutual dialogue between two halves of the same entity. A place where two poles are simultaneously present as if they were complementary colours. It is a place filled with multiple meanings in equipoise. He compared the in-between with breathing, the act of inhalation and exhalation, offering the perspective of an open-ended process where both in and out exist in a cycle. In reality, this iatus can be identified by “things” (inside/outside, large-scale/small-scale, house/city, etc.), by subjects (human, divinity), or by both (Teyssot 2008).

7Likewise, Dutch architect Herman Hertzberger addressed the in-between as an entity with its own status substituting the term with the more pragmatic “threshold”. According to Hertzberger:

[…] the threshold provides the key to the transition and connection between areas with divergent territorial claims and, as a place in its own right, it constitutes, essentially, the special condition for the meeting and dialogue between areas of different orders. (Hertzberger 1991, 51).

8In this understanding, the idea of threshold defines a physical and theoretical union that enhances the possibility of dialogue between space, people and the environment symbolising an open process where architecture is the physical facilitator of this encounter. Here lies the conjunction between theory and practice. The liminal space, as a threshold in between two realms/conditions/areas, is the catalyst of a dynamic process that concretely presents itself as a dialogical space. Adopting the concept of liminal space in museum embraces this multifaced perspective that can be extended to that of the liminal museum.

The theoretical framework of the liminal museum

9The concept of liminality conceived as a dynamic process draws to the concept of liminal museum, a definition given by the author to identify the multiple spectrum of meanings involved in the liminal area of the museum. The transition on the threshold space forecasts the dynamic action of crossing from one place to another involving a passage between the outdoor realm and the museum’s interior and vice versa that concur to build up commitment to the heritage discourse of the museum.

10To better frame the context, the liminal museum is intended to be the public and free threshold immediately inside and outside its physical door.

11This area can be more clearly explained through the cartographic representation by Giambattista Nolli. In 1748 the Italian architect designed an ichnographic plan of Rome, best known as the Nolli Map, that helped to create demarcations for the 14 traditional rioni or districts of the ancient city (Arnold and Bending 2003). In this representation, it can be noticed a division of colours between black and white, where black represents the blocks, and white areas depict the accessible voids of the city: starting from the streets, the white areas spread in the squares, the churches, including the public realms of courtyards, and galleries of the private buildings. Transposing this urban image in the museum’s architecture the black and white areas define the differentiation between the institution and the external realm, the private and the public, and, above all, the potential that liminal spaces can trigger in avoiding the barriers between these two domains.

12According to Tzortzi (2015), architecture affects the museum experience not only through the physical form of the building but also as a system of spatial relations with galleries, objects and visitors. Drawing on the conceptualisation of space as an ongoing outcome of our relationality (Massey 2005), the liminal space can concur to be the meeting place where the relations between different actants can be revealed.

13Nevertheless, the liminal spaces in most museums’ programs are still overlooked, if not neglected (Schall 2015). Multiple studies have investigated the museum space, focusing on the threshold intended as the hall of the museum (Parry, Pageseu and Moseley 2018). The text intends to widen the notion of liminal space to the act of passing from the outdoor to the interior realm of the museum, supporting the idea of passage by Philippe Bonnin. In his “Dispositifs et Rituels du Seuil” (2000), he intrinsically linked the social changes developed by Van Gennep to the materiality of these transformations connected to the physical space where they occur. With this in mind, the liminal museum could be intended as the physical threshold of the museums concurring with the personal and collective transformation of the individuals experiencing the space.

14Examining what happens in these spaces is key in this understanding. Inside the theoretical dialogue between exterior and interior, public and private, locals and visitors, an investigation of the functions and the affordances of the architectural space through human behaviour becomes crucial. How the audience embodies and owns the spaces of a museum plays a significant role in the growth of cultural institutions. Recently, it has become central to the museological reflection (Bishop 2006). A new approach considers the visitor as a critical agent rather than a passive spectator (Tzortzi 2015), with diverse needs and characteristics according to the varying backgrounds that each one has.

