Museum Studies Blog

Posted on May 23rd, 2023 in Book Reviews, Student Work by Laura Holzman | Tags: ,

The Art Museum in Modern Times by Charles Saumarez Smith. New York: Thames & Hudson, Inc., 2021.


Charles Saumarez Smith’s The Art Museum in Modern Times serves as a type of reference for how museums have changed in the modern era. Smith, a respected Cultural Historian and former Director of both the National Gallery and the National Portrait Gallery, is knowledgeable and qualified to analyze the design history and related themes covered in his book. His research focuses heavily on the design of the physical buildings, and he concludes that those designs inform us of the changing goals, beliefs, and priorities of the museum world (10-11). This review will consider the organization of the book, the varying design elements of the catalog of chosen museums, some of Smith’s takeaways regarding the progression of the Art Museum, and Smith’s contribution to literature relevant to the museum field.

The Art Museum in Modern Times is organized into four sections: Traditional, The Modern Museum, The Postmodern Museum, and Museums for the New Millennium. Each portion of the book reads like a design summary for museums built during each period. This organizational decision is effective as it helped break the book up into portions that make sense chronologically. The museums described in each section have similar characteristics just as artworks from a common period do. The museums in the Modern period (late nineteenth/early twentieth century) demonstrated society’s desire to break away from conventional norms by creating bold, eye-catching facades instead of the classical temple-like structures that were common before that time. In contrast, Smith explains that in many museums in the new millennium move away from traditional linear displays and labeling practices. By highlighting these, amongst other similarities and differences, Smith helps his readers see that the art museum itself is a work of art that reflects the time in which it was created.

The museums featured in this book are from all over the world. He describes the design of world-famous museums such as the Museum of Modern Art in New York and then later he introduces and discusses the Museum of Old and New Art in Hobart, Tasmania. Smith gives a diverse account of art museums from various locations and sizes. He discusses the role the clients and architects from around the world have in shaping the overall aesthetic and the impact that globalization and technology have on the way visitors interact with museum spaces.

While the focus of the book is on the changing museum as viewed through the lens of design, the author makes a point to indicate that advancements in architectural design were intentionally carried out to embody the ever-changing identity of museums as advocates for social justice. This is affirmed when he describes the museums of the new millennium as being “more attentive to the complexities of their own histories” (234). The broader view of the evolving purpose of these varying museums is touched on but Smith spends a scant amount of time drawing conclusions regarding the implications of design choices and instead lets the reader develop opinions on those matters on their own. This may surprise readers expecting more of an account of how societal values can impact design. Despite the limited address of the complexities that exist in the world of museums, the research for this book is thorough and written in a clear, straightforward manner. The color photographs throughout the book provide a visual rest for the eyes and keep the reader engaged. Overall, Smith gave a comprehensive account of the museums he studied, and provided interesting background information on the architects, directors, and other professionals involved in the various museum projects.

This book is a great reference for readers wishing to learn more about design in museums from the Modern era to the present day. Smith gives ample details as to the process various museums underwent to achieve their structural goals. But, possibly the most engaging part of the book is when he explores the impact of changing beliefs and how that has manifested itself in architectural change. This is most evident in the chapter on key issues near the end of the book. Smith states that museums are no longer places where visitors come to be taught by a knowledgeable institution, but instead are places to wander, think, and reflect (231). This is suggestive of people in the twenty-first century and how we learn. The change of attitude parallels what educator and philosopher Paulo Freire described in 1970 regarding teacher-student relationships: “the teacher is no longer merely the-one-who-teaches, but one who is himself taught in dialogue with the students, who in turn while being taught also teach. They become jointly responsible for a process in which all grow” (Educational Foundations,106). The museum, formally the teacher, has now become the facilitator of learning. In the same way, Charles Saumarez Smith, through his walk-through design history in museums, has also taken on the role of a facilitator with his readers. He has presented his research in an organized, conscientious format and by doing so, has led us toward further discovery.


Jennifer Mott is a first-year MA student in the Museum Studies Program at IUPUI.



Freire, Paulo. 1970. “The Banking Concept of Education.” In Educational Foundations. The Continuum International Publishing Group.

Smith, Charles S. 2021. The Art Museum in Modern Times. New York: Thames & Hudson, Inc.