Best Books on the Art Museum

recommended by Charles Saumarez Smith

The Art Museum in Modern Times by Charles Saumarez Smith

The Art Museum in Modern Times
by Charles Saumarez Smith


How has the architecture, vision, financing and public role of art museums around the world been transformed in the last century? And what does the history of art museums presage for their future as contested sites of cultural significance in the context of the pandemic's challenge to public gathering places? Charles Saumarez Smith, one of the UK's leading museum figures, brings us five books that reveal both the historic, civic humanist mission of the art museum, and its antithesis in the face of twenty first century challenges.

Interview by Romas Viesulas

The Art Museum in Modern Times by Charles Saumarez Smith

The Art Museum in Modern Times
by Charles Saumarez Smith

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For much of your career you’ve been at the forefront of major art institutions. Your recent book reads almost like a love letter to some of your favourite art museums around the world – centres of museological excellence. Before we speak about the art museum books that you’ve chosen, tell us about why you chose to write The Art Museum in Modern Times. 

The original title was The Transformation of the Museum. I was trying to reflect on what’s changed in museums during my adult lifetime, and originally wrote it not museum by museum, but decade by decade, chronologically. One of my first readers of the text that I finished in July 2019 made the obvious point that my book is not about museums generally – it’s absolutely nothing to do with science or history museums, for example – but is purely about art museums. My reader also made clear, which in retrospect I think was true, that I was trying to do slightly too much. There were elements of autobiography, a treatment of what various museums were like, and changes in the management of museums generally, all combined. What I ended up with as a final version was a stricter, architectural study of new museums, although looking at them not purely as architecture, but as manifestations of changes in attitudes to museums since the creation of the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1939.

I wrote it partly because when you’re doing these very full-on jobs as museum director, you don’t get that much time to step back and reflect on what’s happening. What I found is that you absorb a lot of information subliminally, by going around and visiting. You don’t necessarily articulate it in the process. This book is an attempt at such an articulation. I would love for the book to be described as a love letter to museums, because I chose only the ones which I myself really admired. There are occasionally mildly critical comments, but it is essentially a love letter.

The art museum appears to be facing something of an existential crisis. One might have said this about museums even before COVID shut their doors up. Was it a sense that museums are at a crossroads that compelled you to write this book now?

No, is the short answer. I started after I stood down for the Royal Academy of Arts in December 2018. At that stage, I didn’t write with a thesis and I didn’t set out to write it as a tract. Nor did I write it with a sense of impending or current crisis at all. Interestingly, I was asked to deliver the text by contract on the 31st of March 2020. That was literally a week after our lockdown in the UK. I had already written the long conclusion, which I ended up calling ‘Current Issues’ and was in the process of writing a final conclusion which was a set of reflections, looking back and trying to summarise and articulate what I felt had been happening in the museum sector since the Second World War.

It was immediately clear by the end of March 2020 that COVID was going to cause big problems for the sector, and in retrospect I was lucky that I had time to amend my conclusion. There were problems of closure to start with. Museums in the UK remained open even during the Second World War, so it’s unprecedented to have every museum closed for the time they have been. That was inevitably going to lead very quickly to problems of attendance and funding. It was a challenge having to discern at speed what the likely issues and repercussions were going to be.

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Having looked back at the decades since the Second World War, it’s clear that museums have had a long period of growth and development, and this at heart is what the book is about. When you read the final chapter then you put the book down, inevitably you wonder, what does all of this mean for what’s going to happen in the next 20 years? The truth is, I don’t know!

Because I’ve written about the past, it’s sometimes assumed that I might have a better or a more informed view as to what is likely to happen in the future. I’ve often attended events by financial sector strategists where analysts stand up and give a keynote speech saying what they believe is going to happen in the next year on the markets. What the strategist would invariably say was, ‘on the one hand, there are dark clouds gathering…. And on the other hand, there are small specks of sunshine showing through’. It’s a way of hedging one’s bets. My conclusion is a version of the same. There are certainly dark clouds assembling. But on the other hand, museums have historically been very resilient. They’ve got through lots of changes during the last eighty years and they will go through even more radical changes in the next 10 years, and I am sure they will find ways to thrive.

