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Typology: Museums

Museums arrange the world according to the changing way we see it: from Renaissance memory theatres and Baroque cabinets of curiosity, via Enlightenment typologies, to Modernist teleologies and the current vogue for environmental contextualism

Creating a place for looking backwards – for preserving the history of human activity – had its origins at the dawn of history.  Some of the earliest remnants of the human impulse to remember can be found in caves, amid the rock carvings and arcane marks found there. The temples, palaces and libraries of Mesopotamia dating from the third and second millennia BC were the earliest forms of proto-museums; there the preservation and communication of knowledge began.


Click here for a timeline of museum typology

The origin of the word museum, on the other hand, comes from ancient Egypt, where Ptolemy II Philadelphus erected a mouseion in Alexandria in the third century BC. It contained an enormous library, a collection of works of art, and technical and scientific artefacts.

During the Renaissance, with its newly awakened interest in a golden past, the desire to remember intensified. Thanks to the great collections of the Medici, Gonzaga and Sforza families, the museum became a repository of miscellaneous knowledge and relics as well as a place of study open to small groups of scholars. In the 16th century, the perception of the museum as a ‘theatre’ emerged, with two parallel strands, the ‘theatre of memory’ and the ‘theatre of nature’.

The Italian philosopher Giulio Camillo’s ambitious plans for a theatre of memory, outlined in his opus of the same name,was based on a system for classifying all knowledge according to mnemonic principles. The wooden structure was designed in the shape of an amphitheatre, using the seven Vitruvian orders and a grid of 49 compartments, each belonging to a deity. In the mid-16th century another Italian, the scholar Ulisse Aldrovandi, began assembling a collection of botanical and zoological specimens, a sort of theatre of nature, with the intention of classifying all organic and inorganic species of the world for scientific purposes. This need to arrange knowledge systematically was prompted by the discovery of America and new plant species, and by Copernicus’s scientific revelations regarding the heliocentric universe.

At the same time in Germany Wunderkammern – pre-scientific and often eccentric cabinets of curiosities – were established to house collections of all kinds. The difference between the Italian ‘theatre’ and the German ‘rooms’ was one of intent: the theatres scientific in nature while the purpose of the German rooms was to surprise the visitor with rare and curious objects. Lacking a system of order, these Kammern, or rooms,were more like workshops, in which all the latest curiosities and early machines were accumulated.

These assemblages revealed the strong connection between creativity and instruments, the natural and the manmade. The Wunderkammern anticipated the idea of the museum as entertainment and opened the way to presentation techniques more akin to those found in many new facilities today.


Leo von Klenze, Glyptothek, Munich, 1830

In the 18th century, during the Enlightenment, Denis Diderot and Jean le Rond d’Alembert launched their Encyclopédie. Their goal was to catalogue all knowledge and give it a systematic framework, thereby putting an end to the eclectic museums of the Germans. But it was the archaeological discoveries at Herculaneum that revived the fascination with antiquity. Excavations at Paestum began in 1738 and in Pompeii around 1748.

After emerging from a blanket of ash and stones in the case of Pompeii and boiling mud at Herculaneum, the discoveries, hidden and protected for centuries, provided visual evidence from the past, which was literally being resurrected before one’s eyes. Also, at the same time, Johann Winckelmann, inspired by these archaeological finds, published his History of Ancient Art in 1764, with its emphasis on Greek art.

With the French Revolution in 1789, the social outlook began to change and a demand to open museums to a wider public emerged. According to the Jacobin Republicans ‘the beautiful’ should be available to everyone as it supported the notion of ‘the good’. They revived the Greek ideal of kalokagathia – perfection of the body and city based on balance, justice and proportion – and believed that through the institution of the museum a model of moral virtue would be capable of building a new society. On 18 November 1793 the Louvre, the first public museum, were opened, conveying a sense of national belonging and making knowledge a public resource. 

Altes Museum

Karl Friedrich Schinkel, Altes Museum, Berlin, 1830

In the 19th century, museums began to be built in the capital cities of Europe. The buildings themselves alluded to the past. Classical pediments, Roman pilasters, and vaults and cupolas inspired by 16th-century architecture were prevalent. Thus it was not only the works within the museum but the structure itself that exhibited and conserved the past.

There are many examples of the 19th-century museum. In Munich the Glyptothek was designed by Leo von Klenze as a classical temple to accommodate the intellectual framework of the Greeks in addition to its marble statuary.

In Berlin, Karl Friedrich Schinkel’s Altes Museum, isolated in its urban setting and distinguished by an arcade and an unbroken series of galleries, expresses the cultural status of the city. In 1891 Gottfried Semper completed the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna as a palace of culture, designed according to the Renaissance model of interconnecting spaces.

