The Art Museum in Modern Times by Charles Saumarez Smith. Thames & Hudson M+, in the West Kowloon Cultural District, has missed many boats; here’s another. Notorious for failing to hit completion deadlines, Hong Kong’s museum of visual art, design and architecture, now set to open at the end of the year, would doubtless have been an automatic choice for author Charles Saumarez Smith. In The Art Museum in Modern Times , architectural historian Smith – a former director of London’s National Portrait Gallery and National Gallery – undertakes a world tour of new establishments, large and small, public and private, that have had “a clear impact on the way people think about museums and their purposes”. In his chronological progression the word “new” is elastic, stretching from New York’s Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), which opened in 1939, to the West Bund Museum, in Shanghai (2019). On his mission to “understand and interpret the design” of 43 institutes and how they have shaped the experience of looking at art, right down to the means of displaying individual works, Smith delivers a detailed but, thankfully, concise report from each location. ‘My gift is for the long run’: Uli Sigg stands by M+ museum donation And he wastes no time in puncturing the fusty, antiquated ideas that the word “museum” might still generate. From Cambridge to Berlin, Philadelphia to Edinburgh, in the 19th and early 20th centuries museums were built to resemble classical temples or Renaissance churches. August and forbidding, these commanding edifices often abutted governmental institutions and, Smith says, dealt in the “narrative ordering” of statuary and paintings while peddling a certain cultural snobbery and “intellectual confidence” in what a museum stood for. That intimidation-not-instruction approach began to wane with MoMA, whose founders acknowledged that the public, at least in New York, were demanding more information about what they were gazing at, as well as improved facilities. “A new era of radical public experimentation” had begun, writes Smith – one that not only put furniture, photography, stage design, film libraries and more into art museums, but shocked architectural invention into life. MoMA, with its modernist design and translucent facade, carved an unconventional path for the likes of Denmark’s Louisiana Museum, north of Copenhagen, created from a small, converted country house. Art – and fresh air – beat the lure of cheese for Danish dairy-company heir Knud W. Jensen in 1958. The following year, the next left-field statement of art museum intent came from more familiar sources. Architect Frank Lloyd Wright and the Guggenheim family joined forces to produce an upside-down circular ziggurat (or continuous piece of orange peel, if you prefer), and their efforts amaze even on today’s New York streetscape. With the Guggenheim Museum, Smith notes, the building became as big a star as the art. Review – Land of Big Numbers: making sense of China by focusing on the miniature But he continues to be an equal-opportunities surveyor of disrupters in his field, shining the spotlight on lesser-known projects alongside architectural bill-toppers. Here is I.M. Pei’s once-controversial, now-indispensable Louvre Pyramid; there is Tadao Ando’s monastic Benesse House Museum, on an island in Japan’s Seto Inland Sea. Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim Museum, symbol of Bilbao, Spain, rubs free-form designs with sculpture museum Hepworth Wakefield, in Yorkshire, Britain. In Hobart, Australia, the Museum of Old and New Art, known as Mona, carved from rock and largely underground, offers a “viscerally experiential” trip, says an effusive Smith, “as much purely architectural as artistic”. Mona, it seems, with its long bar and makeshift lounge, represents the distillation of the notion of “pleasure before uplift […] enjoyment rather than improvement”. How far we’ve come since the abolition of “displays according to traditional departments and material type” and what Lina Bo Bardi, the architect behind Brazil’s Sao Paulo Museum of Art, referred to as the “intellectual mausoleum” of yore. The West Bund Museum is one of several new private establishments within a redevelopment scheme on the Huangpu River that includes the Power Station of Art: a disused former power station unapologetically modelled after London’s Tate Modern. Smith writes that such institutes, joining in the exchange of global exhibitions, make “new Chinese museums […] part of the international art world”. Aware that the art museum as a species is evolving faster than ever, Smith recognises the “scale and ambition of the new museums in the Gulf States”, particularly the Louvre Abu Dhabi, and mentions architects Herzog & de Meuron’s M+, perhaps wondering, like the rest of us, if it really is about to join the party.