One of the things that comes across clearly in your book and some of the art museum books you’ve chosen is their protean nature. They evolve continually, depending on the context. Let’s talk about the first of the books that you’ve chosen by Andrew McClellan, The Art Museum: From Boullée to Bilbao, which reads very much like an eloquent defence of the museum’s civic humanist mission in the West.

For anyone interested in the history of museums, I’d put it first for good reason. For me it’s the gold standard of books about museums, very comprehensive, very thoughtful and very well informed. McClellan is an historian of museums who I know and admire, and I’ve had an inscribed copy of The Art Museum: From Boullée to Bilbao since it came out. Even if I didn’t actually refer to it explicitly in my book, I was very aware of Andrew’s work throughout the process of writing my own book, which was about museums, individually, and quite deliberately as a set of case studies. The challenge was firstly to construct my own narrative, and then I had the difficulty of choosing an appropriate title to convey it.

To call it The Modern Art Museum, for example, risks confusion with the building in New York, while something like Art Museums might convey a mistaken impression about its scope. I settled on The Art Museum in Modern Times, although early proof readers pointed out, ‘but hang on a minute, there’s already a book called The Art Museum from Boullée to Bilbao’! After a moment’s anxiety lest I be accused of lifting his title, I wrote to Andrew, and we have since been in friendly correspondence. It turns out that he is in fact working on a sequel or supplement to this historical analysis which appeared in 2008. Our titles may be similar, but in mine the analysis is drawn out from case studies rather than following an analytic framework as he does. I am trying instead to understand what makes a specific museum work in each particular instance, rather than analysing general issues in the main body of the text, which I only do at the end.

As it happens, I’ve reread McClellan’s book after completing my own research and I am still very admiring of it. It has reaffirmed its place as the gold standard in my view – incredibly well informed. It tells you an immense amount, both of what is well known about museums but also a lot which has been forgotten, the civic responsibility of museums in the 20s and the 30s, for example.

Amongst other things, McClellan shows that questions of restitution are at least as old as the Louvre Museum itself. The public debates that attended the creation of the Louvre were all about the origins and display of items acquired under the Napoleonic regime. That controversy had mostly been forgotten. Similarly, debates about provenance, funding and representation of historically marginalised perspectives in the arts goes back some way.

That’s right. Partly because his first book was called Inventing the Louvre, and because he was trained as an historian of 18th century painting, McClellan is really deeply informed about the longevity of these issues and debates and discussions. So naturally, you realise that there are very few of them which haven’t already been live in the past. In re-reading this book it struck me that many people often think that the pre-war museum was rather dull. I very much agree with Andrew that this was far from the case. Indeed my chapter about the pre-war museum, demonstrates that there was a very lively and vigorous museum community not only in Britain and America especially, but also for example in Germany, which wrestled with these very debates that we are carrying with us into the twenty first century.

One museum at the forefront of current public debate is LACMA in California, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. The second of the art museum books you chose, A View From the Pacific, was not the easiest to track down. These are effectively Michael Govan’s lecture notes from an Oxford University event. Five Books readers are an intrepid lot and may well seek out this slim volume, but may also like to know that there’s a podcast interview on this very topic. In his lecture, he puts forward a new vision for an urban museum with an encyclopaedic collection, such as LACMA has.

I myself had difficulty finding this book! Perhaps it was slightly mean to choose such an esoteric text, but once I did locate a copy, I found it incredibly valuable and illuminating. What I came to appreciate, to an extent I hadn’t previously, was just how influential Thomas Krens, the director of the Guggenheim Foundation between 1988 and 2008, had been in this field. Certainly he was a familiar figure in the sector, but he had for a long time been regarded as very left field, a controversial figure in the broader museum community. If that much was clear to me, I did not realise until reading this book the extent of his thoughtfulness and independent mindedness. Practically everything he did when he took the helm of the Guggenheim wasn’t motivated by the kind of vulgar commercialisation that he was accused of in museum circles, but an articulate philosophy of what the museum should stand for.

