Ambitious: The new Musée de la Romanité, Narbonne

Out with the Old Masters?

Charles Saumarez Smith wonders whether traditional museums will be replaced by modern “experiences”

This article is taken from the January/February 2021 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering three issue for just £5.

I spent the early days of lockdown writing and rewriting the conclusion to a book on the history of museums since the Second World War (actually, since the opening of New York’s Museum of Modern Art in 1939), desperately trying to figure out what the effect of a gigantic pandemic is likely to be. 

Will reopened museums continue more or less as they are — confident spaces of great civic grandeur, funded by a combination of the state and private sector? Or will they have to retreat and retrench as public funding takes a battering and as private donors are bruised by the attacks on the sources of their wealth and their motives for giving?

All of these new projects are statements of undiminished confidence in the future

Now, nine months on, and close to the publication of the book, The Art Museum in Modern Times (Thames & Hudson) in March, I am not much clearer as to the answer. On the one hand, I see no signs of those museums with ambitious development plans retreating from them or changing what they are planning to do. In Narbonne in the south of France, Norman Foster has been working on a brand-new Musée de la Romanité in Narbonne (MuRéNA), which is due to open in the spring. It is an immense and very ambitious project, all on a single storey, designed to give a feel of walking round a rediscovered Roman villa, with a great wall of stone funerary blocks which were recovered from the city walls during the nineteenth century. 

Likewise, in Hong Kong, the authorities are still hoping to be able to open the new, so-called M+ in autumn 2021, in spite of repeated delays and the ousting of the chief executive in charge of delivering the project. It has been designed by Herzog and de Meuron, who have become the museum designers of choice across the globe, and unusually for a museum building is strongly vertical, giving it a dominant visual presence on Hong Kong harbour, presumably as a way of attracting visitors across to West Kowloon Cultural District, which, at least at the moment, is not very easily accessible.

Dominant: The proposed M+ museum in Hong Kong

There are equally grand plans for the 2022 opening of what is being called Sydney Modern, currently being built next to the Art Gallery of New South Wales to accommodate both its modern and aboriginal art collections, designed in the Japanese firm SANAA’s characteristically lightweight style with big open spaces free of columns and much covered space outside. 

Meanwhile, Los Angeles County Museum (LACMA) took the opportunity of Covid to demolish its existing 1960s and 1980s buildings, which were regarded as too expensive to refurbish and make earthquake-proof. They are being replaced by a grand, single-deck museum designed by the Swiss architect Peter Zumthor, which, like many museums nowadays, will replace the traditional displays organised according to date, location and material with more thematic changing exhibitions. 

Likewise, the National Portrait Gallery in London closed its doors last March and will not reopen until spring 2023, giving it an opportunity to reconfigure the hanging and layout of its collections from top to bottom, treating the ground floor as open circulation space, creating an open, public plaza immediately to the north of its building facing up Charing Cross Road, and putting exhibitions on to the first floor.

All of these new projects are statements of undiminished confidence in the future. They are perhaps different in the way that they display their collections — less obviously didactic, often more thematic, and much more global in scope — but still full of confidence and optimism in the continuing importance of museums as a forum for national and civic pride, a statement of public confidence, a way of displaying art and a vehicle for attracting international tourists.

The greatest works of Western European art remain the touchstones of public experience of art

But the risks to museums that I identified at the beginning of the pandemic have not gone away and, if anything, have been amplified in the public rhetoric surrounding museums. The first and least-discussed is the attitude of the big donors who have traditionally poured funds into museums on both sides of the Atlantic, particularly if, as is happening, they can no longer be confident of a place in their governance. It is possible this will be managed by co-opting new, more diverse museum boards in order to make them look and feel different, while the authority and management, the way they are chaired and the membership of finance and audit committees will remain in the hands of a traditional, neoliberal, and mostly male financial élite. 

