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Book Review: Antonello Marotta, Contemporary Museums

Guggenheim Museum
Frank O. Gehry & Associates
1997, Bilbao, Spagna

Book Review: Antonello Marotta, Contemporary Museums

Contemporary Museumsʉ۬
Antonello Marottaʉ۬
June 2010, Skira Editore / Rizzoli / Thames & Hudson 
ISBN: 8857202585, 353pp

Architectural scholar Antonello Marotta’s new publication opens with an ambitious essay outlining a history of the changing form and function of the Western museum. He traces its surprisingly bookish beginnings, associated with the royal library in Mesopotamia, through to its integration with elite artefact displays in palaces and temples, to the 16th century private astrological library-laboratory or Teatro, to the beginnings of the truly public gallery that emerged in the aftermath of the French Revolution. The sweeping introduction – closely followed by Marotta’s main thesis that Marcel Duchamp and Tristan Zsara’s Dadaism transformed the 20th century museum yet again into what we are familiar with today - is an exhilarating taster of the book’s brisk pace and intellectual engagement within several diverse fields.

Contemporary Museums is helpfully and, for the most part convincingly, structured around seven formal and theoretical categories, across which four, interrelated, in-depth essays are interspersed. Marotta’s skill is in so smoothly linking each building’s form and structure – from the “monolith” to the “implant” - to its practical and philosophical ends. For example, a museum might be classified in Marotta’s schema as “essential” due to its pared down form, which resonates with the work of such abstract pioneers as Malevich and Mies van der Rohe. However, Marotta pushes this analogy further, viewing this compositionally reductive type of architectural project as “an act of removal, of reducing the complex to a few compelling signifiers, in which the site embraces the arrival of the new” (p. 21).

As demonstrated in this notion of spatially heralding the new, the interlocking questions of time, place and memory are, of course, key to any current debate on the function and value of museums. Marotta is thoughtful and reflective on these issues, drawing upon sources as diverse as Greek mythology and the changing characterization of memory during and after the destruction and fragmentation (both architectural and social) brought about through the world wars. In fact, the author brings both of these elements together in his discussion of memory and oblivion, and it is to his credit that he considers forgetting as deeply as the conventional museal quality of remembering. The mythological rivers - Mnemosyne and Lethe – figure for Marotta as a “metaphor for an idea of movement, dynamism, liquefaction of hierarchical structures” (p. 10), which he presents as analogous to the role of Dadaist avant-garde culture in determining a new, post-war philosophy and design for the museum. In other places in the book, Marotta interprets architectural memory in its various forms: archaeologically, as “the quest for a private space” (p. 118); psychologically, as a “complex quantity of information that has been added up, erased, dispersed, or converted” (p. 153); and as an event, “that is consummated in an intense and fleeting recollection” (p. 256). These reflections on twentieth century memory processes suggested rich potential for further research in the academy, but also for the many artists and curators now working with institutions and social structures in mind.

Expo 02 Forum Arteplage Biel
Coop Himmelb(l)au
2002, Biel, Svizzera

Marotta’s lst two chapters (and final two categories: “theatre” and “context”) are the most interesting to this reviewer, as they seem to represent the latest developments in museum design and theory, while still harking back to much earlier precedents. For example, the temporary pavilions pictured and described as participating in contemporary museum theatricality are reminiscent of the spectacular, short-lived marital and religious productions by Italian baroque city-state princes and dukes on the make. Instead of outdoor, temporary palaces on boats or processional pathways strewn with flyaway silk fruit, twenty-first century exhibition visitors are invited to walk in the open air through synthetic mist at Switzerland’s Blur Building or to travel on a “Nomadic Museum” boat constructed on New York’s Pier 54, the docking location intended to receive the ill-fated Titanic. When examining museums that delve into contexts outside of the city, such as quarries, forests and parks, landscape and ecology come to the fore, and Marotta’s prose takes on a note of optimism. He writes on the transmutation of memory into the processes of nature, through which we may view “the site and surrounding environment as rightful parts of the legacy to be preserved” (p. 303).

Marotta’s philosophical bent shapes the concise texts introducing each category into exploratory cultural questionings, demonstrating that his classifications work well as ways of weighing up our current relationship to historical tradition and the physical present. In his words on the theatre - or as he puts it, the ‘scenic machine’, again drawing upon the historical, this time Renaissance, terminology - the architectural critic opens by asking, “Why does the contemporary age come into contact with the theatre, the space in which the relation between man, the social context and the divine order has historically been perpetuated?” (p. 257). In this way, for such an unassumingly compact, soft-backed and glossy-paged book, its intellectual reach is broad and deep, covering, as has been touched upon in this review, details of modernist and postmodern history of art, social theory, philosophy, psychology, literature, archaeology and the history of global conflict. The picture research involved in such a project is equally admirable, covering ninety-odd international architectural projects, with external, internal and detail photography, digital plans, and sketches – from the dazzling twists and turns of Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim to the mind-blowing 3D rendering of Rudy Ricciotti’s planned transformation of the Rivesaltes concentration camp, France, into a dark and claustrophobic arboretum.

Graphical abundance aside, it is evident by now that Contemporary Museums is no mere coffee table book. Indeed, Marotta’s clarity in connecting erudite references to current experiences, and his clear passion for all things architectural, will encourage readers to study the author’s sources for themselves – both in the library and in all their concrete, aluminium, glass and timber glory.


Hydrapier Pavilion
Asymptote Architecture
2002, Haarlemmermeer, Paesi Bassi


New Mercedes Benz Museum
UN Studio
2006, Stoccarda, Germania

Becky Hunter

Becky Hunter is a writer based in London and Durham, UK. She is Assistant Editor for Whitehot Magazine.

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