Krens had trained as an artist, and became the director of the Williams Museum, in Williamstown, where he worked with a cluster of people, one of whom was Michael Govan. Krens was also involved in the establishment of Mass MOCA, the big industrial Museum in western Massachusetts, where he collaborated with another young protégé, Joseph Thomson. After working as Tom Krens’ assistant, Michael Govan went on first to run to the Dia Beacon, and then in 2006, he went on to LACMA. What you realise is that this trio of professionals helped to create a template for the museum-going experience that has carried well into the twenty first century.

“Museums in the UK remained open even during the Second World War”

There’s a wonderful photo of these Young Turks, close friends at the Williams College Art Museum, in January 1988. They went on to a very considerable extent to change and revolutionise how museums were perceived. It is important to note that all three were trained as artists, not as art historians, so they were against the art historical view of the museum and very much in favour of the idea that a museum’s rationale should be generated by artists, not by historians or critics. It was difficult to piece this narrative together because none of them had written a lot in public about what they were doing. I think in a way they saw themselves as revolutionaries within the camp. Previously unaware of their key ideas, I came to understand just how thoughtful they were. They generated these ideas and beliefs together in the mid-80s.

LACMA is an instructive focal point. It has yet to reopen after a thorough restructuring. Although it hasn’t even opened yet, it has already been the subject of enormous discussion, debate and controversy. People in positions of cultural responsibility do not typically go about their business without forethought, care and belief. Particularly when we are talking about construction budgets that run into the hundreds of millions. This lecture given by Michael Govan was one that I stumbled upon while investigating the controversy. Although a slim volume, it is very considered. As a mission statement for art museums, it is very worthwhile, and makes clear that everything Govan is doing at LACMA is the result of careful assessment and belief. While you may not agree with his approach, it’s certainly profoundly observed, and not at all a commercial quick fix as it is often caricatured to be – as were Krens’ plans for the Guggenheim when originally launched.

The final part of the lecture reads like a manifesto, in favour of transparency, rotating collections (instead of monolithic exhibits of a permanent collection), creating spaces both comfortable and contemplative (instead of austere and forbidding), accommodating children and lastly, generating as much energy as a museum consumes. We don’t often hear about the ecological impact of displaying art, much less museums designed to have a positive carbon footprint.

It is all very revealing. Often museum directors, while they may consent to be interviewed, tend to be a bit bland or reticent. We rarely get the full thoughtfulness of individuals who may in fact be visionaries. Govan first went to LACMA in 2006, and it has been practically 15 years of controversy ever since. On arrival, he had already talked to Peter Zumthor, the Swiss Pritzker Prize winning architect, about a redesign. There was no big public competition. Why? Well Govan had obviously visited Kolumba Museum in Köln, designed by Zumthor. He clearly felt, as do I having visited for my book, that Kolumba is a beautiful model for a museum. It is an institution which is well integrated, creating a total environment for the experience of works of art which are not movable or arbitrary. Art objects are placed with extreme care and thoughtfulness. You can tell that Govan arrived at LACMA very much fired up, with the ambition to use Zumthor. While that’s something you can do relatively straightforwardly in a private museum, once you get into a public institution, and certainly one with a $750 million redesign budget, it’s not plain sailing. The project also involved the demolition of the existing civic museum, which may not have been much loved, but had been there since the mid 60s.

Interestingly for me, Govan’s early reception in 2006 was very supportive. The existing building – neither earthquake proof nor particularly distinguished architecturally, and set to cost $2 billion to renovate – nobody really minded the idea of it being demolished then. A decade later and suddenly, the existing LACMA comes to be considered a monument to a particular era of civic museums, and fondness for the original grows. All at once, LACMA becomes extremely contentious. In a way, I feel a lot of sympathy for Michael. It’s taken so long that somehow the climate of opinion he now faces is vastly different from what it was at the outset. Given the lead times involved with projects like these, that’s not totally unusual.

