The Museum of Modern Art: The Past's Future

In “The Museum of Modern Art: The Past’s Future,” Wallach argues that contrary to critical views of MoMA as stagnant, MoMA has undergone a profound architectural and philosophical evolution over its history. He presents a three-stage narrative of architecture as identity in lockstep with institutional change, with MoMA’s physical form expressing the Museum’s ideological beliefs at that moment in time. In the Utopia stage of the 1930s, MoMA’s façade redesign rejected traditional museum aesthetics, anticipating a brave new world dominated by technology. Interior spaces of white walls in narrow galleries created intimacy and “scientific detachment” in keeping with this motif. MoMA became self-reflective in the 1950s Nostalgia stage: Once forward-looking, its façade now symbolized a future that never materialized. Doubling exhibition space, it no longer deaccessioned works over 50 years old, focusing instead on maintaining and displaying a permanent collection of watershed moments in modern art history. During the Forever Modern stage of the 1980s, MoMA joined past and present architecturally by making its new light-drenched atrium, historical façade and intimate galleries part of one journey, making yesterday and today inseparable, thus relegating the Museum to irrelevancy in terms of contemporary artistic practice.


Wallach says that museum architecture expresses the Museum’s identity more than anything else because it presents a deliberately chosen face. I find that MoMA’s interior articulation of small, featureless, white rooms feels more like the absence of architecture, creating a distraction-free environment, setting viewers adrift in a void where art is the only anchor. Wallach views the galleries as science labs but there is something almost monastic to me about their purity as if the artworks are sacrosanct, the only things truly worthy of contemplation.

Rainer finds that motifs in museum architecture create a visual language that speaks to visitors on both a conscious and subconscious level, from the grand staircase and the rotunda, to the sawtooth rooftop and the “city wall.” His analysis of economic needs driving architectural choices was compelling. This can be seen in the new dynamism of museum buildings, the close proximity of ticket windows and retail stores, and museums following department store and supermarket models, playing to audience appetites. He describes museums delivering an experience that feeds mind and soul but the adored objects are forever out of reach (physically and financially). Yet a satisfying closure awaits visitors as the architecture of inviolability is resolved by one of accessibility via a centrally located gift shop. We seem to be departing from the museum as a place of worship or contemplation, toward the museum as an energy source: newer architecture revels in vivid and unique forms, strengthening its (and the city’s) image as one of progress, commerce and entertainment. Breaking away from the old motifs leads to new interpretations of museum architecture much like language makes room for neologisms as technology and culture evolve. 

(c) 2019 MuseumHawk, all rights reserved.