Blending History and Research
Museum and Earth Sciences combined to form hands-on learning environment

Amherst College’s classic New England campus consists of red brick and gray stone buildings dating back to the 19th Century. McKim, Mead and White’s Fayerweather Hall, located immediately adjacent to the project site, employs molded terracotta accents that provide elegant detail, scale and ornament within its brick facades. The new Beneski Earth Sciences Building and Museum of Natural History translates these materials into a contemporary, highly responsive exterior envelope.

The renowned collection of dinosaur footprints are dramatically displayed on sliding racks, lit wit LEDs

The natural history collection is now a prominent feature on the campus 

Amherst College
Beneski Earth Sciences Bldg. & Museum of Ntl. History

Amherst, MA / United States


56,000 GSF

Geology, Natural History Museum, Research Labs, Teaching Labs

This simple 56,000 SF brick gabled box fits into the Amherst campus context, emulating the spirit of the College’s historic structures with distinctly forward-looking architecture. A modest museum pavilion, with large glass openings, display the mammoth, mastodon, Irish elk and other skeletons from the natural history collection. The merging of the museum with the earth science program created synergies that enhanced both functions.

The pressing need to replace their outdated geoscience facility offered Amherst an opportunity to initiate the redevelopment of an entire camps precinct, update their teaching and research spaces as well as showcase the formerly indistinct Museum of Natural History.

Integrating the museum into the Geosciences Department created dynamic new synergies and opportunities to advance their futures in parallel. Innovative “classatories” combined classrooms, laboratories and geology collections which, in turn, shaped new pedagogical approaches by allowing multiple teaching pedagogies and a collaborative, hands-on learning experience. Clusters of geology teaching, research and instrument laboratories, faculty offices and project rooms are located throughout the building providing meaningful educational experiences for majors and non-majors alike.

The three level museum volume is imbedded into the four story geology building, integrating the two in support of the curriculum. The diaphragm between the museum and geology department is comprised of collections cabinets and display cases that allow glimpses from the adjacent corridor into the museum. A single, central corridor and open stair keep the interior on an intimate scale, supporting the close interface between students and faculty that is the hallmark of this renowned department.

The museum spaces cascade in a series of interconnecting two story volumes. In the more contemplative study areas of the museum and earth sciences building, exhibits are nestled with seating areas to further reinforce the connection between the two programs. The lounge spaces include transparent display cases, known as the “ice cubes,” bringing the museum’s collections into more informal learning spaces. This reinforces the idea that the study of the earth sciences permeates throughout the entire building. The second floor of the museum overlooks the main exhibit of mammoth and mastodon and is used by students from all departments as study space even when the museum is closed. The most significant element of the museum’s collection, the largest collection of dinosaur tracks in the world, is housed in the lower floor of the new museum. This collection, previously inaccessible to the public, is arrayed both on wall and counter surfaces as well as upon a custom designed movable rack system. The state-of-the-art LED lighting system was positioned to focus low angle light on the specimens which exposes extremely fine details in the fossils that was nearly impossible to see in the old museum.

A compact floor plan with a single, central corridor and open stair reinforce the unique, intimate nature of Amherst’s Geology Department and introduced moments of spontaneity between students, faculty and visitors. Embedding the two programs created a unique, symbolic relationship between the collection and the teaching and research done in the same facility. As a result, visitor counts went up ten-fold and the rare dinosaur tracks became a draw for visitors and researchers from around the globe. Siting of the new building sparked the re-development of the East campus precinct and allowed for the dramatic Natural History Museum to become the focal point at the head of this new campus open space.

Photography: © Warren Jagger Photography; © Edua Wilde

Robert J. Schaeffner, FAIA, LEED AP

Sarah S. Gewurz, AIA, LEED AP
Project Manager