Peter Zumthor exemplifies the qualities of both thoughtfulness and care. It will be exciting to see what he eventually makes of it.

The project appears to be going through what project managers call ‘value engineering’. Zumthor has been compelled to reduce the floor-to-ceiling height from something like 16 foot to 14 foot. This may seem like a small thing, but since everything about a Zumthor museum is about the quality of space and the quality of the light, I have this horrible anxiety on behalf of both the architect and the director that, in the process of cheeseparing, the original conception, which was a grand architectural design, could be downgraded. We will see.

In your book you write about ‘the universal decline in belief in a master narrative, made manifest through the display of the museum’s public collection’, in place of which we have a growing interest in the idea of exploration and the validity of individual response, not as instructed by the authority of the museum but rather on a kind of much more immediate personal basis. Let’s talk about the third of the art museum book in your selection. Anti-Museum similarly turns the historic idea of the museum on its head.

One of the people who read the first version of the text in July 2019, was my friend and former director of the National Portrait Gallery in Washington DC Marc Pachter. It was he who told me, ‘you’ve got to do one thing, Charles, before publishing this book, which is to go and visit MONA in Hobart.’ Truth is, MONA, Australia’s self-proclaimed Museum of Old and New Art in Tasmania, had been somewhere in my professional consciousness, but never prominent. For one thing, Hobart is possibly the most inconvenient place to get to in the entire world. Visiting MONA becomes a very curious sort of artistic pilgrimage to this distant place, which I managed in February 2020, just before lockdown, the last of my recent foreign trips.

“It’s not just that Tasmania is the other side of the world. Visiting MONA becomes a very curious sort of artistic pilgrimage to this distant place…. a deliberate attempt to turn the world upside down.”

As luck would have it, a stopover on my way in the Emirates gave me the opportunity to visit the recently opened Louvre Abu Dhabi, adding two chapters with a single flight. I’m unspeakably pleased I did. MONA ended up being a key element in the final section of my book, a deliberate attempt to turn the world upside down. It’s not just that Tasmania is the other side of the world. The founder David Walsh is a really interesting and impressive figure. I sense that everything he did was to annoy and upset somebody like me. His museum is like two fingers to the cultural establishment and the traditional museum director. ‘I’m going to do everything my way and I don’t care if you disapprove. In any event, there’s nothing you can do!’

The Making of MONA is a big book by a former University of Tasmania sociologist Adrian Franklin. Too heavy for the flight back, luckily I was subsequently sent a copy. Franklin’s approach as a sociologist is almost anthropological, involving conversations with everybody involved in the construction of the museum. He documented and described it in a very thoughtful way. Not only did I very much admire the museum itself, but this book about it too. Franklin and I struck up a correspondence and I learned about a follow-up volume very much based on this big book I found in Tasmania. His approach was something I tried to emulate in my own discussion of museums.

Anti-Museum is an academic book and general set of reflections about what Franklin sees, I think correctly, as not just a single move against the traditional museum, but a wider international movement. Much of the recent academic literature on museums I must confess I find somewhat turgid. Anti-Museum by contrast is incredibly clear in the way it presents its analysis. Many sociologists write in a way which is very theory dominated, whereas Adrian Franklin seems able to set things out both analytically and clearly, without resorting to abstruse theory. A model, exemplary book. The final section of The Art Museum in Modern Times I wrote late on, and Adrian’s work helped me with the analytical framework for the whole.

A sociological approach also characterises the next of the art museum books on your list, Closed on Mondays. It deals with museum details that most of us routinely overlook, but which are key components of the museum-going experience. Dinah Casson and her firm have designed installations for some some very well received shows at the Victorian and Albert Museum, the War Museum in London and many others. Hers is very much a hands-on treatment of what it’s like to visit a museum, as opposed to an analysis of historic trends, of theory or the canon.

