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An Architectural History of Museums

Updated on October 25, 2017
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Public Historian and co-author of "Exploring American Girlhood in 50 Historic Treasures" (Rowman & Littlefield, 2021).

The First "Museums"

The oldest use of buildings like museums, but not yet called such, can be traced to the private collections of princes in the Middle Ages, where the spoils of war were displayed in palaces and royal zoos.

The first use of the word “museum” to describe a building occurred during the Italian Renaissance, when the term was applied to courtyards, loggias, and gardens that displayed statues and antiquities. In 1508, Bramante designed a building adjoining the Vatican’s Belvedere Pavilion for Innocent VIII, which was an open-air display of famous statues, such as the Apollo Belvdere and the Laocoon.

The term was then utilized in 1539 by Italian bishop and historian Paolo Giovio to describe his villa on Lake Como; the villa had one large room, the Aula Magna, and smaller rooms on three sides of a colonnaded cloister, where he displayed his collection of portraits and antiquities.

The Antiquarium
The Antiquarium | Source


In the latter half of the sixteenth century, these “museums” evolved into what were known as “galleries:” centrally-planned rooms or long halls that displayed works of art.

One example is the Antiquarium of Albrecht V of Bavaria in Munich, designed by Strada and built by Egkl in 1569-1571, which housed the monarch’s collection of antique sculptures. This trend continued through the eighteenth century, as seen in the Galleria of Cardinal Valenti Gonzaga built in 1740.

However, another trend emerged that combined artworks with objects from the natural sciences, such as rocks, corals, and oddities of nature. These were displayed in “Cabinets of Curiosities,” such as the Kunstkammer, the first museum in Russia, built in 1727 by Matarnovi and Zemtsov. These cabinets were primarily in the private residences of affluent collectors, though admittance was granted to scientists and the upper classes.

In the later eighteenth century, the idea of the museum designed and organized by types of collections was perpetuated by Leonhard Christoph Strum’s ideal museum plan. This idea was put into action most notably by the British Museum, built in 1823-1847 by Sir Robert Smike, and the Altes Museum in Berlin, built 1823-1830 by K. F. Schinkel; both of these designs are Greek Revival, dominated by full facades of Ionic columns, following popular architectural styles of the time.

Altes Museum, Berlin.
Altes Museum, Berlin. | Source

American Museums: Gothic and Classical Revival

At this point, America entered the museum scene, evolving architecture derived from European models into uniquely American and then International designs.

The first American museum was Charles Wilson Peale’s Cabinet of Curiosities in Philadelphia, opened in 1786 at his residence, open to the general public. Museums of the early nineteenth century followed the Cabinet of Curiosities form, which largely took their architectural cues from domestic architecture trends of the time. These Cabinets persist today at Ripley’s Believe-it-or-Not museums and the carnivals evolved from P.T. Barnum’s collection of the 1840s.

The first notable museum architecture, however, came in 1847, with Renwick’s design for the Smithsonian Castle. The Castle is a decidedly Gothic Revival building, with battlements and asymmetrically placed turrets, which echoed architectural trends of the time.

Gothic and Classical Revivals persisted in American museums until the early twentieth century, when a proliferation of museum building types flourished.

P.T. Barnum's Museum

Modern Architecture

The outdoor museum then appeared, consisting of a conglomeration of restored or reconstructed buildings, notably with the establishment of Henry Ford’s Dearborn, Michigan, and Greenfield Village in 1928.

However, the museum architectural boom began in the mid-to-late twentieth century. The first notable structure to depart from Revival styles and the dominant architectural trends is Frank Lloyd Wright’s design for the Guggenheim in New York City, built from 1956 to 1959, an innovative, inverted-ziggurat design with an interior spiral ramp riding to a domed skylight, that stands as a “monument to modernism” and “made it socially and culturally acceptable for an architect to design a highly expressive, intensely personal museum.” (Guggenheim Foundation)

This was followed by the Oakland Museum of California in 1962, designed by Kevin Roche, which integrated the landscape to become a building that also served as an urban park and public space through the use of terraced roof gardens and a central garden.

The modernist trend continued in museums into the 1970s, becoming a more stark form such as that seen at The Yale Center for British Art in New Haven, Connecticut. Designed by Louis I. Kahn in 1974, the building is composed of a structural grid of glass and concrete squares, with symmetrical, 20-foot-square spaces organized around two inner courts and punctuated with skylights.

Oakland Museum
Oakland Museum | Source

Today's Three Trends

Today, museum architecture continues on three primary trends: a combination of the traditional and modern, a strictly modern take, and continuing the incorporation of landscape as debuted by Kevin Roche in 1974.

First, there is the combination of the traditional and modern; this is best seen at the Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco, a combination of renovation of the 1907 Jessie Street Pacific Gas & Electric building with modern influences incorporated by architect Daniel Libeskind in 1998. Libeskind designed the museum to evoke the museum’s mission to celebrate Jewish culture, history, art, and ideas within 21st-century perspectives by combining the 1907 building’s neo-classic brick facade with a modern extension of blue metallic steel that changes color depending on the time of day, weather, or vantage point and is meant to symbolize the Hebrew phrase “L’Chaim” (To Life).

Second is the trend towards purely modern architecture, as seen at the Denver Art Museum’s expansion in 2006. Architect Daniel Libeskind, wishing to emanate the peaks of the Rocky Mountains and geometric rock crystals found in nearby foothills, designed the expansion, known as the Frederic C. Hamilton Building. Notably, museums of this purely modern type tend to be more artwork than functional, often becoming more prominent than the collection it houses.

Finally, there is the continuation of the trend established by Kevin Roche, connecting the museum to the natural world. This is best seen at the National Museum of the American Indian, which was designed as a “living museum” evoking the traditional Native connection to nature through its east-facing main entrance (a celestial reference), its curvilinear form evoking wind-shaped rock, Grandfather Rocks to evoke the longevity of Native peoples, and its incorporation of outdoor spaces (hardwood forest, meadow, and croplands) and various uses of windows to create dark and light spaces for exhibits. Museums of this type are generally designed to either be urban parks and public spaces, as intended by Kevin Roche in 1974, or to evoke personalities that connect to the museum’s subject matter or audiences. This trend continues in the plans for the National Museum of African American History and Culture, evoking the crown found on Yoruban columns and posts in Africa.

What type of museum architecture do you prefer?

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