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The Transformation of the Art Museum

A photograph of the side of a building at night. The right side of the building is gray with a sculptural modern design, while the left side of the building has a brick facade. There is a snow-covered lawn in the foreground.
© David Heald


Over the past year, the ongoing global pandemic has dramatically shifted our relationships to museum spaces and changed our understanding of what an art museum is and can be.

In this lecture, Charles Saumarez Smith will consider some of the key issues in the development of ideas about the art museum during the last century, discussing three case studies. First, he will unpack the ways in which the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York developed a new type of museum at the time of its founding in 1929—one that highlighted exhibitions more than permanent collections; that collected works in a variety of media, including design, film, and photography; and that focused on contemporary art and public issues in art, architecture, and design.

He will also discuss how museum directors and curators turned away from what they regarded as the MoMA model in the 1990s and the impact this had on the system of display at Tate Modern and Tate Britain. Finally, he will reflect on our current moment and the ways in which museum directors today are likely to approach issues of collection, display, and de-accessioning post-COVID, as evident in controversies surrounding the planned reorganization of the Victoria and Albert Museum and Peter Zumthor’s designs for the new Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

Charles Saumarez Smith was director of the National Portrait Gallery (1994–2002), director of the National Gallery (2002–7), and secretary and chief executive of the Royal Academy of Arts (2007–18). He is author of The Art Museum in Modern Times (2021), now available from Thames & Hudson.

The lecture will be followed by a conversation with Martha Tedeschi, the Elizabeth and John Moors Cabot Director of the Harvard Art Museums, and David Roxburgh, chair of Harvard’s Department of History of Art and Architecture and the Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal Professor of Islamic Art History.

Co-sponsored by the Department of History of Art and Architecture at Harvard.

This talk will take place online via Zoom. Free admission, but registration is required. To register, please complete this online form.

For instructions on how to join a meeting in Zoom, please click here. If you have any questions, please contact

The Harvard Art Museums are committed to accessibility for all visitors. For anyone requiring accessibility accommodations for our programs, please contact us at at least 48 hours in advance.