Apparently it’s Museum Week, which has something to do with hundreds of cultural institutions from around the world engaging the public with hashtags or something. How fun! (sarcasm) Unfortunately I’m not an important cultural institution (at least not yet) but I do write about museums on this blog so I might as well as participate in this social media exercise, which I will probably fail because I plan to write a lengthy piece that won’t add anything new to the discussion but will have more substance than a hashtag. Wednesday is all about the architectural history, architectural heritage, gardens, and the surroundings of museums. This is an area in which I can claim some expertise. During my school days, and even now in my general “I’m a geek” days, I read and write about architecture A LOT. Like, I’ve worked and volunteered at a number of architecture-related museums and organizations. I am lucky to have visited three of the four Tate Art Museums, all interesting buildings architecturally, which I am now going to examine like a true museologist:
Some would argue that museum architecture should be its own work of art yet not overpower its contents. The steady expansion of the original Tate Britain, specifically the Clore Gallery, shaped not only the spaces of the building, but also the overall visitor experience in a very negative way. Although an older structure without a strong connection to its site like the newer Tate galleries, its many additions between 1899 and 2013 reflect the trends and ever-changing complexities of museums. The Clore Gallery, designed in 1987 by James Stirling, exclusively houses the work of artist J. M. W. Turner. It is considered an important example of Postmodern architecture, which is a mix of modernism with ornamentation and historical references. While paying homage to the original Tate building to some degree with its reuse of preserved buildings located on the site and a somewhat questionable visual link, this “museum within a museum” has been viewed by most critics as a disaster. “Great Paintings, Pity About The Building,” was the headline in the Daily Telegraph after its grand opening. Besides destroying the original intention of Tate, which was to tell the story of British art chronologically, the gallery’s interior design was hardly sympathetic to the artwork on display, especially in regards to color and light. The Clore Gallery has slightly dated and harsh geometric shapes, bright and shocking wall colors and artificial lighting, which not only greatly contradicts Turner’s paintings, but also differs from the artist’s preferred display setting, usually a central skylight with natural diffused light. The main rooms are poorly arranged and badly proportioned. In the end, the Clore, as a poorly designed museum addition, is a disservice to both the visitors and the artwork.
In terms of the satellite museums, Tate Liverpool fades modestly into the background, which is not what one expects from the usually dominating and sometimes distracting architecture of modern museums. This is due to the subtle readaptation of the riverside complex of the Albert Dock, originally opened in 1846 as a series of warehouses for the commercially important port of Liverpool. Although the city centre is not far, the Albert Dock is almost like its own entity, sometimes feeling separate from the rest of Liverpool, at least when I was a regular visitor ten years ago. When the Tate Gallery opened in 1988, it revitalized what was then a neglected piece of history. But some critics have called it “the Albert Dock theme park“, evident by the number of Merseyside memorabilia located around the docks and original buildings like the Piermasters House as well as the other museums nearby like the Merseyside Maritime Museum. Much like Liverpool’s Mathew Street, a haven for Beatles fans, the Albert Dock feels touristy. But Tate Liverpool itself respects the original architecture with minimal changes. Visitors are constantly reminded they are in an old river warehouse, and not just a museum. The top floor has part of the original iron and cork roof, there are a string of small porthole windows, and even the museum’s exterior sign is like a transatlantic liner with its oversized letters and metal blue enameled panels. When it comes to architecture, the Tate Liverpool is a visually subordinate component of a whole, that not only reveres but accentuates its original function.
Like Tate Liverpool, Tate Modern is another satellite museum located in a reused industrial building, the Bankside Power Station, in what was once a neglected but historically important area of London. But that’s where the similarities end. The visitor experience of Tate Modern is completely shaped by the spectacle of its architecture and its relation to the city. Located right in the middle of London on the Thames River, the museum is connected to other tourist attractions like St. Paul’s Cathedral and the Globe Theatre. Unlike the subtle nature of Tate Liverpool, Tate Modern is full of dramatic components from its entrance down a long ramp into the turbine hall, exhibiting thought-provoking and sometimes noisy artwork, to the two-story high glass box atop of the building. One cannot deny the dominating physical presence of the museum, emphasized by the Swiss Light, which beamed over the nighttime sky from the chimney until 2008. It’s almost like the city and museum are looking over each other. Tate Modern has also become a symbolic public space. Besides the viewing areas looking over the great space of the Turbine Hall, the museum’s original Scott windows provide many views of the rapidly changing city, turning London into an exhibit. Instead of visitors taking in the architectural heritage of the power station, they are more or less driven to look out at the city and river. Tate Modern architect Jacques Herzog once said the goal of museum architecture is to be “like a city on a reduced scale.” And in the post-Pompidou age, this is more true than ever as museums are no longer spaces for quiet contemplation but architectural marvels full of crowds.