Museum Futures in History

by Pablo von Frankenberg

Nearly one hundred years prior to the opening of the first museum building, ideas and thoughts surrounding the museum as an autonomous space were prolific yet were rarely put into practice. Under the name “ideal museum” an early form of expression prospered which addressed ways of building an edifice to contain courtly collections –apart from the court. “Paper museums” have made significant impact in conceptualizing how public institutions were built, and continue to do so. Unbound, experimental, utopian thinking is not necessarily an intrinsic characteristic of the museum as an institution whose purpose (among others) is to preserve and therefore to build a stable and formalized structure. Why then are these utopian concepts a constant companion of the museum in the different stages of its development?

As a concept, the ideal museum evolved in the beginning of the 18th century, at a time when collections were housed almost exclusively in the palaces of kings and lords. The elites considered this conglomeration of art, naturalia, historical artifacts, gems and coins as proof of their supremacy and taste. The palaces, however, were often humid and moldy, light conditions were miserable, and objects were neither catalogued nor protected from fire or other possible damage because their owners considered them simply as ornaments for their personal salons and boudoirs.[1] Early ideal museums also indirectly criticized their lack of public accessibility by proposing an architectural structure detached from the palace. Architecture thus played a crucial role in making museums the public institution they are today.

The ideal museum, understood as an unrealized utopian concept to erect a structure to house cultural ephemera has blossomed as a constant companion in the architectural history of the museum. Looking at the development of these designs of the last 300 years helps to provide a basis for analyzing, criticizing, and regenerating a now established institution.

The Ideal Museum in the 18th Century and the Académie Royale

In 1704, the German polymath Christoph Leonhard Sturm produced the first known design for an ideal museum. It consisted solely of a floor plan with no elevation. The plan shows a single building with a sequence of rooms where a princely or royal collection could have been displayed. Each room was intended to house a specific part of such a collection (objects of wonder, jewelry, antiquities, art, etc.). Sturm numbered the rooms according to their contents. In so doing, a tour through the museum evolved. The building classified the objects according to scientific criteria and thus removed their context as courtly ornaments. The draft does not state whether the museum should be accessed publicly, but it is clear that the structure is not connected to a courtly dwelling, possessing an outer entrance accessible to a broader audience. Considering there was nothing similar to his project when it was published, Sturm‘s ideal museum plan was visionary.[2]

Christoph Leonhard Sturm, Ideal Museum

Christoph Leonhard Sturm, Ideal Museum

Jean-René Billaudel, Salon des arts, 1754In the second half of the 18th century several ideal museum plans evolved from two competitions of the Académie Royale in Paris, France. Whereas the first competition in 1754 asked for a small Salon des Arts, the second competition in 1779 explicitly invited participants to outline a Muséum des Arts. Grand structures were created for this second competition, and François Jacques Delannoy received the first prize for the Prix de Rome. Then, in 1784, the French architect Étienne-Louis Boullée entered the scene of ideal museum planning. The most prominent exponent of French revolutionary architecture and teacher at the Académie Royale, Boullée dwarfed all drafts of previous ideal museums with his Projet pour le Muséum. The horizontal projection that Boullée used to frame his idea was based on a Greek cross. In the middle of the design, Boullée placed a giant rotunda resembling a larger version of the Pantheon in Rome. Grand halls lined with columns flanked the four-sided rotunda.

