Museums are booming these days. Never before has there been such widespread interest in this institution, and never have so many museum buildings been erected in Europe and North America as in the last 10 to 15 years. Events like the “Long Night of Museums” in many European capitals and elsewhere attract tens of thousands into the galleries in one night. Cities like Bilbao, Basel, Bregenz and Berlin have become popular tourist destinations because of their new art galleries. It seems obvious that museums harbour significant cultural and economical capital.

As people who conceive and build museums, we are interested in discussing how to use this capital responsibly, and in particular what role the actual physical building should have in this new phenomenon.

Historically, museums were first of all locations for collections; only later did they become places of education. Over the course of the 19th century they developed into institutions that conserved “the beautiful and the sublime” in the same manner as specimens in a Natural History Museum. The various secession movements in the 20th century then started to subvert these patterns; tendencies like Dada and later Pop and Fluxus succeeded in undermining the aura of the institutional art museum and in changing its nature fundamentally. Duchamps’ pissoir on a pedestal in an art gallery became a symbol for the absurdity of the museum as an elitist institution. To introduce art to society and society to art was to become the agenda of the 20th century.

Up to today this has been the most important role of museums that exhibit contemporary art or emphasise the contemporary reception of historical art: besides their conservatorial and didactic roles, these museums provide a place of encounter and dialogue between the individual (the artist/curator) and the masses. The artist – part of a mass culture him or herself – is singled out as an individual and elevated by curatorial selection. The museum becomes a public stage that emphasises the significance of his or her work.

But just as important as the presentation of an individual’s work is, in fact, the viewers’ experience of their own individuality: in viewing art one is being addressed and sensually/perceptually stimulated to reflect upon the conditions of one’s life. The artist’s work is thus less the subject of distant admiration or abstract study, but becomes the touchstone of one’s own existence.

The dialogue between the viewer and the work at a public location is a mise en scène of a continuation of the dialogue between the artist and the work in the studio (as Remy Zaugg puts it). If a museum does not allow for such an encounter, regardless how formal, it has already forgone its most important potential.

Creative work regularly transgresses the limitations of the norm and points toward the seemingly inaccessible potential of our existence. It thus articulates the desire and the ability of individual expression – even when its subject is the absence of freedom.

In contrast to Christian churches, which try to attract us with the promise of metaphysical experience and a life after death, the museum’s promise is one of poetry and – so to speak – a life during life. Ultimately, contemporary museums celebrate the freedom of the individual and hence articulate – more than any other place in the city (museums being essentially urban) – the fundamental principles of our civilised existence.

The museum is also (as opposed to the worlds of TV, film and Internet) a place of three-dimensional space for direct, sensual, perception. In the flood of more or less interchangeable virtual promises, accessible for everyone at every place, it is the exclusiveness of the physical experience, the non-reproducible quality of an encounter between individuals (physically present or represented through their work) that makes the museum a superior place.

It is hence only logical that many contemporary museums also function as social meeting places – as a variation of the classical agora, the place of informal social encounter. Friday night at the Tate Modern, for example, is one of the most popular meeting points for London’s singles; in the space of the museum like-minded people can meet in an environment relatively free of both stress and commerce.

In this the museum represents an enormously important place for contemporary societies. It has left the sphere of somewhat distanced literacy and has instead become one of the few locations where a desire for individuality finds an opening. It has become a place within the city that defines and protects the very freedom Western societies are built upon.

Obviously, in an age of universal commercialisation, such a place is not immune to certain temptations. This is particularly the case as the museum is not independent of economic cycles, but is itself dependent on the market. Within a contemporary city, where so many architectural interventions are conceived predominantly as tools for commerce, the challenge for those who design museums is to create something of a void, a reservation of undefined identity and a space that provides a non-determined territory.

The actual building plays a key role in this discussion, as quite often it is the presentation of a piece of art that defines the fine line between banality and poetry. The (then shocking) transformation of Duchamps’ urinal from the most banal of everyday objects into a piece of art, through the mere manipulation of its context,

is eloquent proof of the power of the spatial and cultural context of the gallery.

However, today there is little scandal in the “elevation” of every-day situations into art. The problem seems rather the opposite: as now every shopping bag and T-shirt is blazoned with a reproduction of the Mona Lisa, it seems difficult to protect art from total banalisation. On the other hand, contemporary art production is increasingly dependent on the space of the gallery as a space of protection and of affirmation. The radical step of cutting through this cycle came with Joseph Beuys’ attempt to free art from the gallery and “dissolve” it into everyday life. An attempt that, ironically,

ultimately succeeded only with the help of museums themselves.

I think that the idea of the museum as a spectacle (as represented probably most convincingly by Frank Gehry’s designs at the moment) is not able to achieve this fine balance. The museum as an urban attraction next to the musical theatre and the leisure pool reduces its complex potential to the popular effect.

On the other hand, it is illusory to imagine that it could be removed from the context of our contemporary event culture.

Peter Zumthor’s Museum in Bregenz, for example, has become an event in itself and has been fully assimilated into popular mass culture. The same is true for the Jewish Museum in Berlin: the so-called “Void of the Holocaust” has become an indispensable stop on every city tour – like the dome of the Reichstag and other tourist attractions.

To keep the contemplative retreat from mass culture from becoming an empty gesture, I believe a museum should embrace two seemingly mutually exclusive qualities: it has to provide a connection with its surroundings as, for example, the Louisiana Museum near Copenhagen or Hombroich Island near Düsseldorf (whereby

I don’t know of any museum that has succeeded in creating a similarly successful interface with an urban context), while also creating a limited and protected space. The museum should have cafes, souvenir-stands, shops, bars; it should hold evening events, adult education and children’s programmes; it has to be a lively location for people to meet.

At the same time it has to remain a non-defined territory that can be entirely be filled by the presence of an artist. This space should not be a white box that re-institutionalises the aura of the 19th century within the cliché of the modern museum, nor should it necessarily be an architect’s space, eager to show off the fashionable absence of detail. An appropriate contemporary museum is therefore a flexible space, one determined to be constantly re-defined.


Published in Sauerbruch Hutton. Archive. Baden: Lars Müller Publishers, 2006