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The Art Museum in Modern Times

Charles Saumarez Smith


Drawing on his unique experience at the helm of three major British art institutions, Charles Saumarez Smith traces how art museums across the world have changed over the past eighty years

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How have art museums changed in the past century? Where are they headed in the future? Charles Saumarez Smith is uniquely qualified to answer these questions, having been at the helm of three major British institutions over the course of his career.

His story starts with the Museum of Modern Art in New York, one of the first to focus squarely on the art of the present. When it opened in 1939, MoMA’s boldly modernist building represented a stark riposte to the neoclassicism of most earlier museums. From there, Saumarez Smith embarks on an odyssey to explore forty-one other museums across the globe, including Tate Modern in London, the Getty Center in Los Angeles, the Benesse House Museum on the Japanese island of Naoshima, and the Centre Pompidou in Paris – as well as the Pompidou’s new Shanghai branch, which opened in 2019.

In each case, Saumarez Smith casts an acute eye on the ways in which the experience of art is shaped by the nature of the buildings that house it and the organizing principles by which it is displayed. He traces a radical shift from a belief that museums can and should instruct and educate, to the idea that museums should be more about contemplation, spectacle and individual experience.

A compelling examination of the art museum from a renowned director, this sweeping book explores how the architecture, vision, funding, and public role of art museums across the world have transformed – and considers their future in a new era of pandemic and uncertainty.

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'An original book, and so beautifully written and constructed'
Professor Sir David Cannadine, Dodge Professor of History, Princeton University and President of the British Academy

'A wise and insightful tour of our most successful art museums. One couldn’t ask for a better informed or more congenial guide. Highly recommended'
Professor Andrew McClellan, Professor of History of Art and Museum Studies, Tufts University

'There are few people as perfectly suited to give an overview of the pre-COVID museum landscape than Charles Saumarez Smith. Respected by the entire museum field, he has directed three major institutions, each with notable success ... Insightful, witty, playful and ironic, who better to guide a reader through the confusing terrain of the past several decades of the ‘museum boom’?'
James Bradburne, Director General, Pinacoteca di Brera and the Biblioteca Nazionale Braidense, and Editor-in-Chief, Museum Management and Curatorship

'I love the style, tone and perspective, the personal experience present along the way, and the open mode of thinking and reflecting on what is seen. That is rare in museum literature and gives a special authority and also a thrill to the text'
Professor Mari Lending, Professor of Architectural History and Theory, Oslo School of Architecture and Design

'Charles Saumarez Smith is well placed to consider all of the elements that define a contemporary institution, from architecture and curatorial expertise to funding models and the thorny subject of public duty'
The Arts Society

'Written with the crisp elegance found in Baedeker’s guides'
The Financial Times

'Charles Saumarez Smith is eminently qualified to answer the two main questions underpinning this survey of 42 museums: How have such institutions changed in the past century? And what does the future look like for these cathedrals of culture? Saumarez Smith … brings his experience and insights to this sweeping overview'
The Art Newspaper

'Charles Saumarez Smith thoughtfully charts how quickly and definitively museums have moved on from the Cassoubonish attitude to become the public palaces they are now'

'Saumarez Smith’s case studies demonstrate how museums have changed since the 1930s and why. Understanding this history helps in understanding why museums look like they do now. With that understanding, a richer experience of those museums awaits us'
Studio International

'Remarkable and provocatively thoughtful … The diversity is astounding … For the gallery visitor, this is an essential read, which sharpens our awareness of the absorbing complexity of the museum experience. The reader’s experience is further enhanced by the book’s exemplary design, and very well-chosen images of buildings, their interiors, and of individual architects, curators and patrons'

'In his informed and engaging prose, Smith brings out the personality unique to each museum. This is complemented by a diverse selection of images … All these play their part in a book that is, above all else, shockingly good-looking'
The Arts Desk

''Saumarez Smith is good on the often antagonistic relationship between architects and directors, and the difficulties of reconciling fantastical plans with a building that actually functions ... Every entry has its nuggets ... [a] clever, persuasive book'
Laura Freeman, Literary Review

'How best to use this book? Perhaps simply to absorb the insider knowledge of an art historian, curator and former museum director who opens up the private conversations that have shaped the public spaces in which we experience art'
Art Quarterly

'A fascinating look at how museums, their mission and their vision, have evolved over the past half-century… This superb and eminently readable book takes us along a roller coaster of ups and downs, experienced by museums as they lose, regain, refashion their intellectual confidence, their belief in or rejection of, the notion of a set of universal values, alternately giving prompts to, or taking their cues from, the public'
Blue Guides

'Saumarez Smith headed the National Gallery, the National Portrait Gallery and the Royal Academy, and there seems hardly a museum worldwide that he hasn’t visited. As architectural historian and cultural commentator, he is compelling, charming, tolerant and wise on why museums matter, how their role is changing, and what that reveals about broader social and political transformation'
Financial Times

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Product Information

Book Details

Format: Hardback

Size: 23.4 x 15.3 cm

Extent: 272 pp

Illustrations: 122

Publication date: 25 March 2021

ISBN: 9780500022436

Contents List

Introduction • 1. The Pre-War Museum • 2. The Modern Museum • 3. The Post-Modern Museum • 4. Museums for the New Millennium • 5. The Museum Re-invented • Conclusion

About the Author

Charles Saumarez Smith was Director of the UK’s National Portrait Gallery 1994–2002, Director of the National Gallery 2002–2007 and Secretary and Chief Executive of the Royal Academy 2007–2018. He is the author of East London; The Company of Artists: The Origins of the Royal Academy of Arts in London; and The National Gallery: A Short History, among other titles.