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The Best Museum Bathrooms, According to Museum People

Category: Alliance Blog
A row of bathroom doors surrounded by a living plant wall
Bathrooms at Longwood Gardens. Photo credit: mwms1916 on Flickr. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

When you think of all the memorable, thoughtfully designed spaces in museums, the bathrooms may not be the first thing that come to mind. They aren’t usually considered the feather in an architect’s cap, and they can often feel more like a box-checking utility than a work of art.

But maybe that’s not as it should be. From the visitor perspective, bathrooms can be all-important, revealing just how carefully the designers of a public space considered their comfort and needs. For some people—including those who care for young children, who are transgender or gender-nonconforming, or who have disabilities—this importance can be heightened, and even a barrier to visiting a place altogether. Finally, for museums in particular, bathroom design can be an opportunity to show just how deep your mission goes, the ultimate showcase of your ability to stay on theme no matter the setting.

In that spirit, this month we decided to poll our readers about their favorite museum bathrooms, as part of our ongoing Question of the Month series in our Field Notes newsletter (which you should subscribe to, if you don’t already!). A hat tip for the idea goes to my colleague Elizabeth Merritt, who has long dreamed of AAM launching a formal “Best Museum Bathrooms” competition. In the meantime, this will have to do.

Here are the most common answers we received, ordered by number of mentions. Make sure to check out the Facebook post asking the question to see more of the two-hundred-plus responses that came in (including an intriguing tidbit about a former “Curator of Bathrooms” position).

Smith College Museum of Art (Northampton, Massachusetts)

Nominated by Paul Revere Memorial Association, Stuart Chase, Alexandra Schwartz, Elizabeth Fox, Sarah Zenaida Gould, Julie Steiner, Gennie Perez, Erin Richardson, and Michelle Stahl

“Smith College Museum of Art has artist-designed bathrooms, which are also installations with object records in their database!” – Erin Richardson

“The two sets of restrooms on the lower level are permanent works of art by Ellen Driscoll and Sandy Skoglund” – Paul Revere Memorial Association

In partnership with the Kohler Trust for Arts and Education and Kohler Company, the museum commissioned artists to design elaborately decorated facilities that “blur the boundaries between form and function.”

John Michael Kohler Arts Center (Sheboygan, Wisconsin)

Nominated by Jennifer Clearwater, Kristy Griffin-Smith, Jane Tomich, Kathi Lynn Pink, and Jennifer Rose Wolken

“The bathrooms are works of art, each designed by a different artist.” – Kristy Griffin-Smith

“Ranging from delightfully whimsical to spiritually uncomfortable, these bathrooms will make you think twice about your porcelain throne at home.” – Jess (c/o Megan Even)

 

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John Michael Kohler Arts Center, whose namesake founded one of the best-known producers of toilets, hosts six spectacular artist-designed bathrooms throughout its main building, produced through the center’s artist-in-residence program that allows participants to experiment with the Kohler company’s manufacturing technologies and materials. The museum unveiled even more artist-designed bathrooms with the recent opening of its satellite Art Preserve site.

Episode 4:  Artist-designed Washrooms at the Art Preserve from John Michael Kohler Arts Center on Vimeo.

The Mariners’ Museum and Park (Newport News, Virginia)

Nominated by Zachary Baughman, Rebecca Guest, and Emily Robinson

“The Mariners’ Museum and Park has great panels in its stalls that explain bathroom elements on ships and using the bathroom at sea.” – Rebecca Guest

“The panels are funny, clever, and informative.” – Zachary Baughman

The museum’s bathroom-exclusive exhibition, A Head of Its Time: A Brief History of Going at Sea, discusses topics like “why the facilities—or lack thereof—were called ‘the head’; the wisdom of keeping tabs on wind direction and how sailors improvised before toilet paper.”

From the Mariners Museum bathroom. Happy Talk Like a Pirate Day, arrrrrrr!

SFMOMA (San Francisco, California)

Nominated by Wendy Jimenez, Blair Kaye-Wallach, and Michele Ellis Pracy

“The bathrooms are a different color on every floor!” – Wendy Jimenez

Starting on the second floor, the museum’s bathrooms are painted monochrome in bright red, blue, gray, green, pink, and purple.

 

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Glore Psychiatric Museum (St. Joseph, Missouri)

Nominated by Sara Elizabeth Wilson, Ann Bennett, and Tina Tibbetts

“Nightmare-inducing bathrooms…but in a good way.” – Ann Bennett

“All are awesome but the clown and optical illusion bathrooms are the best!” – Sara Elizabeth Wilson

Located at the site of a former psychiatric hospital, the museum keeps its bathrooms strikingly on theme, using them as an opportunity to teach about topics like optical illusions and phobias.

 

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@stjosephmuseumsinc Somebody’s watching me.. #clownbathroom #glorepsychiatricmuseum ♬ original sound – Ian Asher

21c Museum Hotels (Multiple Locations)

Nominated by Geoff Rey Ro Sal, Lauren Pacheco, and Kassie Alderson Ward

“The 21c museum in Louisville, Kentucky’s bathroom has interactive art in it and has see-through walls so you can see all the people walking past you but they can’t see you.” – Geoff Rey Ro Sal

The 21c Museum Hotels chain, which combines contemporary art museums with hotels in nine cities in the United States and counting, has made a splash with its artistic bathroom designs, which make use of elements like one-way mirrors, sculptures, and video installations.