15Furthermore, emotion plays a significant role in defining the visitor’s behaviours, especially before visiting the museum. It is well known that the threshold can generate fear (Parry, Page and Moseley 2018) and responses such as security or insecurity (Stenglin 2016). More precisely, the notion of ‘threshold fear’, developed by Elaine Heumann Gurian (2005) in the museum field, is intended as “the difficulty for the uninitiated to experience the museum both for physical and programmatic barriers” (Gurian 2005, 203). Drawing from this concept, there is a significant interrelation between architecture and emotion in defining the visitor’s behaviours. Moreover, environmental elements, such as materials, light, temperature, sounds, and the atmosphere (Arnheim 1970) can become barriers to the prospective audience if not addressed and designed in a welcoming and inclusive way (Gurian 2005).

The role of liminal space in the construction of museums’ heritage

16This article assumes heritage, as perceived by Laurajane Smith, that is as a social and cultural process built from the communities living and experiencing the space (2006). In this stance, the museum’s architecture is perceived as the device that gives tangibility and transmits the collective values enhanced by the museum.

17This assumption is supported by investigating the topic through the lens of the more-than-representational theory developed in geographies studies (Thrift and Dewsbury 2000; Anderson and Harrison 2010) and applied in museology by Waterton and Dittmer (2014). More-than-representational theory in cultural geography asserts that the human experience is a “thought-in-action”, namely that life is first performed, and then our representation of the world comes after our encounters with what has already occurred (Boyd and Hughes 2020). In the museum’s experience, the human subject (the visitor) is a sensing body compelled less by will and more by “embodied and environmental affordances” constantly in relation to things, objects, and non-human entities (Anderson and Harrison 2010, 7). Looking at liminal space as the meeting place par excellence, and transferring to the architecture the perspective proposed by Macdonald and Basu (2007) of the exhibition as an assemblage of various “actants”, it can be said that the museum is the place of encounter between the self, people, ideas, objects, technologies. This point of view brings out the hypothesis that architecture is composed of human and non-human ‘actants’ (objects and technologies) (Yaneva 2003) as well as by physical and non-physical factors (emotions, atmosphere) (Boyd and Hughes 2020) that constitute the assemblage in which the user is embedded.

18In understanding heritage notion, the context in which the museum is embedded is relevant (Almeida 1998) as well as the interior realm. Independently by its form, the museum’s architecture is engaged with the surroundings. The public environment open and accessible is used to be the reality where the community can shape and strengthen the concept of museum’s heritage as the first physical approach with the institution. To extend the publicness of the surrounding of the museum to the interior realm of the institution, architecture should be shaped by accessibility to be as democratic as possible in its role of community-making and, consequently, heritage meaning-making.

19The study on accessibility is related to physical and non-physical aspects. Besides the technical architectural elements, access to a certain area should presuppose potential language, socioeconomic and cultural barriers, gender ideologies, skills, and information (Wang, Brown and Liu 2015). The choice to pass or stay in a specific area means that the user feels comfortable in it for different reasons that can be social, cultural, environmental, etc.

20Furthermore, the ritual of entering the museum is not a casual act. The intention to visit or simply explore the museum makes the liminal area strategic to talk with the “uninitiated” (Gurian 2005, 203) as well as to activate inner processes to the various audiences in emotional, cultural, social terms. The liminal space becomes the limbo where possible changes in visitor’s awareness can influence the understanding of the museum’s content and container.

21In this framework, the role of the atmosphere is primary in shaping the impact of the visitor to overcome or retain the previously mentioned threshold fear.

22In addition, even the visitor’s embodiment in the environment can be examined as a process in motion, a performing act. Linking to the idea of Smith of heritage as a performing act, it can be said that heritage performances in the liminal spaces “are not only physical experiences of ‘doing’, but also emotional experiences of ‘being’” (Smith 2006, 71). The movement of visitors in museums can generate a map of their experiences, quantitatively (Hillier 2007) as well as emotionally and imaginatively (Bagnall 2003). The study of how the audience moves, explores and embodies the museum space helps in the design process of the museum’s architecture to enhance the visitor’s experience strengthening “the self-conscious emotional acts of remembering and memory making” (Smith 2006, 71).

