The National Museum of African-American History and Culture (Credit: Alamy)

The buildings that make us think

These museums are more than archives of important work. Their architectural forms help tell their stories, writes Devon Van Houten Maldonado.

Museums do more than allow us to engage with history and art. They are forms in and of themselves, which, to varying degrees, enable and propagate missions and legacies through design and architecture. Perhaps no museum in recent history has created as much excitement or reverberated through culture as much as the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington DC, which, just in time for Black History Month, was awarded the Beazley Design of the Year Award presented by London’s Design Museum. Since opening in 2016, the museum has welcomed more than 2.5 million visitors and tickets are still reserved months in advance.

A museum of modern art in Cologne isn’t so different from one in Chicago

One of the first visitors to the one-of-a-kind institution, created by congress in 2003, was then-president Barack Obama who said, “Hopefully this museum can help us talk to each other. And more importantly, listen to each other. And most importantly, see each other – black and white and Latino and Native American, and Asian American – see how our stories are bound together.”

Museums are not neutral spaces, where objects exist without context. Try as some museums might to go unnoticed as simply the pedestal or wall on which history and art work hangs, there is no escaping the weight of the objects and stories told within their architecture. Visiting museums around the world, it becomes apparent that a museum of modern art in Cologne isn’t so different from a museum of modern art in Chicago – you see the same major-canon artists, arranged in more or less the same way. But, luckily, some museums like the new National Museum of African American History and Culture are challenging that outdated museology.

The architecture of the museum, which sits within view of the White House and the US Capitol building, was created by lead designer David Adjaye and lead architect Philip Freelon, who imagined the structure to reflect the heritage of slavery, the civil rights movement and the black diaspora. Of course, it was also built to reach upwards toward a more heavenly future – it’s the first Smithsonian museum designed to be certified ‘gold’ for sustainability by the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (Leed). As Los Angeles Times architecture critic Christopher Hawthorne wrote in a headline, the museum is a “bold challenge to traditional Washington architecture.”

“As a new branch of the Smithsonian located three blocks south of the White House, charged with marking the origins and history of the slave trade and giving some measure of the modern African American experience, the museum could hardly be more fraught as a cultural institution or work of architecture,” writes Hawthorne.

The three-tiered design of the corona shape was inspired by crown forms used in the Yoruban art of West Africa, according to Adjaye, who was raised in multiple African countries (he’s visited all 54 independent African nations) and is now based in London. The whole building is wrapped in bronze-plated aluminium latticework, referencing the ironwork made by African slaves in the southern United States. Also, sadly symbolic of African American history in the United States, nearly half of the museum’s exhibition space extends underground, where, for generations, the stories within were buried.

Roman Catholic but avant garde

Across the Atlantic Ocean, another museum with a very different vision also encourages deep introspection and reverence from its visitors. The Kolumba Art Museum of the Archdiocese of Cologne is, as the name suggests, a Catholic institution but, like the museum of African American history, in practice it’s actually much more than another religious relic. At the Kolumba, old and new coexist in a manner completely unexpected from the Catholic church – contemporary art and renaissance antiquity are in dialogue with each other. Architect Peter Zumthor embraces the rubble of a gothic church destroyed by air raids in World War Two, which itself sat atop ruins dating back to the 7th or 8th Century AD.

For decades, the rubble of the Kolumba left behind by US and British bombs, which destroyed the vast majority of the city along with the church during the war, remained untouched like a bloody wound in the heart of the city. It wasn’t until 2007 that the museum moved to its new modern home and adopted a futuristic vision for its exhibitions. It has since received multiple awards including the Hanns-Schaefer Prize (2008), the Energy-Efficient Architecture in Germany Prize (2008) and the Cologne Architecture Prize (2010), among a slew of others.

A captivating medieval triptych of Jesus and the apostles is paired with a painting that seems nearly anti-religious

“We need art so that it can help us look beyond ourselves,” said Cardinal Joachim Meisner, the 94th archbishop of Cologne, who died last year after overseeing the implementation of the museum’s renewed vision. Perhaps at odds with traditional Catholicism, the museum’s leaders aim to create a space that inspires reverence and reflection about the cosmos, not to convert visitors to Catholicism. Furthermore, here every object is given just the right amount of space – German design is translated into impeccable curating and pairing of work.

For example, the Holy Spirit Retable (1448/49), a captivating medieval triptych of Jesus and the apostles which took more than two years to restore, is on display near a painting by Norbert Schwontkowski, The Eve Before History Began (2006), which seems to be nearly anti-religious, showing the story of Adam and Eve acted out by monkeys. These two works, and the eternity between them, embodies the kind of openness the museum was built to inspire. The soaring architecture and the art work it so beautifully holds together catalyse thinking about our origin and beginning, a feeling that is only compounded by visiting the lower level where the raw ruins of the Gothic church lay dormant and sacred, as if the bombs were just dropped yesterday.

Reinvigorating a classic

The Art Institute of Chicago is one of the biggest and oldest museums in the United States. By and large it is a traditional museum, where works from its 300,000-object collection are displayed and divided into sections – European paintings and sculpture, American art, Ancient and Byzantine art, etc – spanning thousands of years of history across its great halls and galleries. Here you can expect to see all the big names from the Renaissance through to Impressionism and beyond, with the addition of the modern wing by Renzo Piano in 2009 and a collection of contemporary works.

But a special gallery nearly hidden within the Asian art section of the Art Institute of Chicago, designed by renowned Japanese architect Tadao Ando, creates a drastic change in atmosphere. You suddenly go from the grandiose enormity of galleries that feel like art history textbooks come to life to Ando’s quiet and reflective room. Now on view in the gallery and spilling into the Asian art wing, mixing with centuries-old antiquities, contemporary Chinese painter Xu Longsen experiments with the traditional Chinese Shan shui, or landscape painting, taking on the enormity of its history in China but also innovating the practice for today. A few hours by car across the state of Illinois, Ando also designed the Pulitzer Foundation for the Arts in St Louis – a museum space off the beaten path where every show is part of the architecture and vice versa.

A few museums are going above and beyond by filling their buildings with not only objects but also visions and questions that keep the arts they house alive, no matter how ancient or new the art works may be. Although it’s easy to discount museums as irrelevant amid the information overload at our fingertips, the opposite is true as long as humans continue to search for greater meaning. Museums can still be places of discovery.

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