Étienne-Louis Boullée, Projet pour le Muséum

Étienne-Louis Boullée, Projet pour le Muséum

In contrast to Sturm’s interest in the content of the displayed objects, Boullée was solely invested in the architectural possibilities linked to this new building type. He established a new form of representative architecture – no longer representing a single person (i.e. the king), but rather the individual who stands in the middle of a grand edifice. This shift in architectural thinking both reflected and influenced the public’s relationship with museums. As a result, the architectural historian Paula Young Lee sees these first ‘ideal’ plans as the advent of the museum as a public institution and not the opening of the Louvre in 1793.[3]

Jean-Nicolas-Louis Durand’s design for an ideal museum, used in his lectures at the Royal Academy from 1802-1805, serves as a solid summary of designs generated in the 18th century. His textbook, Preçis des Leçons d‘Architecture, had a great influence on museum architecture in the 19th century in France and abroad.[4] Like many of his predecessors he structured the building as a square, subdivided by a Greek cross with four patios to maximize lighting. In the center of the cross he placed a rotunda, a highly visible dome from the outside, imagined as a community gathering space with long colonnades covering all four sides of the building. Durand avoided one main entrance, favoring a plurality of entrances to make all parts of the building easily accessible.[5]

Jean-Nicolas-Louis Durand, Ideal Museum

Jean-Nicolas-Louis Durand, Ideal Museum

The Ideal Museum in the 19th and 20th Century: A Critique of Existing Museums

As the first museum buildings were erected in the beginning of the 19th century (Dulwich Picture Gallery in London in 1817, Altes Museum in Berlin in 1830), ideal museum design continued to evolve alongside the henceforth established, independent institution. The early model of the ideal museum was a critique against elitist culture and a dream of something that did not yet exist, a way to imagine new and divergent approaches to institutional canon. Projects like the Ideales Museum by German architect Gottfried Semper in 1852 and the “purely functional model” by museum reformer Alfred Lichtwark in 1924 are examples of this development.[6] Semper designed a kind of “encyclopedic” museum that offered space for objects categorized by groups of material. Lichtwark criticized contemporary museum architecture as being too removed from the museum‘s purpose, inevitably interfering with the objects on display. Lichtwark‘s plan was to eliminate all conventional ornamentation from the façade to achieve a neutral container for the exhibits – fifteen years before international-style MoMA opened its gate, and fifty years before the white cube debate reached its peak.

Then, in 1931, architect and designer Le Corbusier focused attention on a different challenge to the museum with his Musée à Croissance Illimitée, or museum of infinite growth. He presented a solution for an art museum that faced the problem of accommodating artistic production and acquisition of art, and consequently, a lack of space. Le Corbusier‘s ideal museum consists of standardized elements, with a horizontal projection resembling a spiral. In theory, Le Corbusier’s museum was potentially affordable and easily expandable through the design of an elongating spiral. In practice, however, nearly every wall had to serve as an exterior wall, which would have made the design costly. Moreover, the space would have only been a one-way circuit, rendering it impractical for exhibition design and uncomfortable for visitors. Considering these problems, Le Corbusier reworked the museum of infinite growth in 1939, adding openings into the walls and abandoning standardized wall elements.[7]

After emigrating to the United States in 1937 the prominent leader of the German Bauhaus movement Ludwig Mies van der Rohe plotted a Museum für eine Kleine Stadt [museum for small city], where he criticized the unnecessarily poor connection between architecture and art.[8] His ideal museum design consisted of one single room to allow for utmost flexibility for display and undisturbed enjoyment of art. In this singular room, Mies also located staff and administration. The blending of visitors, artworks and staff can still be seen as a radical idea. Mies aimed to dispose of all barriers between art and life with his museum for a small city. Mies imagined the museum would serve the community as a meeting place for cultural life in the city, where the environment around the museum would serve as a sculpture garden without enclosure. City and museum coalesced.

Toward the latter half of the 20th Century, Irish artist Brian O‘Doherty designed one of the most famous ideal museums in 1976: the White Cube. As a concept, the White Cube is still a much discussed idea in the art and museum worlds. With the idea of a White Cube, O‘Doherty described a platonic vision of an art museum: “The ideal gallery subtracts from the artwork all cues that interfere with the fact that it is ‘art‘. The work is isolated from everything that would detract from its own evaluation of itself. […] Some of the sanctity of the church, the formality of the courtroom, the mystique of the experimental laboratory joins with chic design to produce a unique chamber of esthetics.”[9] This is one of many starting points toward a critical analysis of the museum world through O‘Doherty’s awareness of the “white wall’s apparent neutrality as an illusion”.[10] With this concept of an ideal museum, O‘Doherty tries to figure out ways of interaction between artist, art, and museum, which in sum should be paradoxical, ironic, and distilled from the architectural interaction of the museum.