23Andrea de Paiva and Richard Jedon (2019) confirm that even short exposure to architecture can have long-term effects on the human experience. Still, the experience of the liminal space at the beginning of the museum’s space can enormously affect the feelings of human beings, shaping memories that can last for their entire life, especially if those feelings are triggered by positive emotions (Levine and Burgess 1997). The sensorial perception of the non-physical factor of the atmosphere perceived in a specific space, how we feel and how the body reacts to a given environment contributes to the visitor’s emotion and affectiveness. Exploiting such affectiveness is crucial to the architects’ design practice, as it was in the case of Aldo Van Eyck. In the theory developed by the Dutch architect, the principle of in-between as ‘built homecoming’ is a significant interpretation supporting affection. According to Van Eyck, the built homecoming is the capacity of the liminal space “to furnish a climate congenial to man in equipoise” (Van Eyck, Ligtelijn and Strauven 2008, 70), a comfortable sensation related to memories returned by the space surrounding us. In this sense, a proper design of the threshold space helps the visitor to identify a sense of belonging (Ballart 1997), facilitating the museum in the process of heritage meaning-making.

The social and educational process

24Architecture has the potential to create accessibility that can generate affectiveness in the museum’s visitor but it also has to respond to the museum’s objectives of being a space where culture is protected, exhibited and enhanced through education and social engagement (Wollentz et al. 2022).

25The capability of engagement given by the museum’s architecture can play an important role in building social and educational processes that help the institution and museum’s heritage to be enhanced.

26It can be stated that architecture is a social production shaped by and giving tangible form to social relationships and structures (Lefebvre 1991) In this understanding, liminal spaces of the museums are embedded by sociality performed by interactions between people and space. The liminal museum is the place where the visit starts and finishes, interactions between people, staff, artists, installations, communication, museum’s activities take place. The liminal museums are a crossroads of actants shaping the museum’s ordinary and extraordinary life of the institution.

27A representation can be given by inner or outer staircases conceived as the symbol of a symbiotic relationship with the social order (Jones and MacLeod 2016). They usually acquire a social value related to the manifestation of the self in society. It is the case of the staircases of the Metropolitan Museum of New York, used as public benches during the day and as fashion events once a year, namely the MET Gala. The MET staircases assume a socio-cultural value of the manifestation of the self in society as the core of urban social life. Other than the social value, the scalone d’onore, the main staircase of the Triennale of Milan, has become a place for encounters (Porcelluzzi 2022) and learning. Linking the atrium with the exhibition spaces on the upper floor, the staircase are designed to be a device where meeting enhances learning and vice versa.

28It can be stated that architecture is social, as well as that learning is spatial (Hooper-Greenhill 2000), and that liminal space can improve and enhance this mutual process. Over the years, education in museums has been studied and developed with a constructivist theory placing self-comprehension and the learner at the centre of the process and turning the world into an object for the self. The paper tentatively adds the reflection that the environment is a real pedagogic device (Tinazzi 2021) and that space is an ‘actant’. A research on Generic Learning Outcomes focused on the museum as a social space showed that visitors who were engaged in social interaction within the museum space, also seemed to learn more (Wollentz et al. 2022, 38). According to the authors, the increase in learning is connected to museums’ ability to construct spaces where reflection, physical elements and activities are allowed to play important roles in facilitating learning (Wollentz et al. 2022, 37).

29Besides the ordinary education and public programs, an attentive design of museum’s spaces, familiar and comfortable can encourage affordances that give freedom to the user, museum’s staff included, accommodating spontaneous and playful activities and actions embedded by education and social interaction.

30Therein lies the potential of the liminal spaces: they indirectly speak to and about pedagogy through design – a means that reaches beyond the limiting scope of the language (Ellsworth 2004).

31Witcomb (2015) states that a pedagogy of feeling is when affect and emotion play an essential role in how people learn and engage with heritage. Touching the sphere of emotions through architecture is a challenging task but thanks to an engaging design, the thought of flexible and multiple functions in this meeting place can be the starting point to foster deep investigation on the topic.

