Chapter 3. Exhibition spaces and exhibitions – past and present

(Andrea Kárpáti)

Table of Contents

3.1. The communication value of museum buildings
Classic museum buildings
Changes in the architectural style of museums
Museum in venues built for another purpose
3.2. Classic, outdated and modern exhibition venues and installations
3.3. Special exhibition venues
Task 1:
Task 2:
Further reading

3.1. The communication value of museum buildings

Identity Politics the Uses of the Past and the European Citizen” is the title of a project in which national museums from Europe discuss one of the most important tasks of their institutions: fostering national identity in a scientifically appropriate and emotionally powerful way.  EUNAMUS (the abbreviation) emphasizes the three main components of this identity: European, national and museum oriented values. [4]

home page of a project with the photos of four different museum building façades.

3.1. picture: Four museums – buildings that express important characteristics of museums on the home page of the ArTOOL Project: CIAP, France, GAMeC, Italy, Malmö Konsthall, Malmö, Sweden, Art Hall, Budapest[5]. (Photo from the home page of the project)

Results of the project show how museum communication changed in the last one and a half centuries. The museum, once the eternal resting place of cultural memorabilia and masterpieces of art and science, has evolved into a decisive component of our national identity. It evokes patriotic pride but may also inspire nationalist activities that turn one nation against the other. The space of marvel and curiosity became a venue for discussion and education. This change of function has also affected the design of the buildings. The classic, pompous and elevated, architectural style of the museum has turned into a work of art that also has a variety of utilitarian functions. The contemporary museum sometimes resembles a shocking piece of modern sculpture, sometimes a minimalist design product, but is always a strong statement by the sponsor, architect and staff about the role of the museum in contemporary society.

exterior of a museum building that resembles a huge, white shell or sailing boat.

3.2. picture: Santiago Calatrava Valls: Milwaukee Art Museum, Quadracci Pavilion, 2001,  Wisconsin, USA. (Photo: Andrea Kárpáti)

interior of the same museum building that looks like a long, glittering, white cave.

3.3. picture: Santiago Calatrava Valls: Milwaukee Art Museum, Quadracci Pavilion, 2001,interior,  Wisconsin, USA. (Photo: Andrea Kárpáti)

interior of a museum building: huge glass wall overlooking a lake.

3.4. picture: Santiago Calatrava: Milwaukee Art Museum, Quadracci Pavilion, 2001 interior, with a view on the Great Lakes, (Photo: Andrea Kárpáti)

Classic museum buildings

The archetypes of museum buildings are the palace and the church. The role of the presentation of works of art in a church was to show a collection of objects of piety and demonstrate the power of God (and those who are instrumental in an encounter with Him). Although decoration included valuable paintings and sculpture, most precious objects were safely stored in treasuries and sanctuaries and seen on rare, festive occasions by a selected few only. The palace, on the other hand, boasted of its treasures constantly on show for guests – but commoners, of course, could never pay a visit. The masses encountered works of art and design as well as amazing creations of nature during festive victory marches following battles and after the return of traveller-conquerors. These shows included the inhabitants of the conquered land, animals and plants as well as expensive or finely crafted objects as all of these represented rarity and strangeness. Onlookers marvelled at materials, colours and shapes never seen in their own environment. Many of them studied these foreign wonders carefully, so that the impact of these displays could be observed in the arts as well as in science and technology. These exhibitions were all temporary, with no guidance, but their effect heralded those of the meticulously arranged museum exhibitions: they created enjoyment, suggested values, enhanced knowledge and promoted patriotic feelings of pride.

The foundations of the science of collecting were laid by Ptolemy I., whose Museion (367-283 BC), as well as the Shrine of Athene  at Pergamon (3rd century BC) are considered the first systematically developed collections recorded in history. In both spaces, scholars and their disciples, political leaders and men of distinction met and discussed old and contemporary sculptures, paintings and wonders of nature: specimen of zoology and botany. In the vaults of the festive edifices celebrating military victory, or the administrative buildings of the Roman Empire, trophies (flags and jewellery of the defeated enemy) and works of portrait art (busts of famous people and their memorabilia) were carefully arranged.  Rich citizens displayed, in the northern part of their villas, protected from household odours and sun, paintings and sculpture by contemporary masters. These home galleries were designed in the same style as other parts of the building – museum style was yet to come. In classical antiquity, collecting was the priority of the richest, exhibition was casual, and the works privately owned.

