Martin Gayford

From temple to labyrinth — the art museum today

Charles Saumarez Smith guides us round some of the world’s most spectacular modern galleries and discusses what ought to go on display

21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art, Kanazawa, Japan, designed by SANAA. Credit: SANAA

At a certain point, the critic Robert Hughes once noted, at the heart of American cities churches began to be replaced by museums. Much the same occurred elsewhere in the world in the later 20th and early 21st centuries. Museums have sprouted from the earth in many diverse forms and numerous places. Enormous sums have been lavished on them. Vast processions of visitors file through their doors like medieval pilgrims — or at least they did before the pandemic struck.

Once, there was widespread agreement as to what should go inside these temples of the arts: old master paintings, ancient carvings, the best and noblest artefacts humanity has produced. This consensus, however, has evaporated. There is now little agreement, some would say little idea, as to what deserves to be exhibited, preserved and admired.

No one is better placed to chronicle these phenomena than Charles Saumarez Smith. He has been at the helm of three great cultural institutions. In two of these, the National Portrait Gallery and the Royal Academy, he oversaw ambitious extensions. Moreover, by training he is an architectural historian, so able to offer a scholarly assessment of each design, while considering it from the point of view of the director who commissioned it and the curators who arrange exhibits in it.

Most engagingly, he is evidently also an enthusiastic museum visitor. Thus, for example, we learn that he always enjoys his visits to the little-loved Musée d’Orsay. He has warm praise too for the often overlooked Christ Church picture gallery in Oxford. ‘If one is seeking a highly intelligent and thoughtful example of 1960s gallery design’ — admittedly, perhaps not everyone’s quest — then he recommends this as one of the best he knows.

Much of his text consists of analytical descriptions of notable new art museums from the past 80-odd years.

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