But it was revealing to read the statement of the chair of the Baltimore Museum of Art, following its now “paused” proposal to sell important works from its collection, including a Brice Marden, a Clyfford Still which the artist had himself presented to the collection, and a large silkscreen Andy Warhol of Leonardo’s Last Supper, which was expected to sell for $40 million. The idea, according to Christopher Bedford, the museum’s director, was to create an endowment in order to be able to pay staff better: “This is done specifically in recognition of the protest being led by museum staff to be paid an equitable living wage to perform core work for an institution with a social justice mission.” 

The chair of the board of trustees, Clair Zamoiski Segal, issued a public letter in which she wrote that the museum “placed outsized value on the work of white, male artists and established systems of access that do not engage, invite, or make welcome the widest group of individuals . . . along with many other museums, [we] have been operating within a system that has excluded too many for far too long”. 

Two of her predecessors as chair promptly threatened to withdraw their promised gifts. This is the first round in what may be a big battle between traditional donors and collectors of works of art and those who are interested in fighting for change. 

The second issue museums face is the increasing number of demands for restitution, part of the attack on the legacy of colonialism. In The Future of the Museum, a recent volume of interviews with current museum directors, Tom Campbell, the former director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, now director and CEO of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, states: 

The old hierarchies in which museums in London, Berlin, Paris, New York, held all the greatest treasures have to be surpassed if we truly want to fulfil our mission. Give the Parthenon Marbles back to Athens. Return a significant body of Benin Bronzes. If we are to be respected as enlightened and forward-thinking educational institutions, then we have to shed the mindset of colonialism and exploitation.

Campbell’s argument is that museums were forced to adapt to changing views as to whether to buy and display antiquities with no known provenance. Nobody now argues against the return of art forcibly seized by the Nazis. It is possible that the British Museum, the V&A and the Metropolitan Museum might begin to return works of art which are documented as having been forcibly seized through acts of war and plunder, but there would be a question as to whether or not this could, or should, be restricted to a small number of very high-profile symbolic objects. What Campbell is advocating is a much more wholesale return of works from the major international collections. I don’t see any signs of this happening.

Traditional museums are dead

The third area in which there has been a loss of faith, or loss of confidence, is in any belief in the continuing authority of the Western canon; though this does not seem in any way to have stopped the public from visiting, admiring and wanting to experience the greatest works of art of the European tradition, from Giotto’s frescoes in the Arena Chapel, to Piero della Francesca’s Arezzo frescoes, to Leonardo’s Mona Lisa and Last Supper, to Rembrandt’s Nightwatchmen in the Rijksmuseum. The greatest works of Western European art remain the touchstones of public experience of art. They give a sense of authority to the museums that hold them. So it is going to be a big task if museums truly want to reorient the canon away from the Western tradition.

The interviews published in The Future of the Museum help one to understand and interpret what is happening, the problems and challenges that museums now face, although not necessarily in the way that its authors intended. What I found remarkable was the uniformity and consistency of views from the directors of many different types of museum, including the High Line in New York (not really a museum) and the Australian Centre for the Moving Image (ACMI). They are, nearly without exception, hostile to the idea that a museum should be in any way a source of intellectual and artistic authority and are opposed to the belief that museums should be centred round the study and display of works of art, wanting them to be oriented round the needs and demands of visitors instead, although who exactly interprets these demands is never made clear.

Suhanya Raffel, director of M+, in Hong Kong, comes from Australia, where she helped establish the Asia Pacific Triennial at the Queensland Art Gallery. She is, not surprisingly, interested in a reorientation of the canon away from Europe towards Asia: “I firmly believe that the twenty-first century will be Asia-centred. We need to ensure we have substantial public institutions in the region that own and deliver the stories and voices from our part of the world: to talk about our histories, our creative ideas and our contributions, that are influencing global conversations.” The purpose of the museum is not to educate, but “a refuge, a place for slowing down, for reflection, for challenge and joy”.

