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From temple to labyrinth — the art museum today

10 April 2021

9:00 AM

10 April 2021

9:00 AM

The Art Museum in Modern Times Charles Saumarez Smith

Thames & Hudson, pp.272, 30

At a certain point, the critic Robert Hughes once noted, at the heart of American cities churches began to be replaced by museums. Much the same occurred elsewhere in the world in the later 20th and early 21st centuries. Museums have sprouted from the earth in many diverse forms and numerous places. Enormous sums have been lavished on them. Vast processions of visitors file through their doors like medieval pilgrims — or at least they did before the pandemic struck.

Once, there was widespread agreement as to what should go inside these temples of the arts: old master paintings, ancient carvings, the best and noblest artefacts humanity has produced. This consensus, however, has evaporated. There is now little agreement, some would say little idea, as to what deserves to be exhibited, preserved and admired.

No one is better placed to chronicle these phenomena than Charles Saumarez Smith. He has been at the helm of three great cultural institutions. In two of these, the National Portrait Gallery and the Royal Academy, he oversaw ambitious extensions. Moreover, by training he is an architectural historian, so able to offer a scholarly assessment of each design, while considering it from the point of view of the director who commissioned it and the curators who arrange exhibits in it.

Most engagingly, he is evidently also an enthusiastic museum visitor. Thus, for example, we learn that he always enjoys his visits to the little-loved Musée d’Orsay. He has warm praise too for the often overlooked Christ Church picture gallery in Oxford. ‘If one is seeking a highly intelligent and thoughtful example of 1960s gallery design’ — admittedly, perhaps not everyone’s quest — then he recommends this as one of the best he knows.

Much of his text consists of analytical descriptions of notable new art museums from the past 80-odd years. In fact, one way to use this book (which, as a museum addict, I’ll certainly adopt) is as a list of suggestions for future visits. Some, however, will require more time and effort to tick off than others. MONA (the Museum of Old and New Art) sounds intriguing, but it’s in Hobart, Tasmania.

The title is carefully worded. This isn’t a study of museums of modern art, though in practice most of those Saumarez Smith discusses are full of contemporary and modernist works. Nor is he concerned with institutions devoted to such fields as science, history or archaeology. The Neues Museum in Berlin, crammed with masterpieces from ancient Egypt, sneaks in, but a little surprisingly the Musée du quai Branly, filled with wonderful works from Africa and Oceania, does not.

This, then, is a personal selection. His definitions may be elastic, but one recognises what Saumarez Smith has in mind. He is interesting on those monumental edifices — such as the Getty Center, Los Angeles or the Grand Louvre with its totemic pyramid — which can transform the image of entire cities and attract visitors by the million. But he also has warm praise for more reticent institutions where exhibits and architecture coexist in harmony.

Obviously, there is a potential conflict. Probably few artists or curators would agree with Philip Johnson’s comment on the Guggenheim Bilbao (if the architecture’s this good, he remarked, ‘fuck the art’), but perhaps quite a few architects would concur. Nonetheless, there are places (including Louis Kahn’s Kimbell Museum in Fort Worth, Renzo Piano’s Menil Foundation, Houston and also his Fondation Beyeler on the outskirts of Basel) where the balance is perfectly, magnificently, right.

Saumarez Smith ends with a summary of the problems now facing museums. Commissioning a suitable architect is only the first of these difficulties. There is also the matter of how to pay for the project, especially now that the rich individuals and companies who might fork out for such things are viewed with ever-growing suspicion. Then there are calls for restitution.

Most fundamentally, there is no certainty about what ought to go on display. Saumarez Smith recalls that when he began his career at the V&A in 1982 there was a ‘strong sense of intellectual confidence as to what a museum was and should be’. Since then the cultural climate has moved from modernism to post-modernism, and then on to identity politics via globalisation, and that confidence has disappeared.

What do we really value? There is no easy answer to this. Or, rather, there are dozens of answers, but they tend to be complex and incompatible. Perhaps that’s why in the past decade or so, as Saumarez Smith notes, instead of temples, new museums have come to resemble labyrinths.

Even so, it is a fair bet that when lockdown ends we shall all start streaming into them once again. Personally, I’ll certainly contemplate some museum visits, at least to Oxford if not to Hobart.

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