Books | The Art Museum in Modern Times, by Charles Saumarez Smith
This book asks two key questions: how have art museums changed over the past century and where are they headed in the future? To find the answers, Charles Saumarez Smith, former director of the National Portrait Gallery, the National Gallery and the Royal Academy of Arts, takes us on a tour of 42 museums around the world.
The tour is largely architectural, with the design of new and revamped museums being used to explore themes that run throughout the book. These include how museum spaces shape the visitor experience and how changing perceptions of the role of museums have impacted their design. As Saumarez Smith points out, museums were once created “as monuments to a certain type of moral, intellectual and cultural authority. They were designed to impress visitors, not to make them feel welcome. As museums have become more open, democratic and visitor-focused, their design has evolved to reflect this.
The book is well structured, with a short introduction and then an exploration of each of the museums, grouped under four headings, covering modernism; post-modernism; the museums of the new millennium; and the reinvented museum. The focus is on locations in Europe and the United States – the book begins at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, which opened in 1939, but there are forays into Japan, China, America Latin and the Middle East. A final chapter addresses issues such as funding, globalization, public expectations and the impact of digital technology.
I read part of the book in lockdown when museums were closed and travel was banned. So it was fantastic to get a deeper insight into the museums I’ve visited many times, like the Pompidou in Paris and the Tate Modern in London. I only visited most of the institutions presented once and the book made me want to go back, especially the Fondation Beyeler in Basel and Louisiana in Denmark.
Some of the museums I’ve never visited, but really should visit, like Christ Church Picture Gallery in Oxford. Others, which I’ll probably never see but look amazing, especially the Benesse House Museum in Japan, which is described as “a place to expand the human mind and enable transcendental meditation”. And readers will inevitably think of places that weren’t included – visiting Barcelona recently reminded me of Josep Lluís Sert’s fantastic conception of the Fundació Joan Miró.
Saumarez Smith has an engaging, no-frills writing style and isn’t afraid to be critical. For example, art collector and industrialist Jean Paul Getty is described as “a tough, shrewd, cunning, womanizing, and exceedingly mean oilman”.
Explorations of the relationship between clients, mostly museum directors or powerful art collectors, and architects make for interesting reading, especially the tensions that often arise between a desire to erect monumental and iconic buildings. and the need to create spaces that can display art effectively. , coherent and engaging.
With its focus on high profile institutions of international significance, it often reads as a who’s who of architecture – Mies van der Rohe, Frank Lloyd Wright, Louis Khan and Norman Foster are among the many household names . It’s largely a story of male architects, with some notable exceptions including Lino Bo Bardi, who designed the Sao Paulo Museum of Art, and Annabelle Selldorf, who spearheaded the development of the Neue Galerie in New York.
A short conclusion tries to look to the future, but with the impact of Covid-19 still being felt, Saumarez Smith can only see the uncertainty and loss of old moral trust in museums. He strikes a more positive note in his final paragraph, highlighting the resilience of art museums and their history of reinvention.
Saumarez Smith’s book has a compelling insider feel and deserves to reach an audience beyond people like me who are fascinated by museum architecture.