A Survey of Contemporary Museum Architecture




Frances Shapiro-Weitzenhoffer Professor of 19th Century European Art

Project Summary

I designed the research project to be a survey of contemporary museum architecture. The project takes its focus on the spatial and visual interaction between works of art and the structures that houses them, as well as how the museum-going culture evolved from the emergence of the museum as an important cultural institution in the late 19th century. In short, museum visitors today expect to see art in a different manner, and I would like to find out how that aspect of our contemporary culture manifests in visual elements of museum design.

Already familiar with many major coastal museums of the United States, I trekked inland to five cities located in what some would call the “flyover country.” Starting in Houston, Texas, my 9-day trip then took me to Dallas and Fort Worth in Texas, Denver, Colorado and St Louis, Missouri. Traditionally but erroneously viewed as “less developed” than their coastal counterparts, many inland cities are trying to vitalize their urban areas with culturally iconic architecture, and naturally museum building contributes to this process.

During these site visits, I adopted a cultural, rather than strictly formal, approach to my research, and tried to understand the role that these structures play in the urban lives of the residents. Having previously studied the methods of the art historical discipline, this research trip enabled me to consciously and actively consider the approach that I would like to take on as I analyze a work of art or architecture in situ. The experience, which allowed me to go through a research process away from the library and into the field early on in my academic career will surely benefit me as I start to undertake more complex academic projects.

Finally, I would like to summarize my research by identifying two trends in museum construction in the late 20th and early 21st century. Daniel Libeskind’s Denver Art Museum Hamilton Building exemplifies monumentalization — the design of a building that serves as a cultural monument, an urban sculpture that stands out in its environment while housing an impressive encyclopedic collection just like their 19th century antecedents. On the other hand, Renzo Piano’s Menil Collection Twombly Gallery epitomizes specialization — the reduction of museum size in pursuit of highly specialized area of expertise, such as the oeuvre of a single artist, and the tailoring of museum architecture in relation to the works of art displayed. Surely, a lot more can be said about this trip and on this topic, but I shall simply conclude with the statement that I am very much thrilled that it happened this summer.