32In this intertwined dimension, social and educational processes are fundamental in engaging the audience to build a notion of heritage.

33The open-ended essence of the liminal museum has the potential to shape people’s awareness in order to engage community, and provides a sense of belonging, allowing us to negotiate a sense of social ‘place or class/community identity’. The potential of the liminal museum to be a meeting place can help to be a democratic space for all of us. In-between is the locus of transformation, a space of movement, development or becoming (Grosz 2001). This space subverts the edges of any identity’s limit, constituting a third reality: the identity of the museum’s community. Heritage, as a process, is composed of life occurring especially in the liminal spaces of the museums where social and educational factors enable the first and the last approach to the museum’s institution, influence emotions and fears, and increase knowledge of the space and its content. Museum’s heritage in its container and its content is an assemblage of ‘actants’, where architecture is crucial for its capability to be produced as much through occupation and use (Hillier 2007; Fallan 2008) as through design processes.

Identities and morphologies of the liminal spaces of the museum

34The following exploration intends to give an overview of the morphologies of the museum’s liminal spaces to better understand the theoretical framework previously presented. This article narrows the selection to a specific typology of museum characterised by the coexistence of historical buildings and contemporary additions and considered relevant to the discourse.

35In the last decades, the majority of the museums have been at least once renovated, rebuilt, extended or added to its existing building giving architecture the role of being the appropriate medium to rethink and remodel both the hosting institution as well as the global concept of museums (Wouter 2008).

36It is in the early 90s that the notion of social museology built by Mario Moutinho (Dos Santos 2008) makes the visitor’s experience a priority, defining the field for a new conception of museology, as that of relational museology by Duncan Grewcock (2013). The management of the museum activities and the need for additional public spaces for gathering became relevant in the commitment of new museum extensions. For this reason, additions often interest new methods of engaging with the audience through new projects on the liminal spaces of the museums, namely the square, the entrance, the hall, and all the spaces of connection to the existing building.

37The coexistence of new and old in museums strengthens the relationship with heritage, highlighting architecture’s role in communicating and enhancing the whole museum’s heritage. Indeed, contemporary extensions are crucial to the dialogue between the past and the present, historical and contemporary heritage, and the museum’s context and architecture. Opposite entities are linked together in a liminal condition, both temporal and spatial, that this research considers valuable for understanding how liminal spaces of the museum can build a notion of heritage.

38In order to understand these relationships, the author has selected six case studies whose contemporary additions proved to create a fundamental improvement of the museum’s social and educational processes supporting heritage enhancement. The case studies are classified through three different morphologies reflecting, respectively, three identities of the architecture and the museum itself. If heritage is a process shaped by the museums’ community, architecture should reflect the performances in those spaces relevant to creating social and educational processes. In form and functions, the methodology highlights the museum’s capability of meeting, crossing, and accommodating of these six museums through architecture.

39A synthetic representation of the six examples illustrates the main identity of each category through the conceptualised plan that explains how architecture spatially achieves these three actions (fig. 1).

Fig. 1 – Conceptualised plans. a: MuseumsQuartier b: Stedelijk Museum c: Swiss National Museums d: San Telmo Museum e: MACRO f: Tate Modern.

Drawing by the author


40The quality of triggering people’s interest in museums starts from its public realm. Architecture, as a social product, should relate to the context in which museum is located, paying attention to relations, distances, absences, and life already occurring in those spaces, to understand how it can be enhanced and improved. The first category looks at the aim of the liminal museum to dialogue with the context. Indeed, the museum is part of the city’s creation of a public space (Tzortzi 2015). This can be stated for the MuseumsQuartier of Wien (fig. 2), a project inaugurated in 2001 to give new life to the decaying 18th-century buildings in the centre of the city. The whole complex was restored and enriched by new additions to host the most important hub of museums, namely the Kunsthalle of the City of Vienna, the Leopold Museum and the Museum of Modern Art. In a successful juxtaposition of the past with the present,

[…] the MuseumsQuartier has already changed cultural activity in Vienna in that it is clearly attracting cultural initiatives to the surrounding area. Small galleries and arts-mediating institutions have settled down around the MuseumsQuartier, complementing in this way the small creative businesses in the area behind it. (Roodhouse and Mokre 2004, 205)

Fig. 2 – Meeting case studies. Plans. a: MuseumsQuartier b: Stedelijk Museum. Legend: Grey (Old building), Black (New addition), Blue (public liminal spaces).

