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‘Fun palace’ or public monument?: The evolving role of the modern art museum

Posted on 24 Mar 2021

As Former Director of the National Portrait Gallery and National Gallery, Charles Saumarez Smith is well-versed in the making of a museum. Here he explores the changing role of art museums in our lives, tracing the impact of iconic spaces like the Guggenheim Museum, Tate Modern and the Centre Pompidou.

The Sainsbury Wing galleries of the National Gallery, London, designed by Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown. Photo Matt Wargo. Courtesy of Venturi, Scott Brown and Associates, Inc.

Today, a museum means many things to many different people – but it once had a pretty clear identity and purpose. How would you define the raison d’être of the traditional 19th century museum?

Nineteenth-century museums were often multidisciplinary, involved with archaeology and natural history as much as art, designed in a grand classical style, and funded by national governments or city authorities for educational purposes. The two I use as classic examples of still surviving nineteenth-century museums in Britain are the Scottish National Gallery in Edinburgh and the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge. In America, the best surviving example of the type, although not opened until 1929, is the Philadelphia Museum of Art, a great neoclassical temple on the outskirts of the city.

The Scottish National Gallery, designed by W. H. Playfair, as seen from the west. Photo George Washington Wilson. Andrew Dickson White Architectural Photograph Collection, #15-5-3090. Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections, Cornell University Library.

Your book The Art Museum in Modern Times explores in particular the building of museums – ‘active constructs’, as you put it, that shape the experience of a collection. When did you first become interested in museum architecture?

I became interested in museum architecture when I went to the National Portrait Gallery as its director in 1994. The Heritage Lottery Fund had just been started, so it was in our interest to plan a new development as quickly as possible, while funds lasted. I got slightly obsessed about which architect we should use – not something I had previously paid much attention to – and read as much as I could about the architects we might employ and went to talk to them in advance of the architectural competition which we held at the end of 1994.

I was then asked to give the Reyner Banham Memorial Lecture in 1995 and gave the lecture on the subject of ‘Architecture and the Museum’.  I remember that either Edward Jones or Jeremy Dixon, the architects we employed to design the Ondaatje Wing at the NPG, said that they thought it would make a good book.  I would like to think it has, twenty-five years later.

Frank Lloyd Wright with the large-scale model of his design for the Solomon R. Guggenheim. Photo Ben Schnall/The LIFE Images Collection via Getty Images/Getty Images. Frank Lloyd Wright © ARS, NY and DACS, London 2021.

In terms of architectural impact, some of the best-known museums in the world are modern museums: the Guggenheim in New York, the Centre Pompidou in Paris. What changes to museum practice did these extravagant, daring buildings reflect? 

The reason I focused on new museums is that I felt it was a good way of examining changes in the idea of what a museum should be. The Guggenheim Museum is a grand, abstract and adventurous scheme dreamed up by Frank Lloyd Wright after meeting Hilla Rebay, the friend and adviser to Solomon Guggenheim, who wanted it to be a ‘museum-temple’. I think she later lost confidence in the idea of works of art being displayed on the walls of a spiral, as is clear in the long correspondence about the development of Wright’s design, but by then it was too late. It is still the most adventurous type of monumental museum, at least as interesting for the experience of its overall architecture as it is for its collection.

Then, the Centre Pompidou was self-consciously a game changer, full of 1960s, anarchic optimism. Richard Rogers and Renzo Piano won the international competition as much for the open public space outside as for the design for the building itself, which was treated as being full of mobile parts, open to endless change and adaptation, not a conventional museum or art gallery, but a fun palace.

The Centre Pompidou, Paris, designed by Richard Rogers and Renzo Piano and photographed in August 1976 in the course of construction. Photo Bernard Vincent. © Fondazione Renzo Piano (Via P. P. Rubens 30A, 16158 Genova, Italy) © Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners.

Do you think that kind of development of a museum as a social and commercial space detracts or enhances the experience of its collections?

I belong to a generation of museum directors who believe that visiting a museum is partly a social and family experience, not purely educational, so is enhanced by a good café and shop. There was a moment when we thought about making the Royal Academy’s building in Burlington Gardens into a branch of Corso Como in Milan and a bit of me still wishes we had.

Many recent examples of museum building are indeed extensions and interventions to an existing structure. What are the special challenges of this kind of adaptive museum architecture – and what other examples do you find particularly impressive and inspiring?

In Britain, and particularly in London, there are not many brand-new museum buildings and I remember that there was quite a bit of dismay when it was announced that Tate Modern would consist of a conversion of a 1930s power station, instead of being a brand-new building.  But the Tate had organized a survey of what museums most artists liked and admired and it turned out that the great majority of them preferred converted space to white space.

At the National Portrait Gallery, I liked the tension that there was between the new architecture of the Ondaatje Wing and the existing Victorian building and I think Tate Modern has been so successful, again, because of the tension between the grand open space of the Turbine Hall, the engineering of the old, with the conversion of existing spaces for the display of art. It makes the experience less clinical than a brand-new gallery would have been.

Jubilee Walk, between the Sainsbury Wing and the original building of the National Gallery, London. Photo Matt Wargo. Courtesy of Venturi, Scott Brown and Associates, Inc.

With expansion and globalization, many museums are now multi-locational brands: the Met, the Guggenheim, the Tate, the Louvre. How can museums retain a cohesive identity across different buildings?

I read somewhere that the Met has 75 retail outlets, but it has now given up on the Met Breuer which was only a few blocks away and handed it over to the Frick for the time being.  I am not sure how far the Guggenheim tries to control its brand across its different locations, since it is the museum that comes closest to a franchise. The Tate considers itself to be a family, so I suspect they do try to ensure a sense of comparability and common identity, if only in terms of their branding. Louvre-Lens was designed to do precisely what the Louvre in Paris cannot, which is to give the visitor a sense of an integrated experience, looking across cultures in a way that the Louvre in Paris is too mammoth for it to be possible. So, each institution treats its partners differently.

Postmodern museum practice has seen growing mistrust of any fixed canon, orthodoxy, or narrative – and a growing emphasis on individual interpretation and personal experience. How does museum architecture reflect that evolution?

The second half of my book is about the way that architects and museums have moved away from a coherent narrative structure. This is most obvious in the contrast between the first version of Tate Modern which was so logical with galleries in decks next to the Turbine Hall, all of it visible and logical, as compared to the Blavatnik Building, which both consciously and subconsciously encourages a mood of random exploration – what Herzog and de Meuron called ‘Lofts & Caves’.

I was very influenced by visiting the Muzeum Susch in the Swiss Alps, which is all about not quite knowing where you are going and discovering a succession of  galleries carved out of the mountain side. Likewise, MONA in Hobart. The staircases look as if they have been designed by Piranesi or M.C. Escher – the belief that a mystical labyrinth is more exciting than the intellectual logic of an encyclopedia.

The exterior view of MONA, Hobart, designed by Nonda Katsalidis. Photo MONA/Leigh Carmichael. Courtesy Museum of Old and New Art (MONA), Hobart, Australia.

Discover the book

The Art Museum in Modern Times

Charles Saumarez Smith

The Art Museum in Modern Times (Signed Copy)

Charles Saumarez Smith