The model for the first museums, erected in the 19th century, was the temple – the Roman shrine or the Neoclassical church. The entrance had to be elevated, the facade emphasized by a tympanum supported by pillars, and the hall of reception breathtakingly high and spacious.

exterior of a museum building resembling a church with walls and towers.

3.5. picture: Sir Richard Allison: Science Museum, London. 1928 (Photo: Andrea Kárpáti, 2008)

Interior of a museum building: large, marble-covered exhibition hall with surrounding balconies showing paintings and sculptures.

3.6. picture: A typical early 20th century museum interior: National Museum, Brussels, Belgium. (Photo: Andrea Kárpáti)

Another ancestor of the museum as a collecting, researching and exhibiting institution is the Chamber of Curiosities (Wunderkammer, Kunstkammer). Both religious and secular leaders installed it in their homes. Some of these curiosity collections were housed in specially crafted chests of drawers, while others occupied a whole room or large hall. Side by side, hung from the ceiling and crammed on shelves, these curiosity cabinets and spaces showcased beautiful and/or interesting visual attractions. A huge snail shell was equally treasured in its original form or as the body of a silver chalice, because it was the perfect spiral shape that caught the attention of the ardent collector. Skill and talent were exhibited side by side. In the chambers of François I., King of France, (1494–1547), you could see sketches by Leonardo da Vinci along with intricate mechanical puzzles and delicate ivory carvings. Frederick Augustus I or Augustus II the Strong, Elector of Saxony (1670–1733) commissioned the building of an iron-supported, thick-walled wing in his palace to safeguard his precious collection from the cannonballs of the enemy.

Baroque building and fountain.

3.7. picture: Arts and crafts collections of Augustus the Strong in Dresden. (Photo: Andrea Kárpáti)

In this collection, on show till the present day, raw mineral rocks, sculptures carved from them or jewellery made of polished gems were arranged side-by-side. The message of this collection: Nature is an equally amazing creator as the artist or craftsman. The exhibition does not emphasize a theme or an artist: form is more exciting than content, and the finely crafted object is as good as a beautiful shape found in nature. Visitors were aghast with enjoyment and fear, because, among the masterpieces, you could always expect a two-headed animal or a foetus in formaldehyde.

Images of Renaissance and Baroque works of art and design.

3.8. picture: Opening page of the blog of Wiener Schatzkammer (Treasury in Vienna).

wooden cabinet

3.9. picture: Contemporary „Wunderkammer”: the small objects can be used for different purposes. Image on the home page of The Skullmaster shop.

In the second part of the 18th and the first part of the 19th century, more and more collections opened up for visitors. The concept of “open to the public” was interrelated with “national public”.  In the 19th century, when the formation of nation-states was generally considered appropriate and desirable, the demonstration of the nation as a cultural unity became very important. The first public collection type was the “Museum of the Nation” (Landesmuseum, cf. Pearce, 1999). The first institution bearing the traces of the contemporary museum was financed from private donations and state purchases at the same time. Its foundation followed a decision by Parliament – the institution was established in 1753 and signalled its central concept, patriotism, through its name: the British Museum.

Large rectangular building with cupola in the centre.

3.10. picture: Sir Robert Smirke: The British Museum, London, 1825-50.

The main function of the building is shown by its architectural elements. The visitor, leaving everyday worries behind, climbs a long staircase and accesses the collections through a large, pillared antechamber which leads into the reception area, as if entering a temple.  The museum housed both scientific and art objects and was clearly meant to promote research and, through showcasing the ideas of erudite minds, inspire the assembling of more knowledge.  In Hungary, economic prosperity in the second half of the 19th century, resulted in the enlargement and strengthening of the bourgeois class. Circles of self-study were formed that articulated a need for better general education. The first public museums were established by these cultural initiatives of citizens. Several museums were opened in the Hungarian provinces during the time of the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy Dual Monarchy (1867–1914).