Georg Baselitz, Bilderbude, 1977 / 1998 Polystyrol / Polycarbonat, gespritzt, Plexiglas, Papier

There are many other ideal museums created by artists who were discontent with existing museums or who wanted to offer a different view on the conjunction of contemporary artistic production and museums. Sometimes these concepts served as an extension of the designers’ and artists’ own work, like Marcel Duchamp‘s Boîte-en-Valise (first edition in 1941), a suitcase with reproductions of some of his artworks to be carried and displayed anywhere. On the other hand, there are concepts like Georg Baselitz‘ Bilderbude, a highly reduced architectural structure for selected artist friends which was planned to be shown on the sixth Documenta in 1977.

A recent example of an ideal museum is The Delirious Museum, outlined in the book of the same name by architect and museum consultant Calum Storrie in 2006. He describes his ideal museum as follows: “a place overlaid with levels of history, a multiplicity of situations, events and objects open to countless interpretations”.[11] Like Mies, Storrie didn‘t want to draw a line between the museum and the surrounding city. Rather, he superimposed the city with the museum. Like many of the ideal museums in the 18th century, the design of the Delirious Museum shows a central rotunda, but unlike all other ideal museums, Storrie‘s draft is characterized by a succession of extremely distinct rooms, partly quadrate, partly polygonal, partly round. Each room is fitted with specific works of art intended to reflect the processes of negotiation between the objects on display and the museum. Storrie‘s goal is not to replace the existing museum as an institution, but rather to bring “a new level of ‘messy vitality’ and ‘richness of meaning’ to the museum”. Consequently the Delirious Museum “cannot be made; […] it can only be brought into existence retroactively”, which leads Storrie to conclude: “The architecture of this museum is neither here nor there.”[12]

The Museum as Utopian Space

Considering ideal museum concepts throughout time, one could say the ideal museum always is here and there. Save for Duchamp‘s project none of the drafts were realized, in fact, most of them weren’t intended to be realized. However, the motivation of each of these projects was clearly expressed. They argued for the creation of specific buildings to display objects, for public access to courtly collections, and for designing environments that engaged specific ideas or exhibits.

Each ideal museum concept longs for something that is not present, yet given the elaborate descriptions and drawings is, without a question, something worthy to strive for. Unbound, experimental, utopian thinking is not necessarily an intrinsic characteristic of the museum as an institution whose purpose (among others) is to preserve and therefore to build a stable and formalized structure. Why then are these utopian concepts a constant companion of the museum in the different stages of its development?

Le Corbusier, Musée à croissance illimitée, Sans lieu, 1939

Le Corbusier, Musée à croissance illimitée, Sans lieu, 1939

What all ideal museums have in common is the exclusion of place in relationship to the museum’s form and content. Purely text-based and sketched ideal museums do not show where these structures were meant to be erected. This is a fundamental component of a utopia as Michel Foucault defines: “Utopias are sites with no real place. They are sites that have a general relation of direct or inverted analogy with the real space of society. They present society itself in a perfected form, or else society turned upside down, but in any case these utopias are fundamentally unreal spaces.”[13] The lack of context enables an analysis and a critique of society or institutional space. It enables an external perspective. Hence, the ideal conceptions open the museum to a more reflective viewpoint.

Through the lens of utopian ideas the established and static institution of a museum is questioned and made vulnerable. The museum is transformed into a suggestion that can be negotiated by anyone at any time. The “unreal space” of utopian thinking can model a real social space where people can congregate and discuss the seemingly self-evident preconditions of exhibiting objects. The ideal museum is a constant companion of the actual museum because it has proven to be an effective tool in its advancement.

