Sea Change for Museums of Yore

The Huntington's iconic Japanese Garden

Midst the numerous tormented museum moves and alterations occurring ’round the country these days, Sam Watters at the L.A.Times has written a splendid piece highlighting the tale of a nearly-forgotten gallery at The Huntington Library that was removed in 2007 to make way for the Dibner Hall of the History of Science. The story involves scandal and love and the alteration of museums to accommodate cafes and better parking. You really should just read the whole thing.

But the final paragraphs are particularly pertinent:

New York Times architecture critic Nicolai Ouroussoff wrote recently that personal museums conceived as “alternatives to the offerings of the elite cultural establishment” are under siege. Architects wrenched open John Paul Getty’s neo-Pompeian villa in Malibu to accommodate new parking, an amphitheater, cafe and store. This year the Barnes collection is headed for new glitzy quarters in downtown Philadelphia to further urban renewal, if not art appreciation. Star museum designer du jour Renzo Piano, architect of the new Lynda and Stewart Resnick Exhibition Pavilion at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and the redesigned Morgan Library & Museum in New York, is making over Isabella Stewart Gardner’s Italianate villa in Boston filled with her unconventional but virtuoso collection of old masters, vestments, architecture fragments and faience.

From coast to coast, where the museum visitor was once entertained and educated about American exceptionalism, connoisseurship and the history of exhibition, there is now presentation blandness and keeping-up-with-the-Resnicks conformity. Where the collector could spend billions eccentrically with faith in eternity, he or she has 50 years and counting.

Isn’t this just a part of the evolution of our cultural institutions– the fact that our architecture and museum exhibitions should change along with our values and knowledge? Or are we really nostalgic for the days before museum espresso? Something is undoubtedly lost when a museum is altered from its creator’s vision. The question is whether the gains are worth the loss.

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