Building the Modern Museum

The Art Museum in Modern Times is a richly researched book that transports us through the history of today’s galleries. As an architectural historian, author Charles Saumarez Smith is well placed to guide us on this journey, but it is his personal experience of commissioning a major gallery re-design that gives the story its narrative hook. In 1994, the author was appointed director of the National Portrait Gallery, and immediately set about planning an extension to “what was still essentially a late Victorian building,” lacking all the accoutrements of contemporary art appreciation: a shop, a lecture theatre, catering facilities and easily accessible, democratically arranged galleries.

In the process of working with commissioned architects Jeremy Dixon and Edward Jones on what became the Ondaatje Wing, Saumarez Smith saw at first hand “the extent to which the design of a museum, its look and feel, how paintings are hung and the sequence by which they are ordered combine to shape the experience of the visitor.” That knowledge was supplemented by a sense of “the universal decline in belief in a master narrative mode made manifest through the display of a museum’s permanent collection.” More common, at least since the late 20th century, has been “the idea of exploration and the validity of individual response, not as instructed by the authority of the museum.”

Saumarez Smith’s book guides us, with well-evidenced clarity and a smattering of biographical vignettes, from the first to the second of these conditions, via discussion of the most exemplary museum designs for each historical phase he identifies. These are, in turn: the era of the “Traditional Museum”, grand neoclassical buildings designed to facilitate an awe-inspiring journey through history; the ages of the modern and postmodern museum, spanning the 1930-1970s and 1980s-1990s respectively; “Museums for the New Millennium”; and “The Museum Reinvented.”

The Traditional Museum is by no means snubbed by Saumarez Smith—indeed this paradigm is responsible for beautifully designed structures such as Edinburgh’s Scottish National Gallery. But the story really begins in 1929, when a plan was hatched for a new museum of modern art in New York. Alfred H. Barr’s MoMA was, in the director’s words,  to “expand beyond the narrow limits of painting and sculpture…to include departments devoted to drawing, prints, photography, typography, the arts of design in commerce and industry, architecture… stage design, furniture and the decorative arts.” This levelling out of hierarchies between the fine and functional arts was just as significant as MoMA’s internationalism, manifested in a controversial early show of Mexican muralism. Both these aspects of the museum’s conception were indebted to the Bauhaus ideology.

The architecture capable of expressing these ideals was that of the International Style, defined, suitably enough, by a 1932 exhibition at MoMA. Philip Goodwin and Edward Durrell Stone’s elegant modernist headquarters for the museum, opened in 1939, provided “a model for the future design of museums,” according to Saumarez Smith. “It was modernist in style rather than classical; situated in the heart of the city…not too large [and] concentrated on contemporary culture.”

MoMA’s arrangement of space and attendant curatorial principles, whilst abandoning older chronological modes, still proposed a taxonomical division between genres and an academically dictated canon that, by the 1960s, were falling out of fashion. After outlining some other classic examples from the modernist age – including Marcel Breuer’s angular Whitney Museum and Lina Bo Bardi’s São Paulo Museum of Art, with its transparent glass display sheets – Saumarez Smith thus steers us towards the “post-modern” reaction.

The key principles of museum and gallery design during the 1980s-1990s, he suggests, were a new spirit of playful responsiveness to the neo-classical origins of the architectural genre and a sense that a gallery could legitimately express the tastes of an individual rather than attempting an objective critical stance. In the first case, Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown’s new wing for the National Gallery, with its jazzily clustered columns – both honouring and poking fun at the main façade to which it stands askew – is exemplary. On the latter point, the power of Saatchi and other wealthy private collectors in defining the scope of a viewer’s artistic experience by setting up their own galleries is, for better or worse, also a product of these decades.

If MoMA was the iconic museum of the modern period, the Tate Modern, with its vast central turbine hall, surely served the same purpose for the “New Millennium” discussed in the third chapter. It is at this point that the ideals of the contemporary art museum as posited by Saumarez Smith are really established. A 1996 lecture from Nicholas Serota, Tate’s director at the time of the Tate Modern’s birth, gets the key points across: “our aim must be to generate a condition in which visitors can experience a sense of discovery in looking at particular paintings, sculptures or installations in a particular room at a particular moment, rather than find themselves standing on a conveyor belt of history.” The architecture reflective of this idea would facilitate free movement between a series of equally prioritised sections. The 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art in Kanazawa, created by Kazuyo Sejima and Ryue Nishizawa, its separate functions “separated out…into distinct, interconnecting glass pavilions,” embodies this idea.

At the same time, during the early noughties we saw the emergence of more sui generis structures to house particular types of art, such as Dia: Beacon in New York State, a magnificent, expansive set of environments for experiencing land art. The spirit of these adventures is carried through into Saumarez Smith’s fourth chapter, where the museum is “reinvented” according to a whole gamut of ideas and temperaments. The brainchild of a gambling billionaire, MONA, the Museum of Old and New Art, sets its galleries in austere, underground caverns and provides audiences with smartphones rather than captions to guide them around the maze. The final section of the text consists of a set of illuminating discussions on the changing role of important figures and themes within art museum design, from the “rise of the client” to “the search for the sacred.” A book of expansive reach and generous intelligence, The Art Museum in Modern Times will add new colour and depth to your next gallery visit.

Find out more here.

Words: Greg Thomas

Image Credits:
1. Page 185b, The entrance hall and escalator at The Broad, Los Angeles, designed by Diller Scofidio + Renfro, photographed by Iwan Baan. Photo credit:Photo Iwan Baan. Courtesy Diller Scofidio + Renfro
2. Page 185, The Broad, Los Angeles, designed by Diller Scofidio + Renfro, photographed by Iwan Baan. Photo credit: Photo Iwan Baan. Courtesy Diller Scofidio + Renfro
3. Page 193, The entrance to the Louvre Abu Dhabi, designed by Jean Nouvel. Photo credit: Charles Saumarez Smith