The history of the ideal museum is far from finished as recent publications and conferences demonstrate.[14] It remains a platform for critique and change. Durand‘s sketch had a great impact on 19th century museum architecture, and O‘Doherty‘s white cube was influential on the museum world of the second half of the 20th century. For museums today, utopia might be hidden anywhere.


[1] See James J. Sheehan (2000): Museum in the German Art World. From the End of the Old Regime to the Rise of Modernism. Oxford/New York, p. 21 and 51. See also Kristina Kratz-Kessemeier/Andrea Meyer/Bénédicte Savoy (2010): Einleitung. Museumsgeschichte. Kommentierte Quellentexte 1750-1950. [Introduction. Museum History. Commented Source Texts] Berlin, pp. 11-16, here: 14.

[2] For a more detailed description of Sturm‘s ‘ideal‘ museum see Nikolaus Pevsner (1976): A History of Building Types. Princeton, p. 114.

[3] Paula Young Lee (1998): Standing on the Shoulders of Giants: Boullée‘s Atlas Facade for the Bibliothèque du Roi. In: Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians, Vol. 57 No. 4, pp. 404-431, here: 415.

[4] See Helmut Seling (1967): The Genesis of the Museum. In: The Architectural Review 141, pp. 103-114, here: 110. The Preçis is also called “Le petit Durand”

[5] See Jean-Nicolas-Louis Durand (1817): Preçis des Leçons d‘Architecture Données à l‘École Royale Polytechnique. Paris: 57.

[6] See Gottfried Semper (2010 [1852]): Ideales Museum. In: Kristina Kratz-Kessemeier/Andrea Meyer/Bénédicte Savoy (see note 1): pp. 36-43. See also Alfred Lichtwark (1924): Briefe an die Kommission für die Verwaltung der Kunsthalle. Edited by Gustav Pauli. Hamburg.

[7] See (01.02.2012). Le Corbusier already experimented with the spiral in 1929 for his design of the “Mundaneum”, a museum of the history of humanity in Geneva. Traces of his ideal museum are to be found in his National Museum of Western Art in Tokyo, completed in 1959.

[8] See Ludwig Mies van der Rohe (1986 [1943]): Museum für eine kleine Stadt. In: Fritz Neumeyer: Mies van der Rohe. Das kunstlose Wort – Gedanken zum Bauen. Berlin, pp. 385-386.

[9] Brian O‘Doherty (1986 [1976]): Inside the White Cube. The Ideology of the Gallery Space. Berkeley/Los Angeles/London: 14.

[10] Ibid.: 79.

[11] Calum Storrie (2006): The Delirious Museum. A Journey from the Louvre to Las Vegas. New York: 2.

[12] Ibid.: 3 and 64. The virtuality of the delirious museum is connected to an emergent genre of digital museums and online curation of physical collections. In addition to the more elaborate homepage of “real” museums, there are some projects that exist entirely on the internet. For example, the Turkish Museum of Architecture (, or the Adobe Museum of Digital Media (, or, as a meta-museum, the Big Internet Museum (

[13] Michel Foucault (1986): Of Other Spaces. In: Diacritics, Vol. 16, No. 1, pp. 22-27, here: 24.

[14] E.g. the conference “Museum Utopias: Navigating the Imaginary, Ideal, and Possible Museum” at the University of Leicester/UK in 2012. Publications and ideas, such as those quoted in the Delirious Museum by Calum Storrie or Nina Simone’s participatory museum (Nina Simone (2010): The Participatory Museum. Santa Cruz.) show that the discourse on ideal museums is still ongoing.


Pablo von Frankenberg is a scholar, writer and thinker who works for the Institute for Empirical Cultural Science in Tübingen, Germany

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