New York’s Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) is closing its galleries dedicated to architecture and design.
The museum is famous, of course, for having the first sustained department of architecture and design of any museum in the world. (There was a short-lived one at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum in the 19th century.) Since at least the 1960s, MoMA has had dedicated spaces reserved for its vast—and ever expanding—collection of nearly 30,000 architectural models, works on paper, design objects, and interiors like the Frankfurt Kitchen. These galleries, along with the Edward Steichen Photography and Paul J. Sachs Drawings galleries, are what the museum calls “medium-specific” galleries. These rooms will also be absorbed into larger spaces devoted to general exhibitions and displays of the museum’s collection. The Terence Riley–designed third floor Johnson galleries, which has served to display the design collection since 2004, has been demounted and put into storage. Now the exhibit A Japanese Constellation: Toyo Ito, SANAA, and Beyond is in that space. The other still-existing architecture gallery on the same floor will disappear with the end of Pedro Gadanho’s show on Frederick Kiesler’s Endless House. In addition before the gallery is dismounted a memorial to Zaha Hadid will be mounted in the space.
The museum claims that this is a temporary result of the current Diller Scofidio and Renfro (DS+R) renovation and expansion and has not “made any statements yet on how the collection will be displayed following the expansion.” During this period of reorganization, the galleries will be repurposed for general collection and themed exhibitions.
The museum is clear to point out that this does not mean the end of large themed traveling or loaned exhibitions devoted to architecture and design. A spokesperson for the museum claims that “By being flexible and not rigid with our spaces, we are able to show the collection in many new and different ways. That isn’t to say that this is permanent—it’s a period of trying things out.” There is, for example, a new mixed-media installation of work taken from the museum’s collection on the 1960s that will be “among the new ways that [we are] showing the collection during construction.” The museum also asserts “MoMA will be presenting its collection in new contexts. Exhibitions will continue to include those focused only on mediums such as architecture and design. We will continue to have a robust program of collecting, conserving, and exhibiting architecture and design.”
There has been a trend in the museum world toward these sorts of multi-disciplinary exhibitions that display work for all the arts under a same title. The Tate Modern has been doing this for many years (perhaps because it does not have an architecture collection) and MoMA seems to be finally joining this display bandwagon.
This new reconfiguration, where medium-specific galleries are closed and the architecture and design collections are merged into the larger ones, will have effects for both the collection and the importance of architecture and design in the museum. If you visit MoMA today with the aim of viewing its significant collection of architecture drawings, models, and design objects, then you will no longer be able to see them in a focused and dedicated room. In the longer run, it means that architecture and design will be competing with all the other departments and curators for exhibition space. Architecture has traditionally been the most difficult of the arts to display and much of the time it develops with little or no overt connection to the other arts.
It could be good to see architecture and design placed into a larger context of the arts, but it’s not hard to imagine—given the role they have traditionally played in art history and museums—that architecture will be sidelined and used only to create and frame connections, not to drive a particular movement. It is possible that all curators believe their disciplines are unique, but architecture needs to be seen in a setting that not only foregrounds art, but also the constraints and influences of materials, client demands, etc.
The museum is making a point of saying that this is not a permanent change and for the sake of the architecture and design collections, lets hope that the DS+R scheme, which has not been made public, will include galleries devoted to architecture and design.