That’s right. Dinah is a friend and when I learned that she too was writing a book about museums, I thought to myself, there’s clearly something in the air. We both started pre-Covid, and although we had never discussed it, her motivation was very similar to mine, even if the result is so different. It was only in April when she came to me with a museum related question that I realised we were both writing in parallel, and in fact that her book was due to be published in November 2020, well before mine! Where I might at first have thought, oh well, bad luck if she ends up saying all the things I felt were worthwhile covering. In fact, it’s 100% different in character, and in the best possible way.

“At the Ethnological Museum in Dahlem, southwest of Berlin, visitors were asked to instal their coats, hats and bags in display cases as if they were themselves ethnographic specimens.”

Museum designers are often rather invisible. We rarely learn about what they think and do, and their importance in display. It’s simply not evident to most people, who assume that curators or gallerists or agents put things out. Museums themselves, I believe, often underestimate the role of the designer, because curators are on the staff while designers are on contract. So they celebrate the role of the curator who will probably have chosen that designer and worked closely with them, but it’s the curator who gets the credit.

What I like about Dinah’s book is that it’s so personal. She has worked all her career designing museums. She looks back at her long involvement with museums and thinks aloud as it were about the things she wishes they did better or differently. I loved it as a book precisely because it is so personal.

It’s absolutely charming, and quirky. A discussion of the coat check, for example, is not something you expect to find in a serious treatment of our temples of culture.

I love the short chapter about the coat check – clever and funny and unexpected. At the Ethnological Museum in Dahlem, southwest of Berlin, visitors were asked to instal their coats, hats and bags in display cases as if they were themselves ethnographic specimens. As an addition to the typical installations it is absolutely brilliant because it’s such a simple way of getting people to think about the nature of museums, their visit and what it’s all about.

My own last visit before lockdown was to Lisbon’s Gulbenkian Museum, which Casson mentions in relation to windows and the use of natural light in museums. As it happens, the exhibit I saw was about the art of exhibiting, which featured amongst other delights, wonderful floating transparent frames by the Brazilian architect Lina Bo Bardi, also a reference of Casson’s in the tremendous chapter about frames and framing of artworks. 

By coincidence, I went to review that exhibition. Although I had been to the Gulbenkian before, what that exhibition made you appreciate is the experience of the museum itself, how you are being made to walk around the museum in a particular way that encourages reflection on the museum’s design, almost as much as the exhibition itself. The museum itself becomes an exhibit. This was a show about other places which were represented in a necessarily rather arbitrary way through photographs and little displays. Whereas the Gulbenkian itself was Exhibit A. It made you realise how beautiful a building it is, and how well it has worn. Exactly as Dinah mentions, the museum draws your attention to the quality of daylight and the nature of the surrounding environment, the internal courtyard and the display cases, so that it’s all done in a very low key way, a trademark of the architect Franco Albini who advised on its design. While it may be low key, it is very considered. At Dia Beacon, Michael Govan made sure to have the exterior, the gardens around this industrial building, enter and fuse visually with the interior exhibition spaces.

The last of the art museum books in your selection is a collection of interviews with museum leaders. We often think of museums, certainly the storied institutions with classical colonnades, as having been here forever. And yet, they change all the time, often, notably thanks to the individuals who lead them. Donatien Grau traveled to speak to museum directors the world over, much the way you did visiting institutions for your case studies. Which of these conversations particularly stood out for you? 

