New Museums (3)

For those of you who did not manage to catch my talk on the subject of new museums, it is now available on the Architecture Foundations’s YouTube channel ( The discussion was sadly truncated at the end by the fact that the power supply on the ground floor of the house went dead.

I am also making the text available as a taster for the book to come:-

• I’ve been encouraged by Ellis Woodman to talk about the work that I have been doing over the last year or so on the subject of new and recent art museums for a book entitled The Art Museum in Modern Times which is going to be published by Thames & Hudson next March, all being well.  

• Having worked in museums and galleries pretty well all my adult life and now having retired from the Royal Academy of Arts as its Secretary and Chief Executive at the end of 2018, I wanted to have an opportunity to stand back, look at, and think about what had changed in terms of the design of museums during the time since I first joined the V&A in 1982 — something which one is never really able to do in a properly systematic way when one is in full-time employment, responsible for the day-to-day operation of an organisation, which at the Royal Academy, involved the conversion of Burlington Gardens by David Chipperfield.  

• In the first version of the text, which I finished this time last summer, I included a certain amount of semi-autobiographical material about the experiences of working in different types and styles of museums, including a chapter on the V&A where I worked till 1994.   But I realised from the reaction of the group of friends who read it over last summer that none of them much liked it.   It was maybe too much of a hybrid between a book about what new museums look like, how and why they are designed in the way that they are;  and a completely different book about the politics and pressures of working in museums and how and why their policies have changed.   So, last November, I unceremoniously dumped all the semi-autobiographical stuff in order to be able to concentrate on what I regard as the core narrative:  how and why museums look so different over time, how and why they are designed in such different styles, and what one might be able to learn about the nature and character of museums from an examination and analysis of these differences in construction and intent.

• In the majority of the text, I write about the history of new museums, starting with the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1939  and ending with the new branch of the Centre Pompidou which opened in the West Bund in Shanghai last November.   I wrote about each of the major museum projects singly, rightly or wrongly without a very clear idea of what the overall narrative would turn out to be.   So far as I was concerned, I was writing the book precisely in order to find out what the narrative has been, because, although there is a big secondary literature on the history of individual museums, much of it is celebratory, written at the time a new museum opens, and I have felt that the literature has made relatively little, and sometimes no, effort to think about the ways in which new museums express and reflect more general ideas and beliefs as to what a museum should be.

• For the purposes of this evening’s talk, I thought I would focus on the final section of the book, which I have called ‘The Museum Reinvented’ and the concluding chapter which is called, maybe slightly pretentiously ‘Key Issues for the Contemporary Museum’, because this is the part which I wrote most recently, towards the end of last year and this spring, and which I found most tricky and which I am most nervous about as to how it will be received.   You are the first people to hear any of it and I will be grateful for your response, although it’s sadly too late to make any changes to the text, other than obvious corrections.

• I started the last section on ‘The Museum Reinvented’ with The Museum of New and Old Art outside Hobart in Tasmania, which I went to on a day trip in late January, not long before lockdown.   It’s an amazing building, on a small promontory on the River Derwent north west of Hobart, which you are meant to reach by a special boat which has a bar on board to get you in the right mood.   If you arrive by boat, you see the museum spread out low, close to the waterside, a deliberately anti-monumental set of structures, half way between a fortress and a theme park, designed by Nonda Katsalidis, one half of the practice Fender Katsalidis, which had previously done an extension to the Bendigo Museum of Art outside Melbourne and the Ian Potter Museum of Art, which houses the collections of the University of Melbourne.   MONA is quite an amazing experience, not so much externally, where is it deliberately casual, a bit ad hoc, with a set of somewhat random corten structures and a tennis court, as internally.   You go down in a lift to the basement and there in front of you is a long bar and a very elaborate machine for the sale of the locally brewed beer.   Before you is a sheer wall carved out of the rockface.   You go along this, not quite sure where you are going or what you are doing, until you come to big square underground space which has an art work projected onto the wall which spells out iconic words.   It is deliberately the opposite to a normal museum experience.   It’s underground, not overground.   You haven’t a clue what to expect.   It’s wilfully disorienting — a cavern of wonders rather than an encyclopedia of treasures.   There is no obvious route round the museum, but a set of spiralling staircases like an Escher drawing.   You do not need to read or be told that this is an anti-museum, subverting every aspect of the traditional museum, upending it:  no narrative;  no sense whatever of being educated;  it is all about a sense of exploration and visceral, subliminal experience.

