Experts Are Rethinking the Way Museums Function
Sands, Ellen, The Washington Times (Washington, DC)
It used to be that if you wanted a little culture you would pack up the family on a Sunday afternoon and head to the local art museum. There you could take in a few Old Masters, a little modernism and maybe a stuffed mastodon for the children. You pretty much knew what to expect, and it did not vary drastically from visit to visit.
That is all changing.
The United States - in fact the entire planet - is exploding with museum activity. Victoria Newhouse, author of the recently released book "Towards a New Museum" and participant at last week's museum-architecture symposium at the National Building Museum, notes that 600 museums have opened in this country since 1970. Fifty-three million people visited an American art museum or historical site last year, according to the Washington-based Travel Industry Association of America. Here in Washington, Smithsonian attendance was up 22 percent in 1997.
The phenomenon is not strictly American. Mrs. Newhouse notes that in France, more than 400 museums were renovated or built during the 1981-95 presidency of Francois Mitterrand. Major museums designed by internationally prominent architects have recently opened in Japan, Holland and Germany. Countries such as Norway and Austria are getting in on the trend, too, with regional geography and history museums designed by the likes of Sverre Fehn, a past recipient of the Pritzker Prize, and Peter Zumthor.
The nature of museum exhibitions is evolving too, reflecting new technologies. Interactive is the buzzword, and anything that engages the viewer is hot. Science centers are big, as are children's museums. While anything that sparks curiosity and imagination should be applauded, critics believe that entertainment-based exhibits erode educational benefits. Features such as restaurants and shops are prized for the revenue they generate, but criticized for being too commercial rather than cultural.
The symposium addressed some of these concerns, focusing primarily on the relationship between museum architecture and exhibitions. In addition to Mrs. Newhouse, participants included moderator Suzanne Stephens; J. Carter Brown, director emeritus of the National Gallery; Daniel Libeskind, architect of Berlin's new Jewish Museum; and Ralph Applebaum, designer of the permanent installations at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum and the Newseum.
At the heart of their debate was whether museum architecture should be a neutral background for the art, or the building should reinforce ideas expressed in the displays.