On the Shelves – The Art Museum in Modern Times

Charles Saumarez Smith (C1 1967-71) has written a book The Art Museum in Modern Times looking at how art museums changed in the past century and where they are heading in the future due to be published in March 2021.

“A compelling examination of the art museum, this sweeping book explores how the architecture, vision, funding, and public role of art museums across the world have been transformed –and considers their future in a new era of pandemic and uncertainty. How have art museums changed in the past century? Where are they headed in the future? Charles Saumarez Smith is uniquely qualified to answer these questions, having been at the helm of three major British institutions over the course of his career. From the emergence of the modern museum in the 1930s, this generously illustrated publication brings us right up to date with dramatic new museum projects in Abu Dhabi, the Swiss Alps, Tasmania, and the opening of a branch of the Centre Pompidou in Shanghai in 2019.

The book starts with the Museum of Modern Art in New York, one of the first to focus squarely on the art of the present. When it opened in 1939, MoMA’s boldly modernist building represented a stark riposte to the neoclassicism of many earlier museums. From there, Saumarez Smith embarks on an odyssey to forty-two museums across the globe,including Tate Modern in London, the Louisiana in Humlebæk, the Benesse House Museum on the Japanese island of Naoshima –exploring the motivation of their donors and museum directors, and the ways in which an architect turned their aims and aspirations into magnificent buildings for the display of art.

In the 1950s and 1960s, the architects were modernists, including Frank Lloyd Wright at the Guggenheim Museum in New York, Carlo Scarpa at the Castelvecchio Museum in Verona, Marcel Breuer at the Whitney Museum in New York and Mies van der Rohe in Berlin. During the 1970s, Richard Rogers and Norman Foster changed the conventions of museums by treating the Centre Pompidou and the Sainsbury Centre in Norwich as hi-tech sheds with movable walls and wide-open gallery spaces. The book focusses on two key museum monuments of the 1990s –the Getty Museum in Los Angeles and the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao –and then the reaction to these big projects in lighter weight and more ethereal museums designed by Peter Zumthor, SANAA and David Chipperfield, such as LACMA, Los Angeles and The Hepworth Wakefield.

Saumarez Smith casts an acute eye on the ways in which the experience of art is shaped by the nature of the buildings that house it and the organizing principles by which it is displayed. He traces a radical shift from a belief that museums can and should instruct and educate, to the idea that museums should be more about contemplation, spectacle and individual experience.

Charles Saumarez Smith was Director of the UK’s National Portrait Gallery 1994–2002, Director of the National Gallery 2002–2007 and Secretary and Chief Executive of the Royal Academy 2007–2018. He is the author of East London; The Company of Artists: The Origins of the Royal Academy of Arts in London; and The National Gallery: A Short History, among other titles. He has written widely on architecture and the history of museums.”

You can pre-order the book here.

Find out more about Charles Saumerez Smith’s work and career here.