If we enter a typical museum established at the end of the 19th century and left intact for decades, we realise that they were research institutions with some large exhibition rooms. These showcased as many pieces of the collection as possible in long rows of glass display cabinets. Visitors were largely ignored. Little attention was paid to their worldly needs: there were few toilets, no restaurants or even buffets, and shops were mostly bookshops where periodicals in Latin and thick, dusty research publications waited for the learned customer. The message of the building was: “We safeguard and evaluate – come, if you wish, and admire the objects without disturbing our work.”

Exhibition areas did not contain information for the layperson to comprehend. Text attached to objects contained Latin words and inventory numbers. Museum guards were there to prevent visitors from damaging the objects. Catalogues were meant for experts in the field; the illustrated museum leaflet is the invention of the mid-20th century, the first one appeared about a hundred years after the first visitor entered the institution in awe.

interior of a museum building large exhibition cabinets.

3.11. picture: Traditional museum installation from the Louvre, Paris. 2007. (Photo: Andrea Kárpáti)

Changes in the architectural style of museums

Interior of a museum building with visitor information on colourful chests of drawers.

3.12. picture: Interior of a modern museum of natural science. (Photo: Andrea Kárpáti)

As we have indicated at the beginning of this chapter, by the end of the 20th century, the style of the museum building had changed drastically and become a work of contemporary art. The new building type of the 20th century is the architectural sculpture, in which sculptural form dominates over architectural efficiency. When form supersedes function, the building, amazing as it is, makes it difficult for the staff to organise exhibitions and visitors to find their way around. Most museum edifices, however, are extremely user-friendly: they intend to serve, attract and enchant the visitor and, most importantly, make him or her return with friends and family.

Today museums belong to visitors. If they are hungry, stylish restaurants cater for their needs with a sophisticated menu often related to the exhibitions. If they are tired of observing the work, they can relax in shady cafés and, even there, they can keep on enjoying the company of works of art, as many of the eating and drinking facilities are located near (or even inside) exhibition areas. If looking for presents, visitors can browse among a vast selection of goodies decorated with motifs of the works on show. Bookshops offer a variety of popular publications, as well as volumes of research studies. Museums are multidisciplinary: films are screened, plays are staged and irregular guided tours are organised, led by famous chefs or travellers.

Restaurant in a museum.

3.13. picture: Restaurant, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. 2013. (Photo: Andrea Kárpáti)

Exhibition spaces are larger and appropriately lit. Most of them are equipped with information consoles that talk to the average visitor in bold, large typesetting or invite the visitors to use an interactive multimedia database. Even guided tours have changed tremendously. The old-fashioned, lengthy monologue in front of a masterpiece, followed by a fast stroll to the next one is still there, but we can more and more often enjoy interactive ways of explanation that may end in creative work in the educational studio of the museum. All these activities are possible because the museum building has been altered to provide more educational visitor service spaces. It now includes lecture rooms, workshop areas, social gathering sites and recreational facilities. The contemporary museum has become a place of encounter with works and experiences they represent, but is still an important venue for scientific research. The difference between the old and the new concept of museum design is, that the two activities are harmonised and neither dominates the other.

interior of a museum building with boy in a crane and mother watching.

3.14. picture: Interior of a modern museum of natural science. (Photo: Andrea Kárpáti)

With the changes in functions, the design of museum interiors is also different. In a classical environment, walls are made of solid stone and the ceiling is high above the rectangular-shaped, spacious halls. They can be divided but their basic architectural features cannot be altered. Contemporary exhibition spaces, on the other hand, are completely flexible. Their width, height, size and shape, as well as lighting, can easily be changed in accordance with the requirements of temporary exhibitions or events. Curators and exhibition designers involve museum education specialists in the development of maps (visitor routes) that guide young and old, eager and leisurely visitors through the exhibition. There is one architectural feature, however, that has remained constant through the ages: the huge reception area that channels you from the hustle and bustle of everyday life into the silent and impressive world of art and science.