• Now, you could say that MONA is an oddity, a deliberate freak, as its owner, David Walsh, who made his fortune through gambling, would like it to be.   But the more I worked on the trajectory of museums over the last decade, the more I felt that far from being a freak, it encapsulated a set of trends which are evident in other recent museums, and is a harbinger of things to come.

• Let me look now at the two versions of Tate Modern, as represented, first, by the conversion of Giles Gilbert Scott’s great Bankside Power Station by Herzog and de Meuron in the late 1990s and, second, the so-called Blavatnik Building by the same architects, which opened on 17 June.   The first Tate Modern was in some ways revolutionary, on such a big scale, opening up London to contemporary art and culture, mixing up the permanent collection with the great experience of big installations in the Turbine Hall, using grand post-industrial space for the display of art with rough floors and views out across the river;  but it was in some ways traditional in that, as you came through the entrance from the west into the turbine hall, you were expected to know and understand the layout of the building and the nature of the experience which was in store with still a sense of a traditional hierarchy in the way that the building was laid out — bookshop in the basement of the stack, then café on the ground floor and an escalator taking you up to what was still regarded as the central part of the experience, two floors of galleries and one for exhibitions, all arranged logically and systematically.   There was even apparently when it first opened, although it was scrubbed out almost immediately, a copy of Alfred Barr’s famous diagram of the movements of art to guide the visitor round the collection.

• The Blavatnik Building is the opposite.   You never quite know where you are in the building.   It is dominated by a large, monumental staircase which takes you up in such a way that you never know where the next floor is going to be.   In drawing up plans for the Tate’s expansion in 2004, before they had actually won the competition to design it, Herzog & de Meuron drew a diagram, which showed, alongside the original Tate Modern which they described as ‘Enfilade & Turbine Hall’, pictures of two of their own projects for private collectors — the Schaulager in the outskirts of Basel, which is a large-scale warehouse for the storage and display of a private collection of art, and the Kramlich Residence and Collection in Napa Valley, California, which includes a subterranean home for a media art collection.   They described the project as ‘Lofts & Caves’.   This is a good encapsulation of what they were trying to do with the extension:  scrambling the existing geometry, making the experience much less predictable and less legible, so that the visitor does not know quite what to expect, but finds it out through exploration.

• A third of my recent case studies is the Muzeum Susch, high up in the mountains of Switzerland in a remote pilgrimage village which has a population of about 300 and which one reaches by a long train journey from Zurich.   Again, some of the characteristics are evident which I think are increasingly common in new museums.   One arrives at the railway station above the village, not knowing quite what to expect and there is no sign of the museum in the village below  — not surprisingly, because it has been converted out of existing buildings, including the town brewery, by two Swiss architects, Chasper Schmidlin, who grew up in the region, and Lukas Voellmy, who have created an experience, which, comparable to the others I have discussed, involves a sense of exploration, burrowing underground into the rockwork, treating the artworks not as things to be admired and contemplated, but as works to be found and enjoyed with the frisson of discovery.   Chasper Schmidlin was interviewed by Archinect before the project opened and described how, ‘We worked towards a minimal, “quiet” architecture, emphasizing the pearls of the site, which already carry a strong character. For example, the stone cave is completely out of the existing rock. The architecture is a “non-ego architecture“, working with the landscape and the spaces in-between to create a self-evident place for art’.[1]   It does not need me to say how very different, and probably self-consciously different this is to the majority of post-war museums:  it’s a turn away from the monumental and heroic architecture of the 1990s, as represented by the Getty Museum and the Guggenheim, Bilbao into an architecture which is much lower key, much less obviously heroic, much more deferential to the works of art themselves.

