The Art Museum
Header image: The Tate Modern Museum, London, UK, Herzog and de Meuron, 2000

A Book Review by Sharon Lorenzo

This title was recommended to me via an online chat by former director Michael Shapiro from the High Museum of Art in Atlanta, Georgia. He stated that this survey of the progression of museum architecture and content from around the globe by Charles Saumarez Smith not only highlights how art museums have changed over the past century but speculates on the future direction for these institutions and their visitors.

Trained as an architectural historian, the author has been director of three institutions in the United Kingdom: The National Portrait Gallery, The National Gallery and the Royal Academy of Arts. His point of view is that architecture has been a major force in how art museums have embraced the journey of historical discovery. He feels that this narrative is changing from one of great institutions focused on deep scholarship to new buildings where experience and entertainment seem to be the greater goals.

I enjoyed his survey of the founding of our great U.S. museums such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1905, the Museum of Fine Arts Boston in 1909, the Philadelphia Museum of Art in 1929, and our National Gallery of Art in 1937, followed by the greater leap to the Museum of Modern Art in 1939 and the Guggenheim Museum in 1959 whose architectural structures were definitely designed to reflect international modernism.  His observations on how museum additions such as the I.M. Pei wing at the Washington, D.C. National Gallery or his addition of the pyramid entry to the Louvre in Paris led the way to the new phase of museum revisions such as the Tate Modern in London and the Musee D’Orsay in Paris which made use of prior industrial structures with modern insides to accommodate the art.

Louvre Museum, Paris with I.M. Pei pyramid, 1988

Musee D’ Orsay,  Paris, 1986

His discourse goes on to reflect on the new Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia where the founder’s vision had to be replicated under the strict terms of his trust by the new architects. He noted that the Louvre Abu Dhabi by French architect Jean Nouvel is a striking exterior where visiting works of art roll in and out as guests while the nation builds its own collection through auction and private acquisitions.

Barnes Foundation, Philadelphia, Tod Williams and Billie Tsien, 2012

Louvre Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, Jean Nouvel, 2017

The book concludes with chapters which address the rise of private museums such as the Broad Collection in Los Angeles as well as the deeper issues of the morality of wealthy museum leaders such as Leon Black at the MoMA and Warren Kanders of the Whitney Museum. His thoughts on the globalization of art assets and the intricacies of our digital world of NFT purchases lead him to posit his views on audience expectations and the role of the museum customer in the future. [1] All of these are good questions and deserve a close read so that we the audience can begin to formulate our own ideas as to how museums will evolve in our busy global art world today.  I encourage you to read this very engaging text.

 The Broad Museum, Los Angeles, California,  Diller, Scofidio and Renfro,2015

ASE Article on the Barnes Collection




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[1] NFT =  non- fungible token of digital art work