The Museum as a Kind of Building
Museum architecture is not simply a way of housing art works, nor it is a display machine: it is a critical tool that makes art accessible and understandable.
The word ‘museum’ often brings to mind a picture of a building. Yet the idea of the museum as a building type, whose primary aim is to ‘communicate and exhibit’ (ICOM, 2009), is not found with consistency and continuity through its long history. In fact at the beginning of the history of museums, the word did not apply to a building but to a collection. It was only towards the end of the eighteenth century when the idea of the museum was established and the first independent, specially designed buildings were built, that an architectural typology was created, one which remained dominant until the beginning of the twentieth century. It is striking that contemporary museum reality is characterized by a return to the idea of the museum as a building that is free from typological references, and constitutes a field of experimentation and application of new ideas, either to new buildings or to existing buildings with a different original function.
To understand the museum through the building, that is to see the building as the expression of the idea of the museum, and comprehend its evolution and its discontinuities, we will sketch the history of museum buildings2
as physical forms, choosing key moments of particular interest from the point of view of this book so that they establish the scaffolding for its core argument. The buildings will be
seen in terms of both the space they organize, and the display they accommodate, but these two dimensions will be in the background in this chapter and will come to the fore in the next two.
Antiquity: Public Spaces for the Collection and Display of Objects
Examining the etymology of the word ‘museum’ usually means referring to the sacred place dedicated to the Muses, the protective deities of the arts of classical mythology. In general, in antiquity, the spaces that housed collections of objects with aesthetic, historic or religious significance, were open air public spaces: the ancient Greek sanctuaries, where offerings by devotees were deposited and displayed to the public, objects that were ‘distinguished for their refined technique or their precious materials, by being the work of known artists’ (Schnapp, 1966, p.56), or ‘recalled a particular event, incident or individual’ (Schnapp, 2006, p.57). But there were also the small-scale buildings in the form of temples, known as thesauroi (treasure chambers), built in the great sanctuaries, like Delphi, by Greek cities, ‘destined to receive the donations of the citizens’ (Bazin, 1967, p.12) dedicated to the gods. Mention is also made (Pausanias, I, 22,6) of the existence of places specially laid out to receive paintings (pinakes), executed on wood and called pinakothekai. The oldest mention of a pinakotheke is found in the north wing of the Propylaia in the Acropolis of Athens, built in fifth century BC, which, among other artists, housed the works of the great Polygnotos.
As the origins of the word ‘museum’ refer to the cult sites of the Muses, most accounts of the history of museums begin with the Museum (Mouseion) of Alexandria, which was founded by Ptolemy Soter, in the third century BC, when Alexandria was a principal focus for Hellenistic intellectual life. However, this was ‘a university or a philosophical academy – a kind of institute of advanced study’ (Alexander, 1996, p.6; Bazin, 1967, p.16), and so not a museum in anything like the modern sense. According to Strabo’s ‘Geography’ (book 17) (cited in Schaer, 1993, p.11), the Museum and the renowned Library constituted together the biggest cultural centre of the Hellenistic world. The Museum is also said to have included a botanical and zoological park, rooms devoted to the study of anatomy, and installations for astronomical observations, though there is no hint of art or material collections (Bazin, 1967, p.16; MacGregor, 2007, p.1; Mairesse, 2011, p.274). Members of the Museum were scholars and savants – mathematicians, astronomers, geographers, poets – who lived there at the expense of the state. So the Museum of Alexandria had more in common with a college of scholars or a philosophical academy, where the search for knowledge was based on the study of texts or the observation of nature, than with the contemporary museum.
The places for collecting and displaying painting and sculpture – usually spoils from wars – continued in Roman times to be public spaces, such as fora, gardens, temples, theatres and baths, as well as private spaces, such as the villas of Roman generals and patricians (in this perhaps precursors of the Renaissance palaces –
see below). Similarly, during the Middle Ages, the spaces where objects, such as works of ecclesiastical art, were collected and displayed, remained public places, such as churches, cathedrals and monasteries (Alexander, 1996, p.7).
The Renaissance: A Shift from Public to Private Spaces
A radical shift from public to private spaces for collecting and displaying occurs in the Renaissance, in the cities and courts of Italy, where wealthy collectors and humanist scholars first emerged (MacGregor, 2007, p.1). At this time, there was a strong interest in antiquity, and archaeological excavations were bringing to light ancient monuments and works, especially sculptures, which became the canon of beauty for the next three centuries. The value of the objects of a collection was no longer related only to the value of the materials or to the fact that they dated from antiquity, but also to their artistic value (Schaer, 1993, pp.18–19). The spaces for the display of the collections were part of the private residence, palace or garden, of the collectors, so they were working at the same time as places of residence and of display, open to select invitees, including scholars and experts, but also to members of other wealthy families or visitors to the city. So the Renaissance marks the shift from the public and collective to the private and individual for collecting and displaying (Hooper-Greenhill, 1992, p.69).
