Should an art museum teach, and if so, how and what? Should it entertain? Is it a community center? These are the questions Charles Saumarez Smith explores in The Art Museum in Modern Times, a history of the spaces we devote to culture. Having run the National Portrait Gallery, the National Gallery, and the Royal Academy—a trifecta of glorious London museums—he infuses that expertise into his profiles, giving amateurs a primer in museology and professionals a fresh take on core issues in the field. Through origin stories, architecture, and local points of pride, he demonstrates the different answers modern humans have given to what an art museum is and should be.

The Altes Museum in Berlin, the Glyptothek in Munich, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, and many other 19th-century museums look like temples for a reason. They sanctified art and proposed it as the province of scholars. With grand staircases and fat columns, and rows of Greek and Roman busts, they seemed forbidding. Paris’s Louvre is no less imposing—it began, after all, as a military fortress.

The Museum of Modern Art in New York changed all this. Its 1937 building wasn’t a Greek temple. Visitors entered straight from the street, with no imposing staircase, and the lobby was small. It was in the very heart of Manhattan, not a district devoted to high culture, and people could

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