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Shaping a museum brand is a tricky task. The institutions serve as guardians of cultural and artistic history while simultaneously pioneering new experiments in thought and expression. How do you capture the contrast—honoring tradition without stifling change?

This week, we’re taking a look at several museums to see how they’ve tackled the challenge, where they succeeded, and where they fell flat.

MoMA

An iconic logo from the day it launched, the MoMA logo is simplicity at its finest. The bold sans serif captures the museum’s avant-garde attitude and looks at home in an eclectic urban environment.

Paired with a flexible visual identity system, the MoMA logo can whisper, or it can yell. It looks great on its own, but it can also be applied in almost any environment with almost any accompanying artwork.

 

Shutterstock.com
Shutterstock.com

Minneapolis Institute of Art

Until last year, the Minneapolis Institute of Art used an acronym (MIA) that reminded most people more of the military shorthand for “missing in action” than the fine art displayed within the hundred-year-old institution. Their old identity system emphasized this unfortunate acronym.

In 2016, the institute rolled out a new logo and identity system, as well as a new moniker: “Mia” (pronounced like the girl’s name). The end product nicely resolved the mixed-case problem and has personality without saying too much. It allows the pieces to speak for themselves, although the effect is still a bit goofy.

 

Image from Pentagram  |  www.pentagram.com
Image from Pentagram | www.pentagram.com

The Met

The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s redesigned logo embraces the museum’s popular nickname “The Met.” They’re to be applauded for taking that leap—responding to the public rather than white-knuckling their brand—but that’s where the good news stops.

The merged serifs look like a sophomore “Intro to Typography” project where a student noticed some of the serifs lined up when they’re overlapped, hacked the words together, and called it a day. The connection between the “M” and “E” seems especially forced.

Cincinnati Art Museum

This visual identity system is a great idea with less-than-great execution. The asterisk has energy and buoyancy, but the placement and scale compromise its personality. The logotype strangles the life out of the mark.

The effect is better inside the museum, where way-finding signs and supporting materials use the asterisk in isolation and for emphasis. But overall, this feels like a missed opportunity. The asterisk should act as a stand-out element. Instead, it’s crushed by conforming to too many rules. 

The Smithsonian Institution

The Smithsonian Institution represents a vast, varied, world-class collection and 170 years of tradition. Its visual identity and messaging should stand up to the weight of this venerable history. The Smithsonian’s word mark effectively conveys this seriousness (although the sunburst feels unnecessary and detracts from the overall effect), but the brand falters elsewhere.

After releasing the new logo and word mark a few years ago, The Smithsonian launched the first ad campaign in its history using the tagline “Seriously Amazing.” The colorful, almost flippant ads felt out of place for such a storied cultural icon. In an attempt to reach out to youth culture, The Smithsonian disconnected from its roots and hit an off note.