It is in this period that we find the first special setting for the display of Antique sculptures, perhaps, according to Pevsner (1976, p.111), the first open air museum. The space, the Cortile delle Statue, was designed about 1508 by Donato Bramante, architect of the Pope Julius II, beyond the far end of the Cortile del Belvedere in the Vatican, to display the sculptures of the papal collection, including the Apollo Belvedere and the Laocoon and his Sons. In the Renaissance period we also find the building in the interior of which the word ‘museum’ first appears: the villa on Lake Como of the humanist Paolo Giovio (created between 1537–43) where he established a collection of several hundred portraits of famous men, so arguably the first history museum (Bazin, 1967, p.57; Fontanel, 2007, p.32). The rooms were named after Roman gods, while one room was dedicated to the Muses and Apollo, and called musaeum.
Distinct among the Renaissance palaces that were used for the arrangement and display of collections, is the Palazzo Medici (Riccardi) in Florence (about 1440). It is seen as ‘the first museum of Europe’ (Hooper-Greenhill, 1992, pp.23–25, 69–77), as it introduced new practices related to the emergence of the ‘patron/connoisseurs’, the ‘visitor/viewer/gazer’ and, most importantly, the ‘concept of the expository space, a space specifically designed to display’ (Hooper-Greenhill, 1992, pp.69, 72). But the word ‘museum’ was then used (as later in the case of the collection of Giovio), to designate the collection of manuscripts and gems (Museo dei codici e cimeli artistici) of Lorenzo the Magnificent of the Medici family, and not the building that housed the collection (Bazin, 1967, p.46; Vercelloni, 2007, p.6).
Sixteenth Century: The Emergence of Different Types of Space for Display
By the end of the sixteenth century when collections had become commonplace in Europe, the tendency was established to create specific ‘expository space
’ (Hooper-Greenhill, 1992, p.72) in the palaces of rulers, political and religious, but also in the residences of scholars and physicians (Figure 1.1a
). The overall aim of these collections – the so-called ‘cabinets of curiosity’ – from the sixteenth to about the mid-seventieth century was the same: to represent an entire or partial picture of the world (Hooper-Greenhill, 1992, p.78, 80), creating ‘a model of “universal nature made private”
’ (Hooper-Greenhill, 1992, p.78). These related closely to the historic and ideological context – the discovery of the New World and the curiosity and love of learning that characterized this time (Bazin, 1967, pp.55–56). The word ‘cabinet’ was used to describe both the collection as well as its containers, including room spaces. But a variety of terms was also in use, including Kunstkammer, Wunderkammer, studiolo
(see Hooper-Greenhill, 1992, pp.88–89; MacGregor, 2007, p.11).3
The prototype for the cabinet emerged in Italy, during the 1570s in the form of the studiolo of Francesco I de Medici, Grand Duke of Tuscany, within the Palazzo Vecchio in Florence: a small room (measuring 8.5×3.5 metres), without windows, and with the collection enclosed in wall-cabinets. The painted decorations on their doors ‘provided a series of visual clues or keys as to the conceptual basis of the installation and to the contents and significance of each cabinet’ (MacGregor, 2007, p.13). This space was the opposite of the modern museum: it was private, rather than public, a place for the owner’s contemplation rather than display, a setting with an intellectual, rather than social character.
However, the studiolo of Francesco I does not typify all the princely cabinets. Quite the opposite is the Kunstkammer of Albrecht V of Habsburg, Duke of Bavaria, in Munich. If the room of the Italian prince was of an intimate scale and dark, the Kunstkammer in Munich occupied the two upper floors of the four wings of a quadrangle – a structure that will be later established for art museums (Schaer, 1993, p.23) – and was flooded with light from all sides. And while the Italian prince withdrew to his cabinet seeking solitude, the Bavarian duke considered his Kunstkammer a meeting place, a place for social interaction. It is also of interest that between 1569 and 1571, Albrecht V created, on the ground floor of the Residenz in Munich, the Antiquarium, a specially built chamber (66 metres long), ‘with niches and plinths let into the walls under high windows on either side’ (MacGregor, 2007, p.77), to house his collection of ancient and other sculptures (busts of emperors and other rulers), while the upper floor accommodated the ducal library.
