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One of the strange turns in the history of the museum is the phenomenon that going to a museum increasingly means going to see the museum building at least as much as it means going to see the art or artifacts in the museum.

Traditionally, museums housed collections of artwork, scientific specimens, or cultural artifacts; museum buildings were intended as showcases for collections rather than as objects to be seen for their own sakes.

In the last fifteen years, there’s been a trend towards cities commissioning a famous architect—a “starchitect”—to design a museum building that is meant to be a destination in itself. The city that initiated this trend was Bilbao, Spain. Designed by Frank Gehry and built in a delapitated area of Bilbao as part of an effort to reverse the city’s economic decline, the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao was an enormous success. Upon its opening in 1997, it received critical and public acclaim, and it spurred tremendous economic growth as tourists flocked to see the museum and other businesses were drawn by Bilbao’s new prestige.

Over the past fifteen years, other cities sought to imitate Bilbao’s success by building new museums or museum additions designed by starchitects as part of civic renewal projects. Examples include the Kiasma Museum of Contemporary Art in Helsinki, Finland designed by Steven Holl, the Imperial War Museum North in Manchester, England and the Royal Ontario Museum addition in Toronto, both designed by Daniel Libeskind, the Denver Art Museum addition designed jointly by Daniel Libeskind and a local architecture firm, and the Connecticut Center for Science and Exploration in Hartford, Connecticut designed by César Pelli. The Ars Aevi Museum in Sarajevo designed by Renzo Piano is to be opened in Sarajevo in 2014. All of these projects are meant to use the drawing power of a spectacular building to attract tourists and other visitors to cities that would not otherwise be major destinations.

But what about the collections?

As Judith Dobrzynski wrote on the Real Clear Arts blog a few weeks ago:

In recent years, many museums have somehow become too associated with their buildings—it’s their identifying symbol, which sends the wrong message to visitors, I think. It says, see the building, not necessarily the art, and besides, once you’ve seen the building, you’ve seen what you've come for.

Dobrzynski goes on to praise this fall’s Pacific Standard Time: Art in L.A. 1945–1980, a multi-site exhibition to which over sixty arts organizations have contributed. Because this event will take place at multiple sites, it’s necessarily more about the art than the buildings where the exhibitions take place. And that’s a welcome development that we may hope to see more frequently.

After all, we delight in and learn from spectacular buildings—but we don’t want to lose sight of the value of the collections inside the museums, from which we also learn and take delight. Resources lavished on buildings can’t be spent on expanding collections and developing exhibitions to display collections (although a stunning building can help to draw additional resources to support the museum). It’s a challenge to balance presenting the building as an artifact and the collections within the museum.

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