Chris Rogers | Writer on architecture and visual culture
The museum, that grand building containing art or artefacts standing proud in the town square, has become the signifier of cultural awareness for a nation.
Long-established institutions have enlarged their premises every twenty years or so, newcomers have arrived, and even the smallest or least likely of cities has striven to open galleries where none previously existed, exploiting a perceived increase in appetite from the public, architects keen to serve new clients, fresh sources of funding and ever more accessible works to place within them.
The trend has now spread from Britain and America to the far east, with Arab states desperate to prove themselves worthy of attention from western businesses, tourists and residents for reasons greater than just sun, sea and sand.
This has until now been accepted without question, but a decade into the 21st century the question of what, exactly, a museum should be has thrown up a surprising series of possible answers that may now halt or at least slow the momentum of this advance.
The first and most obvious is in fact another series of questions in itself: what should these buildings contain?
With art, the definition of that term is a matter long contested and won’t be considered here, but the lack of even a modest collection of contemporary pieces is an issue for many seeking to open or expand a gallery. The art market has blossomed to a degree impossible to imagine even a decade ago and collectors have increased in number accordingly, ensuring prices remain out of reach of many publicly-funded bodies.
That even the largest galleries are unable to display more than a fraction of their own collections has been suggested as a possible solution, with the concomitant issue of de-acquisition then becoming a live one. The prospect of vans full of Rembrandts or Picassos being left outside new galleries with the keys in the ignition must be considered unlikely, though.
For museums, concerned with the display of artefacts, the origin of those artefacts brings shuffling of feet in the light of today’s more complex attitudes to world heritage.
The British Museum, whose rooms are filled with items almost wholly derived from two hundred years of colonial acquisitions, has carefully repositioned itself as an opportunity to experience in one place exceptional cultural richness from around the world, its exhibits items of significance in a vast window on that world rather than booty possessively caged. Its website talks of “A museum of the world, for the world” and its current director, Neil MacGregor, eloquently explains that museums evidence “one shared human existence”, make things “equally available to all citizens” and give us a way to look at the world through the collections.
As an example, MacGregor smoothly but articulately responds to that oft-repeated call to return the Parthenon Sculptures (the Elgin Marbles) by pointing out that, having legally acquired them and being legally prevented from returning them, the Museum now displays them in better condition and to many more visitors than does the Greek monument itself. What the mayor of Athens’ response might be as he stares at the essentially empty Parthenon Gallery in the newly-opened Acropolis Museum is not known.
On a much smaller scale on the other side of the Thames, the Victorian Horniman Museum has similarly transformed perceptions of its collection of African religious relics, with a particular emphasis on attracting young children to the story they tell and the meaning they have.
Admissions are growing for both types of attraction, though this tends to muffle debate as to why. Did Tate Modern, for example, open for just ten years but now the third most visited free destination in the capital, reach these levels of popularity because of its notable collections of modern and contemporary British and international art, or because of its prominent riverside situation, panoramic views across the City of London for all from its fourth-floor balconies and connotations of ‘cool’? A recent television programme had artists themselves complaining that gallery-goers were not spending as long as might be expected/desired actually looking at the works on show.
Nevertheless, assuming content has been secured and demand confirmed, what else should the museum provide for its patrons?
Heightened expectations are now accepted as requiring facilities far beyond clean loos and a place to hang your coat. A large welcoming foyer, a café and a restaurant, a well-stocked shop serving the seriously informed and the casually curious, an education and interpretation centre and an auditorium are now commonplace, and are also able to generate crucial extra revenue through being hired out once visitors have left for the day.
But these facilities require space, space which could otherwise be used as galleries. Close examination of several millennial and more recent projects in Britain reveals the commercial tail wagging the cultural dog. The London Transport Museum and the Museum of London both betray this tension, with a large cleared space in the middle of the former’s main hall and the newly-opened Sackler Hall, café and City Gallery at the latter clearly designed primarily as a suite of rooms for corporate entertaining and events rather than the display of collections.
This pressure for additional revenue has even led to existing space being turned over to such functions, as at the Royal Air Force Museum in north west London where galleries in the original and extension buildings are today used solely for rental income purposes or staff accommodation.
The matter of funding is itself a key consideration for any museum, and was so even before the credit crunch of 2008.
Governments are increasingly pulling back from expenditure on culture and heritage beyond a certain core level, with revenue grants cut and capital supplied only via awards of lottery money, more rigorously assessed than before following the high-profile failure of the National Centre for Popular Music in Sheffield and the Earth Centre in Doncaster.
Free admission, enabled by public funding, does attract increased visitor numbers but also increased running costs. These have to be paid for from other sources.