The gallery of art developed ‘as a distinctive architectural milieu
’ (MacGregor, 2007, p.71) during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Among the earliest and most significant examples in Italy were: the upper floor of the east wing of the
Uffizi (originally, in 1560, designed as a complex of offices by Giorgio Vasari), that was converted in 1581 into a gallery for the Medici art collection; the gallery in the Gonzaga Palace in Mantua, built about 1570; and the Galleria degli Antichi in Sabbioneta (more than 90 metres long), built by Vespasiano Gonzaga between 1583–90. The developments in Italy had influence abroad, for example, in France the Grande Galérie was constructed in Fontainebleau (1533–40) by François I. As noted by Pevsner (1976, p.112), ‘so frequently were galleries used to display statuary that gallery became a synonym of museum, first in France and then in Italy
It was at this time that another type of space emerged, one which constituted a milestone in museum architecture. A few years after the creation of the galleria on the upper floor of the Uffizi, the Tribuna, an octagonal ground plan with light from a cupola in the centre of its vaulted ceiling, was designed in 1591 by Bernardo Buontalenti, to house the rare pieces of the Medici collection. Paintings and sculptures were displayed together in an ‘integrated and harmonious manner’ (MacGregor, 2007, p.92), though until the nineteenth century common practice was to separate them. The Tribuna constituted the fulcrum of the Medici collection and a point of reference for others (see Pevsner, 1976, p.114).
End of the Seventeenth–Eighteenth Century: The Idea of the Public Museum
If the Renaissance marks a shift from public to private space, the turn of the seventeenth to the eighteenth century introduces the opposite: the shift of the display function from specially designed private settings to public buildings, such as universities (see below), academies (mainly in Italy – for example, Bergamo, 1780 – and France – for example, Dijon and Reims, between 1748–85), churches and monasteries (such as the abbey of Besançon, that became the oldest public museum in France or later, in the French Revolution, the Couvent des Petits Augustins, the future Musée des Monuments Français, 1795 – see Chapter 2
). Associated with these changes was the notion of the accessibility of the collections to a wider public, since, according to the spirit of the Enlightenment, it was no longer socially acceptable for collectors to keep for themselves what should be open to the public and available as a tool for the communication of knowledge.
Indicative of this tendency were the bequests to the Senate of Bologna of the collections of curiosities (with emphasis on natural specimens) of the scholar Ulisse Aldrovandi, professor of botany and natural history in the University of Bologna, and that of the Marchese Ferdinando Cospi of Bologna, pharmacist, in 1617 and 1667 respectively. The collections were displayed in the Palazzo Publico, where they were made available to the scholarly public. Similarly, in 1662, the City Council of Basel, in collaboration with the university of the city, acquired the whole Amerbach collection (Landolt, 1984, p.32) (Figure 1.1.b–c
), and placed it on public display, together with the library that accompanied it, in a building close to the cathedral, so founding, in 1671, the oldest university museum (Bazin, 1967, p.144).
Figure 1.1 The ‘museum’ of Ferrante Imperato in Naples. From Ferrante Imperato’s ‘Historia Naturalis’, 1599 (a); the Historisches Museum Basel houses the Amerbach collection: coin cabinet (b); display case with ‘curiosities’ (c)
Source: MacGregor, 2007, courtesy of Dr A. MacGregor (a); © Historisches Museum Basel (b–c).
More widely known is the case of the Ashmolean Museum in the University of Oxford (1683), one of first museums to be established formally as a public institution (Fontanel, 2007, p.52) (see also Postscript). To house the collection of curiosities that had been created by John Tradescant the elder, Keeper of the King’s Garden, and his son, John Tradescant the younger, and donated to the University by Elias Ashmole (a lawyer and antiquary to whom the Tradescants transferred the collections by deed of gift), a building had been erected by the University, in accordance with the conditions of the donation. In this building the collection occupied the first floor, and was accompanied by a ‘School of Natural History’ on the ground floor, and a chemical laboratory in the basement (MacGregor, 2007, p.41; Ashmolean: Britain’s First Museum
, 2009, p.9).
Eighteenth Century: The Museum Building as an Object of Study and Conscious Design
The design of buildings with the clear intention to house and display collections was established in the eighteenth century, both through unrealized designs and others that were built. An early example of the former is the plan for an ideal museum by Leonhard Christopher Sturm in 1704 (Figure 1.2a
), in which there were separate rooms for the different collections. The rooms on the ground floor were devoted to the collections of antiquities and objects of natural history. One room on the upper floor housed small paintings, drawings and sculpture. Spatially, the plan took the form of a space at the entrance for sett...