Interior of a museum building with entrance to the restaurant.

3.15. picture: Heureka Science Center, Helsinki: Reception area and entrance to Café Einstein. (Photo: Andrea Kárpáti)

In comparison with visitor areas of early 20th-century museum buildings, the space visitors can now occupy has more than doubled. Almost half the floor space of Centre Pompidou in Paris (completed in 1977), Museum Ludwig in Cologne (1986) or the Tate Modern in London (2000) is dedicated to visitor management. (A century before, a similar space was hardly more than 20% of the interior). Exhibition designers of Tate Modern have made good use of the huge walls of the entrance hall and corridors: visitors ascend to an exhibition area watching the flow of names of artists and central concepts of styles they are soon going to encounter. In Lisbon, at the Museum of Modern Art, visitor areas are accentuated with huge sculptures and installations that would have a different effect if installed with several other works in a smaller space.

interior of a museum building with big, colourful abstract sculpture.

3.16. picture: Corridor, Modern Art Museum, Lisbon. 2009. (Photo: Andrea Kárpáti)

In a modern museum, interpretation (guidance of adult visitors) and museum learning (focused mainly on young audience) is equal to producing new scientific results. . Sometimes even the name suggests this double mission, as with the Szórakaténusz Toy Museum and Workshop in Kecskemét, Hungary, which was created by the “Nomadic Generation” of Hungarian intellectuals who considered folk art and culture an effective medium for safeguarding national values in the age of communism. At this institution, folk music, crafts and plays are researched and taught at the same time.

children and parents dancing in a circle in t he workshop space of a museum.

3.17. picture: Playful family event at the Szórakaténusz Toy Workshop and Museum, Kecskemét, Hungary. (Photo from the  Facebook page of the museum.

There are buildings that recall a wide spectrum of memories about their history. Art exhibitions can reflect only a few of these associations, but visitors will nevertheless bring theirs along when entering historic sites. When a new building is erected within an architectural ensemble, the designer may opt for a similar style or maybe for entirely different shapes and materials. I. M. Pei, who designed the controversial Glass Pyramid, the reception area in one of the Baroque courtyards of the Louvre, the historic palace of the French kings, was 20 years old when he left his homeland, China, to study architecture at Harvard University. Brought up in a strong stylistic tradition in Sichuan, he was ready to break with it and experiment with modern solutions. Most of his works employ glass – here he creates an architectural whole through reflections of neighbouring buildings on the glass panels of the pyramid.

Exterior of a museum building with people sitting around a lake and a pyramid shaped glass pavilion.

3.18. picture: A museum building with historical association: the Louvre in Paris. The palace in the background was designed by Pierre Percier and Pierre François Leonard Fontaine and completed in 1805, with the incorporation of older architectural monuments. In the foreground: the glass pyramid by I. M. Pei,  completed in 1989. (Photo: Andrea Kárpáti).

Pei was in his eighties when he was called back to his native town, Sichuan, to design a museum of classic Chinese art. The building complex, inaugurated in 2006, is situated in one of the few remaining old Chinese townships that survived the modernisation campaigns of the second half of the last century. He designed a building façade that smoothly blends into this environment as it utilises architectural elements of ancient Chinese homes.

Interior of a museum building Oriental style table with large porcelain vase and chairs.

3.19. picture: I. M. Pei: Exhibition space at the National Museum, Sichuan. 2012. (Photo: Andrea Kárpáti)

The spacious galleries that are lit mostly by natural light open to small rock gardens where visitors can enjoy beautifully shaped stones, pine trees and peonies, themes of many Chinese ink paintings. A creek runs through the alley between the stainless steel constructions covered by white wall panels. Bamboo arrangements and small wooden bridges decorate pathways that lead from one pavilion to the other, resembling the floor plan of the traditional Chinese living arrangements, the hutongs. Next to the contemporary buildings, integrated in the garden of the museum, a functioning Buddhist shrine, dating back many centuries, completes the blending of past and present. The message of the building and its exhibitions is: treasures of the past are now considered an inseparable component of the present of the economically thriving “New China”.

