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The Specific Museum

For the last eight years, I have been teaching a class on museum education at Columbia’s Teachers College, and maybe because of that I tend to regard museums essentially as educational institutions. In my class, every year we start with a visit to the Metropolitan Museum of Art to observe exhibitions’ displays, signage, and circulation, among other things. It’s an interesting exercise for young educators, as it allows them to develop a critical eye and to think of different possibilities as they go on to work at different institutions. My point is that, for anyone working in a museum for a number of years, it’s very clear that the “museum” is a work in progress; always “in transition,” as Hilde Heine emphasized in her aptly titled book, The Museum in Transition.

While I appreciate Diller’s gesture, I am not entirely convinced that one can “future-proof” a design for a museum. That sounds to me like one of those wonderful sound bites to impress laypeople. While good architecture can do wonders to bring people together and so forth, it’s not an imperative for museums to achieve a “future-proof” design in order to develop their programs. Many examples come to mind: the Tate Modern being an adaptation of an old industrial building, Dia Beacon occupying a former Nabisco box printing factory, the Bronx Museum installed in what was originally built as a synagogue. In my perception, these three institutions are successful not because of the architecture, but perhaps even regardless of. What makes them unique is their very specific sense of mission and the programs they have developed to express their mission. Unfortunately this issue of specificity is not fully explored right now, and many museums across the globe tend to adopt an internationalist model. Consequently, as we move from city to city, or country to country, we bump into the same programs over and over again. Particularly in terms of contemporary art collections, there is very little variation from one museum to another with their token Gerhard Richters, Cy Twomblys, Felix Gonzales-Torreses, etc. I don’t mean to sound harsh, but I feel strongly about specificity. Some of my preferred museums are actually those that hold an individual’s collection, and preferably at its original site. My top pick, for sure, is John Soane’s house in London, but there are many examples of course. In Paris, for instance, there are small museums in the model of the Frick in New York, such as the Musée Nissim de Camondo, or the Musée Jacquemart-André. In those very specific environments, with very specific collections, one’s experience is much more focused and much richer. The fact that those buildings are wonderfully woven into the city’s fabric is of course a strong plus.

But with bigger museums we are missing that specificity, and the fact that museums hire star architects because of what they have accomplished at other sites is definitely not helping us to get out of this predicament. I do miss the old MoMA too, with its intimate scale that somehow cloaked the visitor. I still recall the escalator taking you to the top, while you could see the garden. It was such a wonderful experience. The addition of 10 years ago seemed exciting at first, but now that the novelty is gone, we only have eyes to the poor solutions of circulation and uninspiring gallery spaces. The escalator that serves all of the museums floors is a horrible pit, with the landing areas close to the bathroom entrances, making for very awkward interactions, etc., etc., etc. This is not meant as MoMA bashing I love the institution and want to see it succeed, but my experience of its programs, especially the exhibitions, has been a far cry from what I recall in the ’80s and ’90s.

Will the new addition solve the problem? That’s to be seen, but given the rationale offered by the architects, I am bracing for more of the same.


Antonio Sergio Bessa

ANTONIO SERGIO BESSA, PhD, is the Director of Curatorial and Educational Programs at The Bronx Museum of the Arts, which he joined in 2003. He is also an Adjunct Professor at Columbia University’s Teachers College, where he teaches Museum Education Issues. A distinguished scholar of concrete poetry, Bessa has organized several critically acclaimed exhibitions on themes related to text-based art. He also collaborated with Deborah Cullen at the 3rd Trienal Poli/Gráfica de San Juan Puerto Rico, in 2012. His essays on concrete poetry have been published in several anthologies, journals, and websites including and He is the author of Öyvind Fahlström: The Art of Writing (Chicago: Northwestern University Press, 2009), and editor of Novas: Selected Writings of Haroldo de Campos (Chicago: Northwestern University Press, 2007), and Mary Ellen Solt: Toward a Theory of Concrete Poetry (Stockholm: OEI, 2010).


The Brooklyn Rail

MAR 2014

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