Drawing by the author

41The quartier boasts multiple programs of activities and social events with various collaborations with cultural associations working and using the buildings facing the same meeting place. The enclosed public courtyard, together with the contemporary additions with monumental gathering staircases, is a vivid meeting place within the city embedded in art and cultural heritage. Old and new, sociality and culture work together to create the community of this cultural hub.

42In the context of the most cultural park of Amsterdam, a different relationship with the historical heritage is obtained with the Stedelijk Museum (fig. 2) extension designed by Benthem Crouwel Architects (2012). The controversial (Wouter 2008) creation of the smooth white volume sacrificed the main façade of the ancient building, almost completely hidden, to favour an entrance overlooking the Museumplein, the public park where numerous public events take place and other two most popular Netherland museums are located: Rijksmuseum and Van Gogh Museums. The wing-shaped roof becomes a meeting place acting as a physical and conceptual shelter since it is also the only space where people can be easily protected by environmental conditions such as sun and rain. Furthermore, looking at the wing by the lateral Van Baerlestraat, the roof creates a dialogue with the ancient building aligning it with the final string course of the first building creating a visual transition from old and new. Moreover, the continuous glass wall that characterises the ground floor provides a plaza that runs from inside the museum outward (Wouter 2008), highlighting the identity of the architecture to be a social place meeting urban social activities with the cultural activities of the museum. According to the museum’s statement, the new shape and identity of the Stedelijk Museum enabled a before-undervalued collection and a before-neglected building to be enhanced thanks to architectural design providing to the community a social interaction space (Wouter 2008, 99).


43In shape and function, some museum’s extensions own the peculiarity to cross and to be crossed. As a space of transition, the liminal space of the museum affords activities related to pass from one space to reach another space, firstly represented by the threshold. However, the threshold of the museum is not only represented by the physical door. In exceptional cases, the act of crossing a liminal space can be realised also in the external environment. The Swiss National Museums of Zurich (fig. 3) is a unique representation of the crossing act in architecture enacted by the extension inaugurated in 2016 and designed by architects Christ & Gantenbein. The first intention of the new project was to overcome the cul-de-sac system of the nineteenth-century building (Hoffmann and Schittich 2016, 17), completing the circulation of the visit to the cultural history and the craftsmanship and artworks of Switzerland.

Fig. 3 – Crossing case studies. Plans. c: Swiss National Museums d: San Telmo Museum. Legend: Grey (Old building), Black (New addition), Blue (public liminal spaces).

Drawing by the author

44The new wing is a concrete volume that encloses the northern side of the old building framing the park along the Limmat River “thanks to a movement the extension’s volume makes: it briefly lifts itself up from the ground to come down again” (Çiçek 2022, 39). The architectural movement of the wing lifting as a broken line generates a gate connecting the museum’s realm to the urban realm. In a liminal state resembling Turner’s descriptions, the lifting crosses the space while simultaneously the visitor physically crosses the gate to pass from one condition to another. The uniqueness of this morphology enables a social and cultural language of architecture that creates a mediation between the museum and the city, as well as its content and the visitor.

45A different concept of crossing has been envisioned by architects Nieto e Sobejano in the San Telmo museum’s extension in San Sebastian (fig. 3), Spain (2011). The meeting morphology and identity is strengthened by a different contact of the architecture to the pre-existing building and landscape. The museums stand on the slope of the hill where Santa Cruz de la Mota castle is located. The short distance of the former Dominican monastery hosting the museum inspired the realisation of a tapered new addiction for multifunctional activities of welcoming that end with an external staircase. This element vertically crosses the levels of the ground floor of the museum to reach the level of the hill, offering a new access point to climb the green hill (Tabak and Sirel 2021, 37). The expedient realised by the architects opened up a new fundamental affordance allowing people to cross the staircases of the museum and freely explore the museum’s context and that of the surrounding landscape of the city “mediating between the urban realm and the natural environment” (Hoffmann and Schittich 2016, 266). Oppositely to the Stedelijk Museum, an introspective and intimate relationship with the space enhances in San Telmo museum a profound dialogue with the landscape, the pre-existing building and the city from an unprecedented point of view that offers a new knowledge of the San Sebastian heritage.


