“Museums can make it hard to see.” Svetlana Alpers, “The Museum as a Way of Seeing,” 1991
The Smarthistory series on museums argues that art museums, far from being neutral vessels for the simple presentation of artworks, are complex institutions deeply rooted in a thicket of political, sociological, and ideological histories that impact how we encounter and come to understand the objects they contain. This essay aims to make those larger arguments more clear by inviting you to look closely at the way individual museums are designed and laid out and how objects within them are presented.
Although we can only scratch the surface of this immense topic, we hope to provide you with some tools for looking closely at the museums you encounter whether at home or while traveling, drawing your attention not just to the artworks in them but to the museum that is their frame.
Until quite recently and even in the most modern of cities, museum design was inspired primarily by classical temple architecture. For millennia, this style—rows of columns standing on a raised plinth, topped with a boldly sculpted tympanum—has spoken of wealth, power, and authority and has been the style of choice for civic buildings around the world. When applied to institutions such as banks, courthouses, and libraries, the classical style is intended to provoke awe and reverence, announcing that what is contained within is of exceptional importance.
Museum architecture has diversified in recent decades. This shift is partly a response to the demands of modern and contemporary art for structures that are appropriate in scale and style to the art inside, including larger galleries and facilities for multi-media work. It also grows from the hope that new museums will spur economic development, seeming to demand star architects and daring buildings. But some changes are directed at accessibility and come from the theory that classical architecture actually alienates many visitors (what Elaine Gurian calls “threshold fear”).
In 2004, in an effort to be more welcoming, the Brooklyn Museum reconstituted its classical exterior as a public gathering place and moved the main entrance to ground level, stocking it with casual seating and modern amenities.
The next time you visit a museum, study its floorplan carefully—not just to orient yourself and plan your visit but to consider critically how the galleries are laid out and the materials are arranged. As in the case of architectural styles, there are well established patterns of distribution in the western art museum that reveal a long history of institutional hierarchies and priorities. The most obvious of these is geographic: the art of western Europe generally gets the most and best gallery space, easily accessible and often at the top of the main interior staircase (as with temple architecture, physical elevation is a sign of prestige), while the arts of Asia, Africa, Oceania, and the indigenous Americas are situated at the edges, sometimes tucked into corridors or back galleries. Painting has likewise been given priority over sculpture, functional and decorative arts, and other media.
Importantly, this is a traditional pattern, not universal and currently undergoing much rethinking, and in some cases placement is also a practical choice. It would not make sense to haul all of the monumental sculpture from Egypt and the ancient Mediterranean up to the second floor just to elevate it in status. Similarly, delicate materials like prints and textiles, which must be rotated off view frequently to protect them from overexposure to light, are better located in peripheral spaces rather than the principal galleries. Nevertheless, recurring layouts and installation patterns evidence pervasive hierarchies that are hard to shake.
Another tried and true organizational pattern is chronological, with galleries that move us from the earliest works to the most recent. Although contemporary museums shun the idea of “progress” in the arts, their chronological arrangements favor stories of influence and development over other kinds of interpretation. Some museums have defiantly resisted such narratives, including the gallery set up by Albert C. Barnes in 1920s suburban Philadelphia. Barnes scoffed at art historical scholarship, convinced that book learning got in the way of pure looking. His “ensembles” prioritized visual relationships grounded in line, shape, and color over traditional histories.
Many contemporary museums have experimented with thematic installations, such as Brooklyn’s Infinite Blue, which gathered blue objects from across the collection in an introductory gallery (echoing earlier efforts to create a more welcoming entry). In their permanent collection halls, however, most art historical survey museums retain familiar geographic and chronologic schemes. Yet even these schemes are unstable and depend on context. Take chronology. Courbet’s A Burial at Ornans long hung in the Louvre where it was prefaced by classicizing history paintings by artists like Nicolas Poussin and Jacques-Louis David. Here, Courbet’s realism stood as a revolutionary endpoint to established Academic art. But when the Burial was moved to the brand new Museé d’Orsay in 1986, as the earliest work in a museum dedicated largely to Impressionism and Post-Impressionism, its style now read as the seed of something new.