Exterior of a museum building with pine tree.

3.20. picture: Contemporary museum building inspired by classic styles. I. M. Pei: National Museum, Sichuan. 2006. (Photo: Andrea Kárpáti)

Exterior of a museum building: small garden with rock and pine tree.

3.21. picture: Inner garden with a rock shaped by specially sprinkled water – an object of “artificial nature” that is considered a work of art and highly valued. I. M. Pei: National Museum, Sichuan. 2006. (Photo: Andrea Kárpáti)

House at a lake with pine trees.

3.22. picture: Building complex with lake. I. M. Pei: National Museum, Sichuan. 2006. (Photo: Andrea Kárpáti)

An interesting example of safeguarding and modernising the past at the same time is the Museum Fridericianum in Kassel, one of the first collections developed by the noble gentry and opened to the public in 1776. The palace was demolished during the Second World War but was rebuilt as an exact replica and became the main exhibition site of a major international contemporary art show, the Documenta, organised every four years. The impressive Baroque building is not only to the location of many modern art exhibitions, but often the background for political demonstrations, too. In 2012, when the exhibition was simultaneously organised at several overseas venues, including Near Asia, protesters called attention to the problematic issues of choosing countries suffering from dictatorial rule as exhibition venues and spending huge amounts of money on shipping exhibits abroad at a time of financial crisis. This example shows the validity of the statement on our title page picture: yes, museums are sometimes political, inspiring social action through art.

Exhibition building with tents and mock-up military vehicle.

3.23. picture: Dokumenta 2012 – protesters’ tents and installations. Kasssel, Germany. (Photo: Andrea Kárpáti)

Classic museum building with tents and people in the foreground.

3.24. picture: Dokumenta 2012 – the main exhibition building, Fridericianumwith protesters’ tents,Kasssel, Germany. (Photo: Andrea Kárpáti)

When a museum building is rebuilt, its mission statement (manifest also in the architectural surroundings) also has to be reconsidered. Recently, when the new Acropolis Museum was opened in Athens it became an initiation space into the glorious history of a nation now in a deep moral and financial crisis. The new entrance area opens to reveal the archaeological site underneath the museum. Native visitors are literally walking on top of their impressive past. On the ground floor copies of the Elgin, or Parthenon Marbles[6] and their remaining sister pieces are exhibited in a form that resembles their original position. A live broadcast from the museum workshops and documentary films about their conservation showing how much care is given to these national treasures emphasizes their importance. The fine arts and literature of ancient Greece are not only part, but the main fuel of national pride for Greek people. On holidays, when families have time for a longer visit, they queue in front of the building, wishing to show their children their land’s substantial contributions to European culture. Nowadays (2013, spring), much criticised by the EU for overspending and bad management, this country turns to museums to reunite with a past that may give inspiration and strength to solve contemporary problems.

Modern museum building with trees and other buildings around it.

3.25. picture: Acropolis Museum, exterior and environment. Athens, 2011. (Photo: Andrea Kárpáti)

Museum interior with mountain and a temple on top in the background, seen through a window of an exhibition hall.

3.26. picture: Acropolis Museum, interior with view on the Acropolis. Athens, 2011. (Photo: Andrea Kárpáti)

Museum interior: balcony and excavation site underneath.

3.27. picture: Acropolis Museum, interior with in situ presentation of monuments as part of the excavation site underneath the museum. 2011. (Photo: Andrea Kárpáti)

Museum interior: corridor with old marble reliefs exhibited in niches high up the wall.

3.28. picture: Acropolis Museum, interior with an exhibition of the Parthenon frieze installed to resemble its original arrangement. (Photo: Andrea Kárpáti)

Museum in venues built for another purpose

Museum criticism, a new critical genre that evaluates the mission statement of a museum and all levels and forms of its realisation: exhibitions, research and educational activities, infrastructure, mood and style as a whole, pays particular attention to the building as a materialisation and scaffolding of all these endeavours. Critics do not discuss practical details of the infrastructure – their ambition is to see the connections between content and form, the exhibitions and the “genius loci”. If the building does not support and serve the aims of the museum, if there is no relation between the walls and things hung on them, if the building lives a life of its own, the shows are likely to suffer in the Bed of Prokrustes.