These palace-museums merged culture and power to convey an image of an idyllic past. Referential in character, they achieved a perfect unity between the works accommodated – often looted during colonial enterprises or stolen and transported from one continent to another –and architecture. Still today, entering a 19th-century museum gives one a sense of awe and reverence for the objects and the cultures from which they came.

In the war-torn 20th century, the city became the burned-out library, the wasteland and the demolished block. The rubble remains eliminated hopes for a golden world; disintegration created a place from which to start again.

Barcelona Pavilion

Mies van der Rohe, Barcelona Pavilion, 1929

It was the Futurists who anticipated the next change. Seeing speed as the cardinal principle of the new era and a symbol for the need to reform the static city, they believed that the institution of the museum was destined to disappear. Instead, machines, planes and trains would provide a new perspective on the city, they claimed, and, consequently, a new urban and collective memory would be born.

At the same time, the architects of modernity were discovering through their travels the rationality of design from the past. In 1910-11 Le Corbusier and Auguste Klipstein undertook their Voyage d’Orient, a tour that took them to Central Europe, Greece, Turkey and Italy. In Athens, Le Corbusier made his famous drawings of the Acropolis, with the aim of interpreting the relationships between the sacred monument and the rocky mountain from which it seemed to emerge.

When he arrived at the Villa Adriana in Tivoli, he was fascinated by the mysterious symbiosis between nature and architecture. The fragment and the whole coexisted in a play of relationships between landscape, building and natural elements and in a novel encounter between Roman architecture and Hellenistic culture, rationalism and irrationalism, enclosure and cave.

If dissolution is found in Le Corbusier’s view, Mies van der Rohe expanded Roman space in his design of the Barcelona Pavilion for the International Exposition of 1929. A museum ahead of its time, it was conceived as a fluid space, like an artificial platform. Here, the enclosure of the Roman house opens on to several vistas and nature appears as a dynamic entity, no longer secluded like the gardens of the houses at Pompeii.

Mies’s glass walls function as a filter between interior and exterior, creating metaphysical spatial properties. As a result of his encounters with De Stijl and Suprematist artists like Mondrian, Van Doesburg and El Lissitzky, Mies interpreted the enclosing wall as slabs that expand space.

Frank Lloyd Wright Solomon Guggenheim Museum New York

The spiral ramp of Wright’s Guggenheim presents art history as an ineluctible progression: a typical bit of control-freakery allowing the visitor less self-direction than the museum-as-palace suites of the 19th century

Eschewing the imitations of 19th-century architects, the Modernists reinterpreted the act of remembering. In addition to the utopianism and abstraction in their work, they sought to reclaim influences from the past rather than its direct representation. For the 20th-century architect, history was a source of inspiration. Archaeology laid the foundation for modern design and fashioned it from the inside out.

It was not until 1959, however, that a new vision for the museum and its use of space appeared. This is the year that Frank Lloyd Wright’s Guggenheim Museum in New York City was completed. Based on the principle of an ascending helix, as if aspiring for verticality and growth, the building breaks with conventional geometry. Wright produced a small building in the city’s urban fabric, yet one that explodes on the inside.

With the Guggenheim, Wright formulated a different approach to museum design, one in which the spatial setting has an affect on the exhibitions and changes the viewer’s perception of the works on display. Rather than the compartmentalised space of the 19th century or the Modernist’s neutral white cube, Wright structured space so that the void became a prominent feature. He changed the discourse: the space of the museum now had a meaning of its own. Today this internal contradiction between the content and the container has become the rule. With the Guggenheim, memory, or the act of remembering, resides at the intersection of resources and materials.

In the 1960s, new trends in architecture led to the development of the museum as a kind of kinetic, dynamic machine. The introduction of a movable skeletal structure allowed flexibility of use, as in Renzo Piano and Richard Rogers’ design for the Pompidou Centre in Paris. The Beaubourg, as the museum is often referred to, is an example of an engineer’s utopia. The external escalators and flexible space create a museum architecture liberated from its contents. As a container, the museum embraces the contradictions of modernity and is an eloquent and abstract structure, independent of its artistic contents.

Renzo Piano and Richard Rogers Centre Pompidou Paris 1977

Renzo Piano and Richard Rogers Centre Pompidou Paris 1977

In the post-modern climate of the ’80s we see a transition from the city-museum to the museum-city, where the museum itself becomes a kind of citadel – a complex image of solids and voids, with components of public space included within it. A vision of the museum developed as a reverse image of the city.