• Now it is obviously hard to generalise from a very small number of case studies.   For every example, there is a counter-example.   It is difficult to argue for a move towards the anti-heroic and anti-monumental when one thinks of such gas-guzzling giants as Jean Nouvel’s Louvre Abu Dhabi, which is on a simply colossal scale with a big roof like a globe on the outskirts of the city;  or, indeed, if one thinks of the other museums planned for Saadiyat Island, just north of the city of Abu Dhabi – Norman Foster’s Zayed National Museum, now due to open in 2021 and Frank Gehry’s astonishing building for the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi — it is hard to argue that the age of the heroic, monumental and commemorative museum project is over.   But, having said that it is hard to generalise, I am going to try and do just that, as I have in the book, to try to make sense of the mood and moves in recent museum projects.

•The first thing which is obvious is the number of recent museum projects which are not completely new projects, but re-inventions of existing ones.   In my book, I have included the Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia which consists of a reconstruction of the original Barnes Foundation, which was originally built in Merion County, the smart suburbs of Philadelphia, where the neighbours did not want too many visitors to the Paul Cret-designed neoclassical museum.   So, it has been moved to downtown Philadelphia, where it can attract tourists on their way to the Philadelphia Museum of Art.   The original gallery layout has been reconstructed as exactly as possible with additional spaces alongside to accommodate all the things which museums are now expected to have — a basement café and a smart restaurant, exhibition galleries, and in the centre of the building a large vacant hall which is intended as milling space, a public forum and doubles in the evening as entertainment space as an additional source of income.

• The new Whitney in New York is likewise not exactly a brand-new project, but a re-invention of the old uptown Whitney downtown in the Meatpacking District, south of Chelsea, just next door to the bottom of the Highline.   This project seems to me entirely emblematic of recent changes in museums.   The old Whitney Museum, designed by Marcel Breuer, was highly introverted, as different in style and character from its surroundings as it was possible for it to be, declaring its originality and bristling with modernist architectural integrity, whereas the new Whitney Museum blends into its surroundings relatively unobtrusively — a series of open decks for the display of art, with viewing platforms which relate the museum to the surrounding city.

• The third recent project which is essentially a reinvention of an existing arts institution is the new Burlington Gardens Building which acts as an extension of the Royal Academy, providing it with all the things which it needed and did not have:  a grand public lecture theatre;  space for the display of its collection, which it previously did not have;  another set of exhibition galleries for the display of contemporary art; but also, not just designated spaces for specific activities, but more public space — space to walk, explore and linger, what I gather is known by sociologists of architecture as ‘fourth space’, space which does not have a designated function, but is free, public space, important to the experience of architecture.

• The second general theme of the book, which is obvious, is the rise of the private museum.   The construction of museums used to be the responsibility of city and national governments.   They were treated as instruments of public education, alongside schools and libraries and were often constructed in the centre of the city as urban monuments, or often at the edge of the city as places of public recreation.   But from Louisiana onwards, built beyond the suburbs of Copenhagen by Knud Jensen, who had made money out of soft cheese, many of the innovations and new developments in museums have been the initiative of entrepreneurs and philanthropists, as is MONA in Hobart, a self-conscious and deliberate breach with the traditions of the museum, made possible by the money which its owner, David Walsh, had made from gambling, and the Muzeum Susch in Switzerland, which is purely a product of private initiative on the part of Grażyna Kulczyk, a Polish entrepreneur and businesswoman, who decided to construct her museum in Switzerland rather than Poland after the Polish authorities repeatedly rejected her desire for collaboration either in Poznan or Warsaw.

• The third general theme and trend which I have tried to track and trace is, as I have already indicated, the move away from the monumental to the anti-heroic — the dissolution of outer walls in the work, most obviously of SANAA in the 21st. Century Museum of Contemporary Art in Kanazawa in northern Japan and the new Louvre in Lens:  lightweight, single-height structures which float on the ground, rather than expressing their seriousness through the construction of solid walls;  magical, slightly ethereal buildings, which express an idea of the museum as being tentative and exploratory, rather than narrative and definitive.

• I am going to end my discussion of themes and trends in new museums by looking at the new LACMA in Los Angeles, designed by Peter Zumthor, which has proved to be wildly controversial, because I think it exemplifies in a very clear form many of the recent trends in museums and, by encapsulating them, has enraged the more conservative architectural critics in Los Angeles by its obvious breach with tradition and overturning of the traditional expectations and responsibilities of museums.