Charleston Museum (Charleston, South Carolina)

Nominated by Jessica Runyon, Oksana Pasakas, and Erin Clark

“The Charleston Museum has a chamber pot display in their restroom…genius!” – Erin Clark

Baltimore Museum of Art (Baltimore, Maryland)

Nominated by Scott Briggs and Baltimore Museum of Industry

In exchange for donating his private art collection to the BMA, filmmaker and writer John Waters made the unusual request that the museum’s bathrooms be renamed in his honor. The museum used the opportunity to build its first-ever gender-neutral facilities, featuring four floor-to-ceiling stalls and a communal sink area. “Public restrooms make all people nervous,” Waters said at the unveiling. “They’re unpredictable. They’re also fueled by accidents, just like my favorite contemporary art.”

Denver Art Museum (Denver, Colorado)

Nominated by Melody Lowe and Hannah Ryan

“The sinks sing ‘Row, Row, Row Your Boat’ as you wash your hands. You can get the sinks to sing in canon if you time it right.” – Melody Lowe

Denver artist Jim Green, also known for a Laughing Escalator at the Colorado Convention Center, designed Singing Sinks for the museum which reside on the second floor of its Welcome Center.

 

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The Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art (Amherst, Massachussetts)

Nominated by Katie Boardman and Josh Walker

“They have tiles with his art and a fly he painted in the urinals!” – Josh Walker

MASS MoCA (North Adams, Massachussetts)

Nominated by Liselle LaFrance and Fabienne Keck

“Talk about authentic!” – Liselle LaFrance

The museum’s industrial-chic bathrooms pay tribute to its building’s former life as a factory.

Bathroom, MASS MoCA

Longwood Gardens (Kennett Square, Pennsylvania)

Nominated by Rand Kehler and Joseph Kolasinski

“The bathrooms at Longwood Gardens are so unique, beautiful, and become a cool experience! … One travels a green wall of plants, then you get individual round rooms with skylights and orchids in pots by the sinks!” – Rand Kehler

Longwood Gardens’ biophilic bathroom design won the 2014 award for America’s Best Restroom from the Cintas corporation, along with a $2500 prize to help keep them clean.

Untitled

Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum (Boston, Massachusetts)

Nominated by Karen Trop and Nicole Albright

“Spacious and cheery—perfect for school groups and those of us looking for more elbow space.” – Karen Trop

“The green tiled floors and matching floral stall doors gave me retro but modern vibes.” – Nicole Albright

IMG_1013

Exploratorium (San Francisco, California)

Nominated by Jamie Bell and Eric Siegel

Exploratorium’s bathroom walls produce the optical “café wall illusion,” in which horizontal lines that are actually parallel to each other appear to slope because of the color and placement of the tiles.

An Average Bathroom

Honorable Mentions

  • “I love that the Cooper Hewitt has ‘how to read an artifact label’ panels on the insides of their stall doors.” – Joanna Church
  • Science Museum of Minnesota has a great entry to the bathroom on the 5th floor! Educational panels about the sewage system in St Paul, MN, including a selection of the weird things people flush down the toilet. It’s fun and educational!” – Emily Tremain
  • “The Pitt Rivers Museum has the best truly all-gender toilets: a hall with a row of self-contained, fully private stalls with floor-to-ceiling doors, and mirrors and sinks in each.” – Margaret Middleton
  • “The family bathroom at the Missouri History Museum, with the gorgeous fireplace and wooden rocking chair (so helpful for nursing moms).” – Patti O’Brien Brenner
  • “The New Museum’s are a work of art. So are Museum of Chinese in America’s designed by Maya Lin.” – Fabiana Chiu
  • “The Brick Store Museum in Kennebunk, Maine has ‘artifact labels’ on (next to) everything in the bathroom to tell history of each item (toilet, sink, toilet paper, paper towels, mirror, etc.).” – Cynthia Walker
  • “The walls of the bathrooms at Planet Word in DC feature euphemisms for going to the restroom (e.g. ‘seeing a man about a horse’) and wordplays on famous quotations (e.g. ‘I stink, therefore I am.’) I, like many, took pictures.” – Matt Kirchman
  • Beneski Museum of Natural History at Amherst College. The bathrooms counters on each floor are different types of rock—igneous, metamorphic, sedimentary—and there are posters and info about the rock types.” – Julie Bartlett Nelson
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6 thoughts on “The Best Museum Bathrooms, According to Museum People

  1. While I love this list, the UX content strategist in me is wondering why the writer didn’t anticipate the next questions from readers.
    Where is this museum?
    – Please list the city and state for each.
    What is their website so I can learn more?
    – Some are linked within the text, and some aren’t. Consistency is key and listing the official site under its named heading would be very helpful for potential museum visitors.

  2. What a fun article! A quick correction on the location of the Singing Sinks by Jim Green at the Denver Art Museum – the work was reinstalled recently and now resides on the 2nd floor of the Welcome Center of the Martin Building 🙂

  3. These are dramatic and exciting toilets for the majority of people but for those with poor eyesight, dementia or unsteady on their feet some of the patterns would be very disorientating or may even cause distress. We do need to be aware of this sort of thing and ensure that there are some toilets available which are not so ‘busy’ in pattern and colour.

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