James Stirling’s 1984 design for the Neue Staatsgalerie in Stuttgart is one of the best examples of the principle of museum-as-urban-system. It is an articulated container that, by means of its central courtyard, directs circulation through a multilayered scheme, between inside and outside and between history and the city. Later, Aldo Rossi proposed a scheme for the Deutsches Historisches Museum in Berlin that is, despite remaining on paper, perhaps one of the most comprehensive of his designs. Like a collage of an ideal city, it amalgamated residential units, a Renaissance rotunda that served as a link between the parts, and colonnades which relate the urban spaces to those of the museum.

Neue Staatsgalerie

James Stirling, Neue Staatsgalerie, Stuttgart, 1984

With the Wexner Center for the Arts in Columbus, Ohio, Peter Eisenman recalled the history of the place by bringing the theme of towers to the forefront. By means of the three-dimensional structure of the frame inserted between the existing buildings, he broke the symmetrical and self-referential patterns of Postmodernism’s nostalgic idioms and paved the way for the idea of deconstruction.

While many architects working in the ’80s were concerned with safeguarding the image of the city, Hans Hollein published one of his most fascinating designs (unfortunately never built) for the museum on the Mönchsberg in Salzburg, which entailed a structure that remains underground, practically without elevations. The theme of excavation was reinforced by a great circular recess leading to the underground spaces. A series of interlocking paths that would provide the possibility of visiting the exhibition halls according to one’s own inclinations harked back to the idea of an experiential museum. But, even more importantly, Hollein’s design negated the idea of the museum as a projection of the city.

Peter Eisenman Wexner Center for the Arts

The Wexner Centre was Eisenman’s first public building: it solves an interesting architectural conundrum by following both the grid of the city and of the campus, which do not join up. Whether the resulting spaces are a success is another matter

In 1988 at a time when the crisis in the property market was leading intellectuals and artists to question the meaning of design, the Deconstructivist Architecture exhibition was held at the Museum of Modern Art in New York and sparked new concerns about architectural composition. It was no longer the image of the historic city that was dictating the rules but, rather, the concept of new, interstitial spaces and the philosophy of the ‘between’ or crossover became dominant. Leading architects in this period were Peter Eisenman, Frank Gehry, Zaha Hadid, Coop Himmelb(l)au, Rem Koolhaas, Bernard Tschumi and Daniel Libeskind.

The MoMA exhibition inspired a change of direction. History was no longer a complete and self-referential activity that determined the boundaries of composition, nor was it a hierarchical idea relating to urban structure. The city was now dissected, and memory was split apart and refuted. In the ’80s, memory had been restored with Modernism’s use of ordered Classical space while Deconstructionism was re-examining the most influential figures of the early decades of the 20th century, artists such as Boccioni, Balla, Duchamp, Melnikov, Tatlin, El Lissitzky, Terragni, Le Corbusier and Mies van der Rohe. Part of the spirit of the period was a return to the explosive force of the Futurist, Constructivist and Russian Suprematist era along with the heroic figures of the Modernism.

Daniel Libeskind Jewish Museum Berlin

Libeskind’s lightning bolt Jewish Museum in Berlin was a smash hit when it first opened, its expressionistic empty spaces a harrowing memorial: filled with exhibits a year later, the effect was less convincing

This change in direction is central to understanding museums in the ’90s. The museum became a work of art and a theatrical space that was more important than even the works on display. Attention had shifted from a concept that focused on the works on display, often enhanced by the neutral character of the museum that housed it, to a stereophonic one in which the museum experience itself provides the primary stimuli: work and space, memory and relationships, past and future.

Spatial and other types of relationships now took precedence; the void was more important than the solid; and the dynamics of movement replaced the linearity of 19th-century plans. The Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao by Frank Gehry, the Jewish Museum in Berlin by Daniel Libeskind and the Kiasma Museum in Helsinki by Steven Holl are the most comprehensive examples of this development.

With the Jewish Museum, Libeskind had to address a painful past. His schema opposed urban regulations and turned the plan of the city into a map of paths connecting the places where Jewish intellectuals, poets and artists had lived. Then he connected these lines into a drawing that became a web of universal memory. Into this void, the museum records the trauma of the wiped-out names. It expresses a space of collective relationships as a self-contained and isolated place.

The visitor feels a kind of misgiving and experiences the silence. The subject of the museum is its deafening emptiness. In the nakedness of the walls and in the faint light from the thin window slots lies the impossibility of rationalising the completely irrational and absurd story of the extermination of an entire people.