Victoria Noorthoorn, director of the Museo de Arte Moderno de Buenos Aires, says:

We had to reinvent the museum. Our obsession has been to become a sounding board for ideas developed by Argentine artists at this challenging time, and to provide support to the artistic community, the teachers and families at home, and society at large . . . The museum is a meeting place, a place for education, and a platform for the enjoyment of art and culture.

Franklin Sirmans, director of the Perez Art Museum in Miami (PAMM), describes a museum as “a civic sanctuary for idealism, for free thought, and for providing a space and place for conversation”. Marie-Cécile Zinsou of the Fondation Zinsou, a showcase for contemporary African artists in Cotonou, Benin, describes how, “If you’re a museum, you shouldn’t feel like a cupboard. It shouldn’t feel like you’re putting the works in a cupboard that you close and only open sometimes, and after a while not at all, because all you want to do is protect them.” 

Anne Pasternak, director of the Brooklyn Museum, describes how “Historically, museums have said they are repositories for humankind’s great art — we care for it, we study it, and we share it to educate people. While those are important things, they are not a mission. Fundamentally, we should aim to be pillars of society: public places where you can come to learn, meet other people, share ideas, debate and even disagree.”

New museums are there to foster ideas of civic liberalism, a belief in the future, not romanticise the past

You begin to get the idea. Traditional museums are dead, repositories of old-fashioned Eurocentrism, old objects which need to be dethroned and reinterpreted. New museums are not about objects, but about debate. They are there to foster ideas of civic liberalism, a belief in the future, not a romance of the past. Discussion and debate, a plurality of views, the power of the audience to determine what lessons are learned has replaced any idea of learning and instruction. These are the new ideas and beliefs which will make museums in the future more exciting. “We have upheld sexist, classist, racist, colonial, and many other unethical and inequitable practices. So it should not be a surprise that we are facing a major shake-up.”

So, what is going on? You could argue that the people who have been selected for their views are unrepresentative of the museum community as a whole. There may be some truth in this. Gabriele Finaldi, director of the National Gallery in London, is not represented, nor Xavier Bray, director of the Wallace Collection. I am not persuaded that all museum directors wish to dethrone the status of their collections and undermine the public’s view of museums as a source for art historical study. 

There is probably an inevitable tendency for museum directors to express in public the civic responsibilities of museums, more than their scholarly ones, knowing which buttons to press to secure political support and funding. But even so, I am struck by the uniformity of views expressed by a wide range of museum directors of the next generation — they believe that museums as we have known them in the past are now dead.

The priorities of museums are changing towards a much less didactic and instructional approach

I realised on reading the book that I do not like being lectured and hectored in quite such a strident way. It has made me unexpectedly nostalgic for an idea of museums as spaces where the individual can go and explore on their own without being told what to think; spaces to contemplate works of art which express and demonstrate a different set of ideas and beliefs from the present. I don’t want constantly to be badgered and made to feel guilty that my ancestors have travelled the world collecting objects in order better to understand and interpret the world. I don’t necessarily regard the ideas and beliefs of museums in the past as morally reprehensible, but, instead, believe that many of them were stimulated by curiosity and a passionate desire for the understanding of other cultures — a spirit not necessarily of plunder, but of awe.

The Art Museum in Modern Times, by Charles Saumarez Smith (Thames&Hudson, 2021)

I have been pondering this issue since completing my book. I think there is a generation of people working in museums who may have been trained conventionally as art historians — which was the normal route into working in museums, at least as curators — but have discovered, which is indisputably true, that the public do not particularly want or relish being lectured about works of art and taught their history. They are more stimulated by contemporary art than the art of the past, used to learning about things on mobile devices and not by looking at them. So the priorities of museums are changing towards a much less didactic and instructional approach, away from the past towards the present, away from teaching towards experience.

I can see this happening. But is it a good idea? We will see.

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10

Critic magazine cover