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MGH museum gets design right, inside and out

The Paul S. Russell, MD Museum of Medical History and Innovation at Massachusetts General Hospital was designed by Leers Weinzapfel Associates.

Anton Grassl/esto.com

The Paul S. Russell, MD Museum of Medical History and Innovation at Massachusetts General Hospital was designed by Leers Weinzapfel Associates.

It’s unlikely that anyone has ever thought of Massachusetts General Hospital as a warm, delightful work of architecture. MGH is huge, it sprawls, it’s confusing. Its numerous buildings look as if they’re jammed together around some invisible center, like the members of a football team in a huddle with their backsides to the rest of the world.

That’s what’s intriguing about the new MGH museum, which opens to the public on Tuesday. MGH is trying for the first time, at least in recent years, to present a likable, interesting face to the world.

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This is a tiny building. It’s almost like a shiny badge pinned on the big, mostly gray MGH complex. But in the hands of inventive architects, it succeeds in its goal of grabbing your attention, inciting your curiosity, and inviting you in to learn more about MGH.

The museum’s proper name is the Paul S. Russell, MD Museum of Medical History and Innovation. It stands on the corner of Cambridge and North Grove streets, a block from the Charles/MGH transit station. North Grove leads to the main entrance to the MGH complex, so Russell is poised to greet you as you enter.

The architects are the Boston firm of Leers Weinzapfel, with cofounder Jane Weinzapfel as chief designer. The architect’s first problem was one of urban design: how to give this small building a presence among many bigger neighbors on a very busy street. Weinzapfel solves that one with three smart moves.

First, she adds a trellised garden at the roof, giving her two-story building the height of a taller structure. Second, she wraps the ground floor in clear glass, so that you can hardly walk past on the sidewalk without peering inside and perhaps being enticed to enter. Third and most important, she clads most of the rest of the building in a gleaming coat of copper.

The copper makes Russell feel special, as if it’s been gift-wrapped. There must, you feel, be something precious inside. And the copper is worth a closer look. It came to the site in simple sheets, which then were cut, shaped, and fitted to the building by the hands of workers. Joints are detailed in unpredictable ways. The result is a metallic surface with something of the richness of woven textile.

Leers Weinzapfel architects are known as modernists, with a love of crisp detailing of industrial materials like steel and glass. There’s plenty of that at Russell. But the copper introduces a different note, one of handicraft. It nods to the copper of the nearby T station and the details of Beacon Hill houses. It’s been left untreated and will slowly change color as it weathers over the next 25 years or so, eventually becoming green.

Another feature I like is a big second-floor window that pops out over the sidewalk. Oddly angled, it’s like the distorted human eye in a Picasso portrait. Russell seems to be looking at you.

The whole museum is free to the public. That includes the roof garden, which was designed by landscape architect James A. Heroux of the firm Brown Sardina. The garden is a serene pleasure. Planters made of cor-ten steel, similar in color to copper, seem to drift around the rooftop like waves, framing plants of many textures and heights beneath the overhead pergola.

As architecture, Russell is a success both outside and in. I wish I could say the same about the contents. Granted, the displays weren’t all in place when I recently visited. But once you get inside, you can’t help noticing that MGH doesn’t yet know just what it wants Russell to be.

The problem is that ideas kept changing. The original concept was that this would be a museum of history, honoring the hospital’s 200th anniversary, which occurred in 2011. But then someone pointed out that MGH is about the future as well as the past. It likes to think it is best known, ever since the Ether Dome and the invention of anesthesia in 1846, for researching new treatments and technologies. So it was decided that Russell would be a museum of both future and past, of history and innovation.

Then, as the new building took architectural form, MGH staffers decided they liked it and wanted to be part of it. They inundated it with requests for other functions: lectures, meetings, receptions, seminars, some for staff, some for the public. The result is a set of interior spaces that look as if they’re a little confused about what they’re supposed to be for.

That said, there’s a lot of interesting stuff to look at. Russell is a Grandma’s attic, a miscellany of curiosities. There’s a small, white, saintly statue of the early nurse Florence Nightingale. There’s a collection of what looks like gruesome torture devices, actually surgical tools once used for such purposes as drilling into the skull. There’s an informative display on how, in poverty-stricken areas of the world, you can make a functional incubator out of parts of an old Toyota.

There are educational touch screens on MGH’s role in the development of such topics as neurology and surgery, an effort to interest young visitors in pursuing a medical career. And there’s lots of memorabilia of the MGH of the past, including, of course, the mandatory wall of oil portraits of distinguished physicians.

Most moving, to me at least, are videos in which caregivers tell us, sometimes near tears, about the patients they have known and, sometimes, lost. Their voices and faces are the most poignant connectors between the hospital and the public.

As with any new building, there are problems yet to be solved. The floor-to-ceiling glass at the ground level, facing south, is a potential source of glare from a low winter sun. A free-standing stair, which connects the ground and second floors, is dramatic and welcome. But it presents a danger of collision with its underside for those who are blind, despite an awkward railing that feels like an afterthought.

The basic cost of construction was $7.9 million. All the money came from private donations, not directly from MGH.

Russell’s mission, say its sponsors, is to be a welcoming window into the workings of the hospital, telling the story of its evolution over time and its aims for the future. That goal hasn’t yet been fully attained.

But the building is flexible. It should be fun to watch how it evolves.

Robert Campbell, the Globe’s architecture critic, can be reached at camglobe@aol.com.

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