Frank Gehry, Guggenheim Museum, Bilbao, 1999

In Gehry’s design for the Guggenheim Museum, articulation became spectacular. Like some futuristic work, the museum traces the defining lines of the city like an urban sculpture, an icon in the landscape of public domain. Finally, Holl with his Kiasma Museum created a Le Corbusier-style promenade and fashioned the linear and spiral space into a design that speaks of the cultural and social blend of our time.

We witness a transition from the museum-city to the museum-implant in the ’90s. The issues addressed in those years focused on the need for action in residual or marginal areas and a concern with replacement or infill. Attention is given to reclaiming industrial areas and disused sites, preserving them and giving them a new identity and dignity.

Located near old town centres or on the outskirts, these sites gave the design world great opportunities for exploration through reclamation. Factories possessed an inherent beauty in their well-worn materials, with the melancholy charm of things once used. Now the museum falls within the definition of a Foucault-style heterotopia, ie, it incorporates a multi-layered site that holds numerous interconnected memories.

Steven Holl Kiasma Musuem , Helsinki 1998

The Kiasma Museum of Contemporary Art in Helsinki swerves away from a highway, offering visitors an architectural promenade past the displays

Because industrial archaeology offers less resistance to change than ancient archaeology, interventions that are made can have more of an impact. Industrial buildings are well suited to contemporary art, which is often less finished and frequently interacts with its setting, such as with site-specific pieces. As Duchamp pointed out, art is responsible for environmental relationships. In these new museums, art works, space and matter interpenetrate each other, making reciprocal cross-references and acquiring new meanings.

The failure of the museum model as traditionally understood occurred in the ’60s. In 1968, when changes in society had prompted new visions of the world, the Institutional Critique movement emerged, formed by artists including Marcel Broodthaers, Daniel Buren, Michael Asher and Hans Haacke who used a process of criticism to fight museum institutions that were no longer able to accommodate new artistic expression. A disconnect between society and institution ensued, influenced by turmoil in the world.

In recent years, because of the change in how we relate to buildings once used as industrial establishments, they are now given new life. Implanting is the central theme of this new concept. The idea of implanting was foreshadowed in philosophy, and the museum-organ concept was superseded by the prosthetic. The museum-organ concept reflects the objective ideals of modernity with its one-to-one relationship between form and function, while the prosthetic, as analysed by post-structuralist philosophy, is derived from the idea of hierarchical space as dictated by static functions.

In 1972 in their book Anti-Oedipus, Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari addressed the issue of the body without organs and described the individual as a machine with desires –incoherent, unconciliatory, schizophrenic and with no sense of belonging. Desire had replaced the needs with which Freudian psychoanalysis, and by extension the Modern era, was concerned.

Some years later, cinema and science fiction started exploring the world of artificial intelligence with its androids and cyborgs, hybrids between man and machine, nature and the manmade – the human body had incorporated technological prostheses inside itself. By the end of the ’70s, the film industry, too, had begun to predict the insertion of foreign bodies into humans, from video cassettes to alien beings, as, for example, in Ridley Scott’s Alien or David Cronenberg’s Videodrome. From this perspective, the body became vulnerable and was subject to parasites.

Mill City Museum

Meyer, Scherer & Rockcastle, Mill City Museum, Minneapolis, 2004

These concepts eventually came to influence museum architecture. The idea of intruding into places of the past, like a parasite that changes its memory from the inside out, appeared in the mid-’90s. Today industrial areas, old factories, slaughterhouses, correctional institutions and the remains of 17th-century establishments are being transformed into incredible memory machines.

These buildings are no longer secular sites or political institutions as much as they are spaces suffering from diverse identities. Like in an alien body, you enter a space that has a life of its own. This intrusion, this change to the body from within, is the most interesting phenomenon of the new museums. We are entering a new paradigm in which the typical body is no longer a homogeneous unit. This new identity includes change, occurrence, incident and chance.

Among the most interesting industrial conversions are the masterplan for the Zollverein Industrial Complex in Essen by OMA, where the visitor follows the process for producing charcoal; the Tate Modern in London by Herzog & de Meuron, a former power station turned into an impressive art gallery; the Kulturspeicher in Würzburg by Brückner & Brückner, a design that uses polished materials to raise awareness of the stone from the old factory; the Mill City Museum in Minneapolis by Meyer, Scherer & Rockcastle, a transparent machine-like structure located within the fire-damaged walls of a factory; and, finally, the transformation of a submarine base at Saint-Nazaire, France by LIN Architects, a mammoth structure that is a reminder of the futility of war.


Brückner&Brückner’s Granitmuseum exposes granite as it occurs in nature through glass walls

These containers − contaminated, well-worn and tragic − have now been adapted to accommodate contemporary uses based on the principle of interaction between what’s on display and the surrounding space. These museums are the polar opposite of the neutral ones of the Modern Movement. They are full of pathos and permeated by the time that produced such spectacular and theatrical interiors. 

