A Place of Focus and Concentration: Terry Riley on good museums

by Terry Riley |

One measure of a museum’s institutional health is the degree to which it balances its competing interests. The one quality of all good museums, like any truly public space, is that nobody knows who exactly is in charge. In other words, good museums are museums where the attitudes of the curators, the trustees, public, are in a constant state of dynamic tension. There are certain museums where the curators are treated as infallible and the only measure of success is the opinion of a very narrow circle of specialized critics. In these cases, the museum usually fails to ever develop a substantial audience outside of the so-called “art world”. And there are other institutions where as soon as you are walking through the door you realize the trustees are wielding all the power. In some very bad examples, the museum’s galleries are not only very prominently named for donors, but a policy exists whereby the donor’s gifts of art works are actually retained in “their” galleries. The result is, of course, that the curators have little opportunity to install the collection in ways that might have a larger meaning.

(Julian Rogers, Teenager Reading Salinger, 2012)

(Julian Rogers, Teenager Reading Salinger, 2012)

Finally, there are too many museums where the exhibition program is virtually determined by the marketing department. The goal is, of course, to attract the largest attendance, but the result is that most people just wind up seeing what they already know. A good museum needs curators, it needs leadership, and it needs the public. But we need to recognize that each of these constituents has different perspectives – perspectives that are at times complementary and at other times oppositional. Either way, the underlying structure of a museum has to somehow prevent any of its constituents from diluting or overcoming the other.

In a less analytical, more poetic way, I would say that a good museum is one that Holden Caulfield would approve of. School and home are the two principal poles in the life of young people like Caulfield, the teenaged protagonist of J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye. When he is kicked out of school, he wanders about Manhattan for as long as he can before resigning himself to returning home. Part of Caulfield’s wandering involves exploring adult things, such as having a drink in a bar and flirting with women of the night. Another part involves visiting two museums, which are depicted in a very sympathetic way – as a safe and familiar havens for young person searching for himself.

I’ve come to think of Holden Caulfield as the ideal person for whom museums should be designed: not a child but not quite an adult – a person that is trying to understand his or her position in life. So, as museum curator and director, whenever I was making a big decision I would ask myself, “Is this going to create the kind of place that someone like Caulfield would visit? Is this the kind of experience that will help people find out not only about the world but also find about themselves?” It was too much to think that a museum curator or director could create a space that specifically addressed a young person’s questions: “Who am I? What do I want to be?” But, I did try to imagine whether we were creating a museum where such an individual would feel those questions were important. Structured education programs can often be a catalyst in sparking answers to complex questions, but I also kept in mind that Caulfield was looking for a place with a very low threshold for entrance, a place that was easy to get into without a lot of official scrutiny, a place to be left alone without being alone. In the end, such a museum would be a place that would be an important place for all visitors, not just the young. It would be a place of focus and concentration, in distinct contrast to the seeming randomness of daily life.

How do you create such a place? The architecture of a museum often sets the overall mood and unalterably determines how the visitor feels, how the visitor relates to the work on display, etc. Yet, there are too many architects who think that a museum is a technical problem. What’s the temperature, what’s the humidity, what’s the light level? Too often, these architects think it’s all statistics and if you get all these technical things correct then you will have a good museum. I see the design of museums as a much more complex problem. As Caulfield noted, the museum stays the same, it’s the people who are changed. How museums change people is the most important question and the greatest goal in museum design.


Terry Riley is the former Philip Johnson Chief Curator at MoMA and director of the Miami Art Museum, now partner at K/R Architect.

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