In almost every museum studies class I’ve taught, I have assigned a chapter or two of Carol Duncan’s classic book, Civilizing Rituals. Duncan analyzes the architecture of the traditional museum, from its neoclassical, temple-like exterior to its layout, directional signs, and object labels. Duncan’s point is twofold: first, that museums guide visitors’ behavior through their physical characteristics; and second, that as visitors we bring certain expectations to museums about how they look and function—expectations based largely on our previous experiences.
In today’s blog post, I want to consider one element of this latter argument. What are our expectations for a museum, in terms of physical appearance? The question was prompted, for me, by a visit this week to East Lansing, Michigan—home of Michigan State University and the currently-under-construction Eli and Edythe Broad Art Museum. Designed by internationally renowned architect Zaha Hadid, the Broad Museum is a structure whose dynamic lines are presented in concept drawings and renderings as slicing through the surrounding landscape.
The Broad Museum is in a part of campus that is dominated by a more traditional style of architecture—and the postmodern design of the museum initially caused some controversy. “We’re building the largest object in the collection,” pointed out Susan Bandes, an art history professor at MSU, at dinner yesterday—but not everyone thinks it is an aesthetically pleasing addition. “Have you seen the eyesore yet?” is how a close friend greeted me for breakfast a day earlier.
Regardless of which side commenters take, they raise questions about what a museum “should” look like (should it fit in with its surroundings? Should it be easily recognized as an art museum? What would that even mean?) and which audiences it should address (should it face into campus or out toward the community? Should it be a design beloved by locals or lauded by critics? Are these things mutually exclusive?). The building’s designers—architects, museum staff, university students and faculty, and community members—all weighed in with answers to these questions.
Looking at the Broad Museum reminded me of one of my favorite university museums (and the first one I ever worked at): the Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art at Cornell University. Designed by I. M. Pei in 1973, it was a new home for a collection that had long been housed in the A. D. White House. Originally built as a home for Cornell’s first university president, Andrew Dickson White, the A. D. White House has since housed a variety of departments and programs. The museum was there from 1953-1973; more recently it became the home of the Society for the Humanities.
The Cornell art museum’s move entailed a radical change in architectural context–from an 1874 Second Empire-style brick home to a radically modern molded-concrete structure. While the former was clearly not intended to house an art museum, the latter was purpose-built for Cornell’s collection. The move—and the architectural significance of the new building—underscored the university’s commitment to the visual arts and humanities at Cornell. At the same time, the decision to put the new building in the place where Ezra Cornell is said to have stood when he declared his intention to build a university suggested a symbolic continuity with the A. D. White House, home of Cornell’s first president. Despite its avant-garde look, the new building spoke clearly to tradition.
New buildings can offer aesthetic challenges, practical improvements, and opportunities for rethinking art collections and how we learn from them—or simply enjoy them. Whether they are entirely new construction, like the Broad or the Johnson Museum, or thoughtful renovation and repurposing, as the Postal Plaza redesign will be, they offer us a chance to think about the building as an art object and a teaching tool.
How do all these musings connect to the Oklahoma State University Museum of Art? We have a building with a mostly-fixed—and very traditional—exterior. But we have the opportunity for expansion and for dramatic alteration on the inside. What do we want our museum to teach us about how to interact with the collection? To what extent is the building itself a work of art; and what responsibility do we have to it as such? Put simply, what do we want our museum to look like?
Louise Siddons is the curator of the Gardiner Permanent Art Collection, and the editor of this blog.