Opinion – Renovation gone wrong: the Cincinnati Museum Center and Modernization

Evan Ponstingle | Staff Writer

 Modernization. It’s a buzzword floated around a lot right now. Unfortunately, an increasingly common trend right now is modernization being used as an excuse to rip the heart and soul out of everything you love.

The Cincinnati Museum Center is the new poster child for the wrongs of modernization. It’s been a staple of the Tristate Area since it opened in 1990 inside the historic and beautiful Union Terminal. My childhood is rife with memories of exploring the various museums inside.

With this attachment, I was so excited to venture back in January, my first time following a multi-million dollar renovation to the Museum Center that took longer than it took to build the Empire State Building. I was so excited to see how they built off of and added modern elements to the exhibits I loved. Unfortunately, I was shocked into near-unconsciousness by what I found!

Most of the favorite exhibits had been removed and replaced with absolutely nothing. Classics like the mummy and the World War II sections had just been removed and replaced with empty hallways. Lengthy hallways featuring the Ice Age walkthrough in the Natural History Museum and log cabins and houseboats in the Cincinnati History Museum were just closed and locked up. 

Some areas remained, but had all of their charm stripped away. The water underneath the steamboat in the Public Landing area was drained and replaced with a projection, and the light levels cranked up to eliminate all sense of the previous nighttime atmosphere. One of the most shocking sections of all was the corridor in the Natural History Museum that used to feature vignettes of Native American villages and archeological dig sites. The corridor remains, but painted white (instead of the mysterious purple) and the vignettes are gone and replaced with–classrooms. You can’t make this stuff up!!

All of this begs the question: why? Why go to all the trouble of destroying everything that made the Museum Center special? It boils down to one thing: modernization. Clearly, the museum directors decided to modernize the exhibit and make it “relevant” to families. In today’s society, that increasingly means “take everything out and paint all the walls white.” Yeah, it looks more “modern” than what was there before. But it also eliminated all of the charm and atmosphere of the original iteration. Modernization can turn out well; just see the 2019 renovation of International Street at Kings Island to prove how you can modernize something while enhancing and building off of what made it special. That’s what the Museum Center needed.

What it did not need was a total gutting in the name of modernization.