E. Verner Johnson of Boston, an internationally distinguished museum architect whose vision, innovation and leadership set new standards for museum design and planning, and who contributed to the evolution of cultural institutions over the past 50 years, passed away on February 24, 2017 at the age of 79.
During his long career, Mr. Johnson was involved with the architectural design and comprehensive master planning of over 200 museum projects. His influence can be seen in institutions across this country and around the world, including the Smithsonian museums in Washington, DC; the Virginia Aquarium and Marine Science Center in Virginia Beach, the Cincinnati Museum Center at Union Station, the St. Louis Science Center, the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago, the Texas State History Museum in Austin, the National Infantry Museum in Columbus, Georgia; the Louvre in Paris, the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa, and the Hong Kong museums of art, science and technology, and history.
Mr. Johnson earned his Master of Architecture degree from MIT in 1961. As a graduate student, he was hired by Bradford Washburn, the visionary director of Boston’s Museum of Science, to design a photography exhibit on Africa. Thus began Mr. Johnson’s lifelong commitment to museums, inspired by his close association and friendship with Washburn.
In 1965, Mr. Johnson established the firm of E. Verner Johnson Architect, Inc., and from the earliest days of his practice, he specialized exclusively in museum planning and design. His first museum building project, at the age of 28, was the massive expansion of the Museum of Science which added the lobby, the Blue Wing exhibit space, the Theater of Electricity, and the parking garage. Mr. Johnson’s design innovations - open, flexible exhibit areas structured in long-span pre-cast concrete; glass railings to increase visual connections; the first museum escalators; a central multi-level exhibit orientation space - had never been seen in a museum before, but have now been widely adopted.
Other projects in the Boston area include the planning for the expansion and reorganization of the Museum of Fine Arts, the expansion and renovation of the MIT Museum, and the planning and design of the New England Aquarium’s IMAX theater and the Science Discovery Museum in Acton.
Mr. Johnson traveled extensively to study museums of all types as well as large-format theaters and planetariums in the United States, Europe, Canada, Japan, Mexico, South America, Hong Kong, New Zealand, the Middle East and China. His research and experience led to the refinement of his mission-driven approach to museum development. He believed that every museum was unique and its architecture should express the mission and personality of the institution; that programs, collections, and exhibitions are a museum’s lifeblood and the architecture should not merely accommodate them, but enhance them; and that functional challenges are sources of creative inspiration.
Mr. Johnson multiplied his contributions to the museum field by sharing his experience, expertise and philosophy. He lectured at individual museums throughout the United States, at national and international museum conferences, and at Harvard University's Museum Studies Degree Program. He taught seminars in museum design and planning for architects and museum professionals for the Harvard University Graduate School of Design Professional Development Program and served as a guest critic and lecturer at the Boston Architectural Center and MIT. He was a long-time Overseer of the Museum of Science, a member of the advisory board of the MIT Museum and a member of the Council for the Arts at MIT.
Those who knew Mr. Johnson describe him as a true Renaissance man, intellectually curious and very knowledgeable and accomplished in many fields of endeavor. He particularly enjoyed the living art of bonsai and created many spectacular specimens. Mr. Johnson was also a world-class raconteur, always entertaining others with stories of his world-wide travels.
One of the people captivated by his fascinating tales was the woman who would become his wife, Linda, a museum professional whom he met while creating the master plan for the South Carolina State Museum. After their marriage, Linda continued her career at the Museum of Science in Boston. They enjoyed their museum-centric life together for almost 35 years.
In addition to his wife, he is survived by his daughter Hyden Johnson and her husband Kevin Mason of Austin, TX; his son Holton, also of Austin; his sister Brenda Clay and her husband Berle of Lexington, KY; his brother Jory and his wife Margaret of Urbana, IL; many nieces and nephews, and two great-nieces.
Friends and colleagues are invited to join the family for a celebration of Mr. Johnson’s life on Thursday, April 27, 4-6pm, in the d’Arbeloff Suite at the Museum of Science in Boston.
In lieu of flowers, please consider a memorial gift to the MIT Museum. Checks may be made payable to MIT and mailed to Bonny Kellerman, Memorial Gifts Office, 600 Memorial Drive, W98-500 Cambridge, MA 02139. Please note on the check that the gift is in memory of E. Verner Johnson.