Books | The Art Museum in Modern Times, by Charles Saumarez Smith - Museums Association

Books | The Art Museum in Modern Times, by Charles Saumarez Smith

A detailed look at how museum design has evolved across the world to meet the needs of modern visitors
Art design
Profile image for Simon Stephens
Simon Stephens
The Beyeler Foundation in Basel, mentioned in The Art Museum in Modern Times, published by Thames Hudson, £30, ISBN 9780500022436

This book poses two key questions – how have art museums changed in the past century and where are they headed in the future? To find the answers, Charles Saumarez Smith, a former head of the National Portrait Gallery, National Gallery and the Royal Academy of Arts, takes us on a tour of 42 museums across the world.

The tour is largely an architectural one, with the design of new and redeveloped museums being used to explore themes that run throughout the book. These include how museum spaces shape the experience of visitors and how changing perceptions of the role of museums have had an impact on their design. As Saumarez Smith points out, museums were once created “as monuments to a certain kind of moral, intellectual and cultural authority. They were designed to impress visitors, not to make them feel welcome.” As museums have become more open, democratic and visitor-focused, their design has evolved to reflect this.

The book is well structured, with a short introduction and then an exploration of each of the museums, grouped under four headings, covering modernism; post-modernism; museums of the new millennium; and the museum reinvented. The emphasis is on venues in Europe and the US – the book starts at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, which opened in 1939, but there are forays to Japan, China, Latin America and the Middle East. A final chapter addresses issues such as funding, globalisation, audience expectations and the impact of digital technology.

Thames & Hudson, £30, ISBN 9780500022436

I read some of the book in lockdown when museums were closed and travel was forbidden. So it was fantastic to be given a deeper insight into museums I have been to many times, such as the Pompidou in Paris and London’s Tate Modern. Many of the featured institutions I have visited only once and the book whetted my appetite to return, especially the Beyeler Foundation in Basel and the Louisiana in Denmark.

Some of the museums I have never been to, but feel I really should visit, such as Christ Church Picture Gallery in Oxford. Others, I will probably never get to see but sound amazing, particularly the Benesse House Museum in Japan, which is described as “somewhere to enlarge the human spirit and allow for transcendental meditation”. And readers will inevitably think of venues that weren’t included – visiting Barcelona recently reminded me of Josep Lluís Sert’s fantastic design of the Fundació Joan Miró.


Saumarez Smith has an engaging and no-nonsense writing style and is not afraid to be critical. Art collector and industrialist Jean Paul Getty is described as being “a tough, shrewd, canny, womanising and excessively mean oil man”, for example.

Explorations of the relationship between clients, mostly museum directors or powerful art collectors, and architects make for interesting reading, particularly the tensions that often arise between a desire to erect monumental and iconic buildings and the need to create spaces that can display art in an effective, coherent and engaging way.

With its focus on high-profile and internationally significant institutions, it often reads like a who’s who of architecture – Mies van der Rohe, Frank Lloyd Wright, Louis Khan and Norman Foster are among the many familiar names. It is largely a story of male architects, with some notable exceptions, including Lino Bo Bardi, who designed the Sao Paulo Museum of Art, and Annabelle Selldorf, who led the development of the Neue Galerie in New York.

A short conclusion tries to look forward, but with the impact of Covid-19 still being felt,  Saumarez Smith can only see uncertainty and the loss of the old moral confidence in museums. He strikes a more positive note in his final paragraph, pointing to the resilience of art museums and their history of reinvention.

Saumarez Smith’s book has a compelling insider feel and deserves to reach an audience beyond people like me who are fascinated by museum architecture.

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