46As previously stated, the visitors’ behaviour is determined by numerous factors and actants shaping visitors’ emotions, feelings and experiences. The liminal space of the museum has the objective of embracing and welcoming the museum’s visitors, and its design features have the opportunity to create pleasant or unpleasant, familiar or unfamiliar space. The following case studies have been selected for their peculiar creation of accommodating spaces that used the value of the pre-existing building to create new affordances and activities enhancing the visitor’s experience. This is the case of the MACRO museum in Rome (fig. 4) considered singular for what occurred during the fifteenth-month period from October 2018 to December 2019, with the curatorship by Giorgio De Finis. Although the project continues to be controversial for its anarchical management in public opinion, the Museum of Contemporary Art of Rome lived a fresh and fervent moment involving numerous activities. The project was called MACRO ASILO, a name having a double meaning of shelter and kindergarten in Italian. The museum project conceived by Odille Decq preserved the heritage of the former brewery in the dense urban network of Rome as an envelope to accommodate a central space functioning as a inner public square. In the foyer on the street level, a sparkling red volume like a precious heart (Decq 2010) hosts the auditorium (fig. 3). Numerous conferences of important artists were organised in this space, making the hall the core of the museum enhancing the architect’s conception.

Fig. 4 – Accommodating case studies. Plans. e: MACRO f: Tate Modern. Legend: Grey (Old building), Black (New addition), Blue (public liminal spaces).

Drawing by the author

47Indeed, another liminal space of the ground floor, the MACRO-ASILO’s “words room”, proved to be a rich space, creatively challenging students and putting teachers and students in novel situations (Barzanò et al. 2020, 5). A research on Trialogical Learning Approach (TLA) proved that the blackboard, a typical school setting, which traditionally enhances top-down interactions, became in the MACRO environment a genius loci for all. The use of a full-wall blackboard with the attentive design of moving furniture allowed students to work together and experience their mutual influence and the impact of cooperation in real time, together with a sense of self-efficacy (Bandura 2010). The familiar atmosphere of this room, realised as a multifunctional space for creative and educational activities, proved that “things” are real partners of cognitive and social processes, as elements containing knowledge and supporting the generation of new knowledge (Bandura 2010).

48The volume of the museum, as well, plays an important role in the range of possibilities to engage the visitors. A strong involvement can be achieved and experienced in the Turbine Hall of the Tate Modern (fig. 4) in London. The whole station was converted by Herzog & de Meuron (2000) into a gallery, where the ancient hall becomes the central stage of all the most important site-specific installations. Art and architecture act as coprotagonists of a social and learning experience. The influence of the space and the possibility given to the vast void of the turbine hall is one of the key factors of the success of art projects and public programs mutually concurring to create a museum’s community involved before the exhibitions start. An exceptional spatial ethnographic research on the museum (Hood et al. 2022) examined how family museum practices relate to the spatial design of the museum’s liminal spaces. Within the liminal space, the turbine hall was the focus of a study on the entrance/exit practices related to play. In the period of the research (October 2016 and April 2017), the space, annually hosting a site-specific installation, dealt with the presence of Anywhen (2016), an immersive artwork by Philippe Parreno that carpeted almost all the pavement of the turbine hall. In this new environment, the authors revealed that “an almost-constant flow of people walked through the Turbine Hall, supported by spatial planning that enables direct access from the south side of the museum complex to its river frontage” (Hood et al. 2022, 539). Liminal spaces acquired also multiple meanings that influence behaviour in other spaces of the museum and also after the visit. The distinguishing industrial size of the Turbine Hall and the scale of the artworks displayed can be considered one of the best results of visitor engagement that bonds contemporary art, contemporary and historical architecture in a whole notion of heritage. Furthermore, the museum’s management, together with one of the most advanced public programs, reveal the promising collaboration between architecture and the museum’s objectives to enhance life-long learning through a social space open to all.