The Budapest Museum Quarter is a cultural project that will develop one of the most substantial new museum sites in Europe, and certainly the largest in Hungary. The only similar effort, around the time of Hungary’s Millennium Celebrations of 1896, was the relocation of the Museum of Fine Arts and the erection of the Art Hall, facing each other on two sides of Heroes’ Square, crowning the most elegant boulevard of the expanding capital city of a prosperous country. The new quarter, planned to be completed in 2018, will occupy the area behind the Art Hall where once revolutionaries of 1956 pulled down the giant statue of Stalin.

The international tender for architectural plans will be invited in the second half of 2013 by a team of experts headed by László Baán, director of the Hungarian Museum of Fine Arts. The space is impressive, the location beneficial: the most important public collection of art in the country, the Museum of Fine Arts is in the neighbourhood, the Art Hall, the largest national temporary exhibition facility for modern art will be next door, and the museums that will be relocated are now housed in buildings erected for a different purpose or have no permanent exhibition space at all.

An architectural model made of plastic about a modern building complex.

3.29. picture: Unofficial idea plan for the new Budapest Museum Quarter from an article in Pester Lloyd, 12. February, 2013, about the project

One of the institutions to be relocated, the Hungarian Museum of Ethnography, which is currently housed in the former Supreme Court building, exhibits exciting collections of visual ethnography, as well as important relics of the past of Hungarian village life. Another, the National Gallery, occupies two wings in the former Royal Palace. The collections of photography and architecture (safeguarding designs and prints of world-famous Hungarian creators like Frank Capa, Marcel Breuer, Laszlo Moholy-Nagy and George Kepes) have never had a permanent exhibition facility. The new Museum Quarter will include the 20th and 21st-century works of the merged collection of the Museum of Fine Arts and the Hungarian National Gallery. The Museum of Ethnography, the Hungarian Museum of Photography, the Ludwig Museum and the House of Hungarian Music will all be included in the new building complex.

A typical example of a museum housed in a building designed for a different purpose would be an exhibition at a neglected industrial site. If a foundry is closed down, a mill stops functioning, a textile factory is relocated to a country with cheaper labour force, and the building left behind cannot be utilised as an office block or hotel, cultural functions are considered and often it is the establishment of a museum of technology that seems to be most appropriate to exhibit old tools and utensils on the site where they were used for many years. Industrial monuments are usually interesting even without much adaptation, and if exhibition developers manage to adapt the venue to its new purpose, and keep its original atmosphere at the same time, success is guaranteed and so is authenticity.

Guides in such a museum bring the building to life through narratives about work performed and lives lived within the walls. Standing in a workshop where tools and machines are exhibited where they were used, makes learning about the history of technology more natural. Many of the objects are well-known for parents and grandparents, though totally new to generations under thirty. Older family members will be valuable resources during a visit into what used to be their daily life some decades ago. Industrial sites as museums teach about cultural history through the spaces of their building as well as their exhibitions.

building in Hungarian folk architecture style with African visitor sitting in a bench in front of it.

3.30. picture: The Georgikon Museum, Keszthely, housed in the building of the one-time agricultural college.2010. (Photo: Andrea Kárpáti)

[4] Identity Politics ? The Uses of the Past and the European Citizen. EUNAMUS (European National Museums), project home page:

[5] ArTOOL Project: participants are CIAP, Centre International d'Art & du Paysage, Ile de Vassiviere, France ; GAMeC, Modern and Contemporary Gallery, Bergamo, Italy; Art Hall, Budapest, Hungary, and co-ordinator: Malmö Konsthall, Malmö, Sweden ;

[6] Some marble sculptures from the decoration of the Parthenon and reliefs were bought by Lord Elgin from the Turkish occupiers of Greece in 1801-1812 and shipped to London. The British government purchased them in 1816 to be exhibited in the British Museum, where they are on show till the present day. The Greek government, with vehement public support, keeps demanding the return of the treasures.