Breaking the Exhibit/Fan Barrier at the San Francisco 49ers Museum

The Cambridge Seven Associates, Inc. team that created the new San Francisco 49ers Museum at Levi's Stadium successfully met the challenges of an irregularly shaped space, a fast-track design process, and an owner directive to break the exhibit/fan barrier. If they indeed created "the best sports museum you're ever going to see" (as 49ers president Paraag Marathe calls it) it was partly due to all new construction, partly to available new technologies and materials, but largely due to Cambridge Seven Associates and their media consultant Cortina Productions' creative use of innovative experiential design techniques and a very thoughtful design approach that considered the spirit of the team, its history and the game of football.

The San Francisco 49ers Museum immerses visitors in the rich history, moments, stories, sights and sounds of the team that has won five Super Bowls. Featuring a unique layout, 14 interactive exhibits, life-size sculptures of Hall of Fame legends, augmented reality, beloved artifacts and 10 unique media experiences, this museum lets visitors take a dynamic interactive journey through the mystique and legacy of this NFL dynasty.


An Inspired Layout

"The focus of our design work has always been to consider 'the big idea' …[and] to synthesize architecture and exhibits, graphics and the environment," says Timothy Mansfield, AIA, Cambridge Seven Associates' Principal in Charge and Project Manager for the 49ers Museum. "It's almost a metaphysical approach to design." Cambridge Seven Associates' big idea for the museum started with the spiral movement of a football; the spiral became their inspiration for the museum's soaring curvilinear walls, which became the organizational framework for the exhibition galleries and created a distinct one-of-a-kind environment.

Hillary Mateev, AIA, architect on the 49ers Museum says, "We had been given an unusual space within Levi 's Stadium in which to create the museum. It was a disjointed, two-level area located under the rake of the seating, which gave it a unique geometry. Once we considered the spiral, we saw that we could use the motion to bring perfect logic to the high-ceilinged meandering space. The curves provide a nice linear progression, propelling you through the museum."

"The curves are also a great framework for the artifacts, which are installed on the walls and not behind the barrier of a glass case," adds Timothy Mansfield. "As the space 'unfurls' the front and back sides of all the curves allow a continuous progression of graphics and projections. Layered with the interactive monitors, the galleries tell an immersive story."


Breaking the Exhibit/Fan Barrier

The visitor experience begins in the entry lobby, where augmented reality enabled by the latest Kinect technology puts fans, cheerleaders and players virtually together on a 9'x18' screen. "Visitors take selfies with and otherwise interact with their favorites; it creates a real connectivity," says Hillary Mateev.

That connectivity continues throughout the museum. After viewing a stunning 17-minute signature film, “49ers Forever," projected onto an 18’ high by 40’ wide screen utilizing the latest 4K projection technology, visitors move into the "Hall of Fame" gallery where they can explore player stats via interactive kiosks and “interact” with 27 life-sized statues of honored 49ers, posed as they were recognized, in their uniforms, and augmented with a light and sound show that rotates around the room. People in the know have called this gallery the most successful exhibit they've seen in the sports heritage world.

Next in the progression is the "Heritage Gallery," the heart and soul of the museum and where the spiral concept is fully encountered. Here, the team’s memorable artifacts are organized into eight distinct eras. Instead of being encased, artifacts are separated from visitors only by an illuminated glass identification rail that uses words and images to tell the items' remarkable stories.

From the "Heritage Gallery," visitors enter a 40’ high space nestled below the raked stadium, where through augmented reality they experience the excitement of being "In the Game" by immersing themselves virtually in various roles of a football game.

Finally, the visitor enters the ethereal "Super Bowl Gallery" where the 49ers’ five Super Bowl trophies and rings are displayed while projections of those games surround them.


The STEM Program

Adjacent to the "In the Game Gallery" is The Denise DeBartolo York Education Center that is a home for STEM education in the community and integrated into the museum in a very engaging way. The Center showcases revolutionary educational tools with six multi-touch object recognition tables, revolutionary because they use football references to teach math and science: the arc of a football, the science of creating a protective helmet, etc. The STEM Program and Cambridge Seven Associates' design for the Education Center were so successful that Cambridge Seven Associates was commissioned to create a second classroom in an adjacent space within the stadium, which doubled the capacity. In the first year, 30,000 students went through the whole-day experience, at no cost to them or to local schools.


An Extraordinary Design Process

When Cambridge Seven Associates was chosen to design the 49ers Museum, the enormously complex Levi 's Stadium was already several years into design and construction. "We were folded into a much larger team with a framework and infrastructure that had already been well established," says Mansfield. "One thing the 49ers did that we really loved was run The Creative Council as part of the general construction coordination. Made up of all the designers who were touching the stadium in some fashion, The Creative Council eliminated the challenge of everyone trying to do multiple coordination efforts simultaneously; all could share designs, ideas, information and comments. As a result, there is a great continuity of design among the 49ers Museum, the Team Store, concessions, etc. at Levi's Stadium."

Cambridge Seven Associates' overall goal was to create something very unique for this great football franchise to engage the community and the fans. They may have succeeded in executing "the best sports museum you're ever going to see." It is certainly a museum that gives visitors a memorable experience of a great football team.


Project Name: San Francisco 49ers Museum at Levi's Stadium

Client: San Francisco 49ers

Location: Santa Clara, CA

Open Date: September 2014 / STEM Classroom Expansion November 2015

Project Area: 22,000 sq ft

Design: Cambridge Seven Associates, Inc (C7A)

Design Team: Timothy D. Mansfield, AIA (principal in charge/project manager), Peter Sollogub (design principal), Jan Brenner, AIA (project architect), Hillary Mateev, AIA (architect), Jamie Machek, AIA, LEED AP (architect), Krista Lombardi, AIA LEED AP (architect)

Architect: HTNB Architecture (Levi's Stadium), Cambridge Seven Associates, Inc (museum interior architecture)

Collaborators: Cortina Productions (media design), One2Tree (graphic design), Eos Lightmedia (lighting design)

Fabrication: The Taylor Group

Project Budget: $14m

Overall Budget: $1.2b 

Photos: Kwesi Budu-Arthur | C7A (rendering) | Studio Lovejoy (Hall of Fame)


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