It is more difficult to upend familiar geographic schemes but this challenge is worth addressing, given how galleries laid out by nation state favor separatist interpretations of history over more compelling stories of overlap and exchange. For now, themes of object circulation and cross-cultural influence are largely relegated to special exhibitions and side galleries. New approaches may well come from museums outside the mainstream western tradition that draw on other practices of display.
Classification and interpretation
It is also useful to consider what art museums do and do not collect and to compare them to museums of history and anthropology (often folded into natural history). You might find a North American transformation mask in the art museum, but you are very unlikely to find a Flemish altarpiece in the anthropology collection. And yet both were made to facilitate communication with the spiritual. This traditional division—European and Euro-American objects as art, the rest as artifact—is increasingly called into question, but its deep legacy continues to shape public perceptions of culture.
Although less controversial, we can find similar hierarchies in the categories of objects that art museums collect and display. “Craft” is a genre that has struggled to gain recognition as “art,” a barrier that is slowly being taken down as objects like quilts produced by African American women from Gee’s Bend, Alabama take their place in art galleries once open only to Flemish tapestries and Chinese silks. Traditionalists balk at high fashion or electric guitars in art museums, preferring they keep a distance from popular culture and its often invasive presence, while others view such attitudes as the sort of elitism that makes museums unwelcoming and threatens their greater mission.
Texts and labels also reveal museum priorities, quite literally at the level of what the museum wants to tell us. It is useful to read them not just for information but for what and how that information is presented. Credit lines, for example, often note a funding source thus acknowledging donors, but generally provide little to no information about where an object was before it came into the museum’s collection. Even the tone of a label is significant—is it open and inviting, or does it tamp down questioning? It is still very rare for art museum labels to be signed, tacitly suggesting that the museum’s voice is neutral and above the inevitable biases of individual authors. In general, museums today are trying to be more transparent and their interpretive choices are not necessarily nefarious, but they are choices nevertheless, shaping what we know of an object and how we look at it.
Why We Look
Enveloping all elements of the art museum experience is the matter of purpose. What are these museums for, and how do details of presentation reflect and support those functions?
Some installations favor an instructional approach: numerous objects, lots of text and didactic materials, even bright lighting and clear sight-lines that signal that we are in a space for learning. In other cases, curators may aim for emotional impact, inviting personal responses by minimizing interpretation, using dramatic spotlights, or isolating objects for contemplation.
Generally museums will mix approaches, but these are never (or should not be) haphazard. The expectation of most western art museums is that visitors will bring a detached, analytical approach to their museum visit—a way of seeing that Svetlana Alpers describes as the “museum effect.” But in 1768 Johann Wolfgang von Goethe famously compared visiting the Dresden Gallery to visiting a church: “the ornaments on exhibition …, as much as the temple that housed them, were objects of adoration in that place consecrated to the holy ends of art.”
In recent years some museums have experienced a strange echo of Goethe’s impressions, finding visitors actually worshipping in front of works of art. Many others come to the museum for solace or respite, considering it more of a spiritual place than an intellectual one. No matter why you visit, keep your eyes open to the many ways museums shape your experiences of the art within their walls.
David Carrier, Museum Skepticism: A History of the Display of Art in Public Galleries (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2006).
James Cuno, Whose Muse? Art Museums and the Public Trust (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2004).
Elaine Heumann Gurian, “Threshold Fear: Architecture Program Planning,” in Civilizing the Museum: The Collected Writings of Elaine Heumann Gurian (London and New York: Routledge, 2006), pp. 115-125.
Ivan Karp, Steven D. Lavine, eds.. Exhibiting Cultures: The Poetics and Politics of Museum Display (Washington, D.C: 1991), including articles by Svetlana Alpers, James Clifford, Steven Greenblatt, and Susan Vogel.