• First, a decision was made that it would be too expensive to renovate the existing structures of the museum, which were felt to have lived past their period of natural usefulness and are in styles which are currently unfashionable, although, as often happens, the moment that a decision is made to destroy a building is just the moment when the pendulum swings and the style of the original building comes back into fashion.   The original 1960s buildings were by William L. Pereira and Associates and were in a civic, campus style.   In the 1980s, major additions were made by Hardy Holzman Pfeiffer in a style of slightly Hollywood postmodernism to connect the museum more to the street with a grand ceremonial entrance.   When Michael Govan became Director in 2006, he brought with him an ambition to work with Peter Zumthor, who famously does not accept any commission through open competition, nor if any restrictions are placed on the budget, which is potentially either extraordinarily brave for a public museum or very risky (in practice, it has probably been both).   Zumthor was happy to sweep away the existing structures in order to create a building which is nearly diametrically the opposite to what traditional museums have been — a single-deck swooping structure which looks like a bird from the air and which deliberately condenses the existing displays of the collection according to chronology and place of origin into more thematic, temporary installations, which will resemble an exhibition much more than a traditional permanent collection, aimed at the general public, not the specialist.

• It will be incredibly interesting what the public reaction is to the new LACMA when it opens in 2024.   I’m sure that it will continue to be highly controversial because it is such an obvious and, in some ways, ostentatious manifestation of so many recent trends in museum building, away from the idea of constructing a public narrative concerned with a linear and systematic history towards somewhere which is more piecemeal, somewhere to experience not so much a public history as works of contemporary art, somewhere where the art is mediated by interpretation, rather than left to stand on its own, somewhere which, as Michael Govan describes it, is less like an encyclopedia and more like a poem — tentative and provisional, rather than logical and systematic.

• So, these are the overall themes of my book, which, as I have already said, will be published under the title The Art Museum in Modern Times next spring.   As I said at the beginning, you are the very first people on whom I have tried out some of the themes of the overarching narrative and I would find it genuinely very helpful to have your questions and response, not that I can now change the text of the book, which has already been laid out, but in order to judge whether or not, and how far, the narrative is either too obvious or potentially contentious, both of which views have been suggested by the very few people who have read it so far.


8 thoughts on “New Museums (3)

  1. marinavaizey says:

    absolutely fascinating, as an observer i have been obsessed with museums and galleries (why are some called galleries and others museums, it is not just the difference between ‘art’ and other material culture) but I think something else that is crucial is context. Nearly everything in a public museum was not meant to be there but had quite another history, context and even historical period, and the convention is to try and explain context. Some of the new public collections fuelled by private interests who can do their own thing see art as free floating, individual objects which do not need interpretation or explanation, just enjoy – or not. Oddly, the Getty LA and the Guggenheim Bilbao which have both been used for social regeneration are superb places to just enjoy! The Guggenheim Bilbao I regard as near perfect as makes no difference in terms of the marvellous way the spaces enhance the art they embrace.

    • Dear Maria, Good and really interesting comments. I think what you say is right: that public museums felt – maybe still feel – a responsibility to out back context, where private museums, like MONA and the Muzeum Susch don’t. I’ve found the overall analysis hard, because there isn’t that much secondary literature to help make sense of it – or if there is, I haven’t found it. Charles

  2. marinavaizey says:

    But Charles you are the one to make sense of it, as you are both the proverbial insider and outsider.

  3. marinavaizey says:

    and actually from what I have read you are very very polite about the possible egos of the creators of the personal public collections….?????!!!!

  4. I would like to add to Marina’s comments. To generalise: contemporary art is the expression of the untrammeled imagination of the artist, and less connected to society than the art of the past, and needs less context other than a structure itself the brilliant product of imaginative architects. What’s right for the contemporary collections of Walsh and Kulczyk is not right for an encyclopedic museum like LACMA, a collection of collections, containing works that need to be shown in a coherent form, and with context and explanation, in the conventional manner.

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