Like several other museum related books which have appeared recently, this was written in parallel with my own. In a way, I wish they had been available as I was writing. Donatien Grau, a relatively young curator at the Musee d’Orsay, didn’t go around and interview the current generation of museum directors. He went out of his way to interview the retired generation of museum directors, who people are very apt to forget.
Because of the way museums operate, many of us forget significant milestones from the past. Alan Bowness, for example, interviewed by Grau, did a huge amount of work at the Tate while he was director from 1980-1988, before Nicholas Serota took the helm. In the late 1980s, Serota became very well known, and in the public mind everything that’s happened at the Tate as we know it is the result of Serota’s initiative. Nick Serota’s views about art and the Tate are readily available in the public domain – I was able to write the chapter about the Tate Modern easily because everything about Tate Modern has been extensively discussed and debated. There are already three or four significant books about it. By contrast, his predecessor Alan Bowness has in a way been wiped from public memory.

Bowness had been a teacher at the Courtauld Institute of Art and is the son-in-law of the artist Barbara Hepworth. When he came into the Tate, he was the person who introduced Tate Liverpool, and he was the person who first came up with the idea of doing Tate St Ives. He had different views of the priorities of the Tate but as an academic these were very intelligent.  I was very intrigued that this book didn’t interview Serota, who would have been perfectly available, but instead went to Alan Bowness.

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Then there’s Tim Clifford, a very colourful figure in 80s Britain when he was director of the National Galleries of Scotland in Edinburgh. If you talk to the current generation of museum curators, they would say that Tim did exciting and adventurous things in Edinburgh and Manchester before that, which he was appointed to when he was quite young. However, it’s not so much a matter of public record. Similarly, Mark Jones was an effective and successful director of the V&A from 2001 to 2011, but was not somebody who was given to talking about what he was doing. I know and admire him, and temperamentally he’s quite shy. You might say the same of Henri Loyrette, who took over at the Louvre between 2001 and 2013 after his time as director of the Musée d’Orsay in Paris, and was instrumental in the creation the Louvre in Lens. I contacted him to get his input on my Louvre-Lens chapter, and he wrote back saying, ‘You know, my dear Charles, this is very accurate, thank you very much, Yours, Henri.’ Not exactly forthcoming! I was hoping for more from Henri than just a tick! He’s a very philosophical figure. Shortly after I handed in my book to the publishers, along comes this collection of interviews, and lo and behold! there’s Henri being very thoughtful and reflective.

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There are other examples of a prior generation of museum directors. Donatien Grau in this wonderful book remind us of museum leaders who set the stage for our time, documenting conversations that might otherwise be lost to us. Although my book is about architecture, it’s not really about architects. It’s more about the museum directors as clients. As I say in the conclusion, the role of the client comes before the role of the architect. If there’s an analytical aspect to The Museum in Modern Times, it would be to make people more aware of how museum directors determine the brief and shape the institution at least as much as the architect.

You wrote that inclusion among the case studies in your book was a mark of respect. However you were coy about revealing which is your favourite institution. This is your chance Charles!

There are two, very different from one another, which are favourites for similar reasons. Partly because it was the last one I’ve seen before lockdown, but also because I was incredibly impressed by it, MONA left an indelible impression. The other one which gave me a sense of long-distance pilgrimage was the Benesse Art Site Naoshima. When I was hosted by the Japan Foundation in 2008 I had already been to Tokyo several times, but I was very curious about other museums outside Tokyo which I very much wanted to see. Visiting Naoshima with my wife was memorable because I didn’t know what to expect. Spending time with the museum, so that you don’t just go for an hour’s visit, but linger, creates a lasting impression. You visit, but then maybe spend the night, then explore the village, go up the hill to the art site. The idea that museums benefit from spending time with them is one that has stayed with me. So if there is an exemplary museum within the text, Naoshima is probably the one, for that reason.

Interview by Romas Viesulas

March 24, 2021

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Charles Saumarez Smith

Charles Saumarez Smith

Charles Saumarez Smith has been director of the United Kingdom’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 LondonThe 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, including his latest book, The Art Museum in Modern Times.

Charles Saumarez Smith

Charles Saumarez Smith

Charles Saumarez Smith has been director of the United Kingdom’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 LondonThe 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, including his latest book, The Art Museum in Modern Times.