Sponsorship, donations and merchandise sales are having to fill the gaps but are themselves fiscal forests thick with hazard ranging from differing philanthropic attitudes on either side of the Atlantic to private gifts clashing with public access, as when south London’s Imperial War Museum closed early in order to hold a launch event for a new Victoria Cross gallery funded by politician Lord Ashcroft.
Assuming content, comfort and funding can be addressed, what should a museum look like? What should it be like to walk around?
Museums follow architectural fashion as much as any other building type. The earliest, in the 17th and 18th centuries, occupied ordinary private houses, just as Sir John Soane’s still does in central London and as Sir Hans Sloane’s once did nearby before he bequeathed his collections to the nation to become the British Museum.
In the 19th century, the prevailing theories of Beaux-Arts planning and Neo-Classical styling coincided with the rapid expansion of civic edifices of all types. The first purpose-built museums and galleries in Europe and America were therefore imposing and improving. Context was largely ignored and collections were displayed in rigid categories according to academic school or source. These structures, by Schinkel and Smirke, Pope and Visconti, formed the great treasure houses of western culture, in Germany and London, Washington DC and Paris.
After World War II International Modernism made inroads into new museum design, as with Philip Goodwin, Edward Durell Stone and Philip Johnson at New York’s Museum of Modern Art. Lightness, openness and active participation by the visitor were key, mirroring developments in art. There was also room for more individual approaches; also in New York were Frank Lloyd Wright’s arresting Guggenheim Museum with its spiral ramp winding the full height of the building and Stone’s concave-fronted tower for Huntingdon Hartford’s short-lived Gallery of Modern Art, with perforated near-windowless walls and a concentrated interiosity. Museum extensions in later times tended to lack inspiration and quality, becoming merely containers with little aspiration.
Only in the last few years have styles changed again and, aided by a revolution in computer-aided design and engineering, architects begun to produce buildings that are landmarks, becoming labels not only for the institute inside but for the city in which they stand. Gateshead’s Sage and Bilbao’s Guggenheim have achieved this.
How this actually affects the visitor’s journey is important. The lack of formal navigation routes, the breaking down of boundaries between categories of display and the encouraging of links between pieces has gone hand in hand with the new architecture, with each pushing the other. Had Daniel Libeskind’s Spiral been built for the Victoria & Albert Museum, its very walls would have required a re-assessment of what was displayed within, and how. As it is, his Manchester outstation of the Imperial War Museum went even further, being specifically shaped to represent an earth broken by war into fragments. That its ‘air’ segment is in fact empty and used only as an observation tower might be seen as perfectly correct or as exposing such a tactic as hollow and wasteful, according to taste.
The plain truth is the curators now feel that straightforward didacticism is no longer either sufficient or even appropriate, considering many exhibits incomplete until the viewer begins his interaction with them. In this climate, the architecture becomes even more detached from its ostensible purpose, and is freed (or abandoned) to take even more extreme forms. Zaha Hadid’s prize-winning MAXXI museum of 21st century art in Rome could be seen as the ultimate example to date, which will surely drive the Tate effect discussed above even further forward (backward). Oddly, given the twisting brick tower shortly to rise next to his Bankside gallery, Nicholas Serota, director of the Tate empire, has acknowledged that some architecture puts the architecture ahead of the art.
Form aside, there certainly seem to be no shortage of sites for new museums and extensions. The vacant industrial building is the current favourite, with power stations, slaughterhouses and car factories proposed or used to date. Given enough cash, even prime city centre sites become feasible; the rebuilding and extension of New York’s MoMA cost £500m but doubled its size on the original site, albeit with a residential tower to spread the financial load.
Capital and revenue worries, the move toward a freer experience of the collection, the growing expense of staging loan exhibitions, the impossibility of showing all that is held and architecture which seldom suggests a connection with what is inside are all shifting understanding of what constitutes a museum. Late opening is already breaking down walls, and there is also the thing that enables you to read this essay – the web.
Does all this argue against museums as a physical structure in the future, or at least not only that physical structure? Have we seen the last new museums that will ever be built?
At present, the museum is still very much the building. Dubai and Abu Dhabi race to outdo each other with their own, Berlin’s Museum Island continues a massive investment programme including the acclaimed restoration of the Neues Museum by David Chipperfield and a new orientation block and all
The British Museum and the Parthenon Sculptures within, but which is the relic? (unknown; Andrew Dunn/ReportageEnviro)
Frank Gehry's Guggenheim Bilbao; a sign of culture or just a sign? (godhearme.com)
A failed museum; the former National Centre for Popular Music (Panoramio)
A new museum, but perhaps one of the last; MAXXI (Luke Hayes)
Museums without walls