What is the role of the architecture of a museum? Are museums just about the interior display of art, or do they reveal currents in architecture? Walking through a museum, I can assume that their priorities are to display art well and provide a space that creates an aesthetic, educational experience for the visitor, while at the same time embody civic values and the idea of a socially engaged museum. Museums alarm many art world insiders when there is a move toward the spectacularization of the museum at the expense of traditional commitments to high art. Art critic Christopher Knight said, “when the museum itself becomes the event…art gets lost in the shuffle and the true purpose of the museum is betrayed.” However, critics champion museum architecture by architects such as Renzo Piano that allows total focus on the art.
The ideal museum was originally modeled on classical sources made of marble and extravagant columns. Architects such as Étienne-Louis Boullée designed museums that sought the sublime, consisting of massive staircases, barrel-vaulted galleries, and rotundas that speak beyond functional concerns to a concept of character. The Beaux Arts Museum design mediated the grand schemes of architects such as Boullée into clear plans with a balance of function and symbolism. Large and small cities built classical art museums to declare civic pride. The early decades of the 20th century saw a rise of professional curators, whose involvement in museum design increased, leading to a refinement of viewing conditions and interiors. Most condemned the stately grandeur of the traditional museum building and features that hindered priorities such as circulation, object display, public education etc. Functional efficiency of the museum took precedence over other considerations in this opposition to palatial museum architecture. The 1934 conference on museums held in Madrid called for new non-architectural museums with suppression of unnecessary decoration. For example, the MoMA, built in 1929, provides an overwhelming feeling of its structure disappearing around the artwork, reflecting the emphasis on eternal efficiency.
Soon museum designs sought a utopian building that would unite the community, exploring the connection between the form of the museum and its socio-educational role in the urban context. Frank Lloyd Wright’s Guggenheim Museum illustrates a modern museum that is indebted to the tradition of inspirational museum architecture that creates community through shared space and art and speaks back to the Beaux Arts design. Museums must be entertaining and instructive, keeping people enticed. In 1977, the Pompidou center opened in Paris, embracing a new type of institution that obscured the boundaries between entertainment and education in its popularity with the mass public. However, complaints that new architecture diminishes art and depreciates the museum experience soon followed. Directors and curators value art over architecture and commerce, but can they afford to? Recent museums attempt to work out the tensions between art and architecture by speaking to both inspirational public spaces and reverent galleries. Many museums have dramatic facades and atriums but simple galleries that allow for total focus on the works of art, responding to curatorial demands. In the end, both entertainment and curatorial functions are vital to the public museum.
The new Salvador Dali Museum in St. Petersburg, Florida is a perfect example of a museum overcome by architecture. The frozen lava of blue glass surrounding the entrance speaks so loudly that it drowns the artwork in architecture. There is no easy way to create a perfect museum, though, a museum such as the NBMAA shows a balance of art and architecture that speaks to its ability to entice and educate. Through contemporary architectural expression, the museum’s architect, Ann Beha created a museum on a personal scale that permits intimacy through the voice of art and embodies a civic identity. “Expanded by 43,000 square feet to double its size, the 103-year-old New Britain Museum of American Art…is now a full-size, transparent temple of art, mixing New York ambiance with Yankee ingenuity and all-American beauty.” – Matthew Erikson, Hartford Courant, April 2, 2006. The Museum is scaled for a residential setting and educates and entertains through lectures and community programs. Expanses of glass allow for pleasant views and natural light. The Museum is characterized by clarity and organization, therefore transforming art and education in a civic realm.
What is the most architecturally bizarre museum you’ve visited? Would you be inclined to visit a museum with a very unusual structure, such as the Dali Museum, for its art? Or rather for its architecture?