Finally, we come to the most recent developments in museum typology, the museum-landscape. Paul Valéry, the French poet and philosopher, wrote an article entitled ‘The Problem with Museums’ (Le problème des musées) in 1923. In it he found the logic that separates an object created in a specific historical and geographical setting from its context to be senseless, and took issue with the idea of the museum as a space to house dead matter.

At the same time Valéry was expressing these ideas in the early decades of the 20th century, there emerged a transformation in the way certain artists related to the concept of landscape. They started depicting the world within a two-dimensional, intellectual framework, as in the abstract paintings of artists like Kandinsky and Klee, Mondrian and Albers, El Lissitzky and Malevich. The avant-garde of the time paved the way to understand the inextricable relationship between interior and exterior, between nature and the manmade, and between museum and landscape. Kandinsky’s compositions were based on the triad of point, line and surface − the three conceptual, physical and vectorial structures or forces that trigger action. It was Klee, though, who viewed the landscape as a projection of real and imaginary lines, made of textures and fabric.

Today, thanks to abstraction, the relationship between a museum and its context is translated into formal and figural principles, which interpret the landscape as an unveiling project. The idea that connects the museum to landscape originated when environmental protection issues became pressing as a result of land exploitation, technological accidents, pollution of the natural environment by oil tankers and the destruction of the ‘green lungs’ of the Amazon. And, even more importantly, it is the Land Art movement that grew up in America in the ’60s and ’70s to which we owe a new vision of the landscape. If we look more closely at these developments, we can gain an understanding of certain lines of research that came together in contemporary museum architecture.

Paulo David Arts Centre Casa Das Mudas 2004

Overlooking the wild Atlantic, Paulo David’s Art Centre at Casa da Mudas becomes a man-made cliff top on the island of Madeira

Work by Richard Long, such as A Line Made by Walking, Michael Heizer’s Displaced, Replaced Mass or Robert Smithson’s Broken Circle/Spiral Hill re-established contact with traces of ancient civilisations. From these approaches, we glimpse the seeds of a new way to mediate the memory of places through the use of routes, directions and incidental signs, in a way that is procedural and bound up with nature’s infinite time.

Although many Land Art artists came from Minimalism, Land Art opposed Minimalism’s emphasis on serial, geometric monolithic forms. Land artists reclaimed both materials and processes from the land to produce their work. Just as the artist left the easel and studio to paint outdoors, so the museum left the confinement of walls and rooms for the natural environment.

If in the ’80s it was the interpretation of a site that prevailed, in the ’90s context was understood as a palimpsest, as a place of layers from which followed the interpretation of the museum and the land as being inseparable. This new way of conceptualising context stemmed from Christian Norberg-Schultz’s theories of the genius loci in which identity lays the foundations of memory and the deity of place stamps a definite character on a place. In this concept, nature is no longer understood as benign and a source of contemplation but is, rather, a dynamic space of disequilibrium.

Giovanni Maciocco Anglona Paleobotanical Park 2008

Another wild and far-flung location (Sardinia, this time) suggests a sensitive, self-effacing profile for Giovanni Maciocco’s Paleobotanical Park

To design the museum-landscape means making the environment central again. Industrial quarries, mines, military bunkers and Palaeolithic archaeology sites provide new opportunities for creating places in which memory is understood not just as a cultural and encyclopaedic product, but as revealed through nature itself via its repositories. In this regard the following projects are exemplary: Brückner & Brückner’s Granitmuseum Bayerischer Wald; Paulo David’s Arts Centre − Casa Das Mudas; Tezuka Architects’ Matsunoyama Natural Science Museum; Giovanni Maciocco’s Anglona Paleobotanical Park; and Mansilla + Tuñón’s Museum of Cantabria competition design.

Excavation is returning as a process of investigation into the origin of life. The archaic remnants in Egypt, houses excavated in northern China, subtractive buildings in Göreme, Turkey that Bernard Rudofsky documented in his book Architecture without Architects, are all part of a new aesthetic that links nature with the manmade, memory and landscape. We find a renewed interest in the stone architecture of the past, in erosion and in the construction of dwellings in rock.

The idea of the museum-landscape addresses a double paradigm: the transformation of abstract signs and environmental art and a reinterpretation of rocky landscapes as evidence of a brooding, granitic nature that resists the perseverance of time. The museum now includes the landscape as a fundamental subject that deserves protection in order to correct the mistakes of industrial and military history. It helps us reappraise the environment and to see it as the new challenge for the future.


Translated by Russell Jones
Edited by Carol Raphael

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