What makes a museum?

Gillian Darley index

As backdrops for art, the Wapping Project could hardly be more different from Albertopolis, says Gillian Darley

From Bethnal Green to Bombay, from the 1870s to the 1920s, the architecture of museum buildings was guided by what seemed appropriate to their then purpose and site.

In the former case, an industrial flatpack from Albertopolis in South Kensington re-emerged 15 years later as a purpose-built museum on a new site. The Indo-Saracenic design of the Prince of Wales Museum in Bombay offered at least a half-nod to the aesthetic styles of the subcontinent seen through colonial spectacles. Meanwhile, Alfred Waterhouse’s Natural History Museum in South Kensington took the argument to the extreme. Vertebra ornamented the rib vaults and every corbel represented an aspect of the animal kingdom.

In contrast, contemporary purpose-built museums are display cases for their architects. Perhaps Daniel Libeskind’s (initially empty) Jewish Museum in Berlin was the most honest.

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