49The concept of the liminal museum can be used to build up commitment to the heritage discourse of the museum. By learning from the good practices and integrating them with current methodologies and theories, the architectural design of liminal spaces can acquire new potentialities that are still underrated in the museum’s discourse. With a collaborative dialogue with museum professionals, the design and management of these spaces can concur to improve engagement with visitors, enhancing the experience and the notion that they have of the museum as heritage, not only related to its collection. This approach can create the premises of new understandings of its democratic role as well. A thorough investigation of liminal spaces of the above-mentioned case studies, adopting quantitative and qualitative analysis, can enhance the notion of the museum’s heritage, starting from its spaces and analysing its architecture as a facilitator of cultural and social processes. The purpose is to understand the social and educational needs that museums respond to (Holtorf 2006), thinking of spaces that can outline multiple potentialities open to every human being. Liminal museums, in their various morphologies and identities, can contribute to developing a more accessible museum where everyone is involved in the agency of building a notion of community-centred heritage. Independently by their historical, social, or cultural value, buildings that host museums need to be enhanced and preserved primarily as nests where the identities can grow and founding the museum’s community.

50A first investigation of the selected case studies showed that contemporary museums’ additions could be considered a strategic device to enhance the heritage and involve socio-educational processes in the museum-heritage meaning-making. A further and complementary analysis involving quantitative methods such as space syntax and qualitative methods with on-field research and survey would profoundly strengthen the premises presented in this paper investigating real processes occurring in the liminal spaces of these museums. Indeed, the architect’s idea becomes real not when built but when it is lived. When people make real the social and cultural processes envisioned by the architect and eventually overcome these expectations, a notion of a museum’s heritage can exist.

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Legenda Fig. 1 – Conceptualised plans. a: MuseumsQuartier b: Stedelijk Museum c: Swiss National Museums d: San Telmo Museum e: MACRO f: Tate Modern.
Créditos Drawing by the author
Ficheiro image/jpeg, 74k
Legenda Fig. 2 – Meeting case studies. Plans. a: MuseumsQuartier b: Stedelijk Museum. Legend: Grey (Old building), Black (New addition), Blue (public liminal spaces).
Créditos Drawing by the author
Ficheiro image/jpeg, 49k
Legenda Fig. 3 – Crossing case studies. Plans. c: Swiss National Museums d: San Telmo Museum. Legend: Grey (Old building), Black (New addition), Blue (public liminal spaces).
Créditos Drawing by the author
Ficheiro image/jpeg, 70k
Legenda Fig. 4 – Accommodating case studies. Plans. e: MACRO f: Tate Modern. Legend: Grey (Old building), Black (New addition), Blue (public liminal spaces).
Créditos Drawing by the author
Ficheiro image/jpeg, 61k
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Fabiana Dicuonzo, «The liminal museum. An investigation of the socio-educational processes starting from architecture»MIDAS [Online], 17 | 2023, posto online no dia 15 novembro 2023, consultado o 15 abril 2024. URL:; DOI:

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Fabiana Dicuonzo

She is an Italian architect and curator, based in Porto (Portugal). She holds a master in Architecture at the Polytechnic of Bari (2015) and the postgraduate School Diploma in Architectural and Landscape Heritage, “La Sapienza” University of Rome (2018). She attended three online courses (2020) at NODE Center for Curatorial Studies and an advanced course exhibit at MAXXI, Rome (2018). She is currently a PhD student (FCT scholarship 2022.11710.BD) in Heritage Studies – Museology specialization at the Faculty of Arts and Humanities, University of Porto, where she is a collaborator of CITCEM – Center for Transdisciplinary Research Culture, Space and Memory. She is a consultant in cultural European cooperation projects for Apulia Region (Italy).

Faculdade de Letras da Universidade do Porto, Via Panorâmica s/n Torre A, Piso 04150-564 Porto, Portugal,,

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