Museums are truly masterpieces of architecture. Their design has traditionally emphasized the ceremonial—resulting in grand staircases, columned porticos, soaring rotundas, and vaulted exhibition halls intended to awe the visitor with their importance.
The graciousness of the Renaissance and the imposing styles of Neoclassical and Beaux-Arts architecture have helped shape art museums for centuries. The end of the nineteenth century saw an increase in other types of museums, with a focus on natural history, industry, and history. In the early to mid-twentieth century, the Modern movement in architecture turned from the ceremonial structure toward a more vernac¬ ular architecture, where museum buildings were seen as neutral, flexible containers, and designed accordingly. Contemporary architects, though, have returned to the concept of the ceremonial structure. The museum has once again become a temple to art, in addition to being a work of art in its own right. And, as architects have freed themselves from the traditional design concepts of the museum, and worked to accommodate the changing social demands of these institutions, they have produced astonishingly creative buildings.
Tracing the- development of museums from personal treasure-troves to multi-functioned cultural institutions offers a fascinating journey through time. From “prehistory” of the museum in ancient times, to its birth in the Renaissance and evolution up to the present day, when Internet access is giving rise to the virtual museum, here is a beautifully illustrat¬ ed guided tour to the architecture of the world’s most famous and beloved museums.