The Browser Interviews Sir Charles Saumarez Smith

Sir Charles Saumarez Smith / Thames & Hudson

Sir Charles Saumarez Smith was Director of the National Portrait Gallery in London from 1994 to 2002, and the Director of the National Gallery from 2002 to 2007. He was the Secretary and Chief Executive of the Royal Academy of Arts in London from 2007 until 2018. His latest book, The Art Museum in Modern Times, was published this year by Thames & Hudson.  

Interview by Beatrice Wilford. Listen to the audio here.

Beatrice Wilford: You were Director of the National Portrait Gallery from 1994 to 2000, where you oversaw a major extension and renovation of the gallery, mainly in the form of the Ondaatje wing, which opened in 2000. What was the logic behind the changes?

Charles Saumarez Smith: We had a very straightforward competition in 1994, very soon after I started, and basically, we wanted to do three things. One was to put a cafe somewhere, and the second was to improve access to the top floor – because the main part of the collection was on the third floor and lots of people didn't really get up to it, particularly once they'd open the new ground floors, the 20th century areas. The third thing was where to put a lecture theatre.

The nature of the competition was in many ways about the installation of public facilities, which was very much the mood of the time. National Lottery funding was conditional upon improving public access in a general way, improving facilities for visitors, making public institutions more visitor friendly. And so that was very much the drive behind the project. The competition was won by Jeremy Dixon and Edward Jones with this idea of adding a wing – it's not just a wing, it's the heart of the building – where you come in off the street and then you see an escalator gliding up to the top. It's a one-way escalator, and it was a very simple device to make it evident as you came in that the institution is on three floors — they used to describe it as being like a chest of drawers.

Beatrice: In your book, The Art Museum in Modern Times, you describe how the gallery was before you made these changes. I feel as though it's a good example of a trend that you chart throughout the book, from galleries as a kind of physical manifestation of the history of art, to galleries as places that invite a very personal, subjective response to the art they present. Was that your intention at the time?

Charles: A lot of the book is post-hoc rationalisation of things which I wasn't aware of at the time. The transition from museums' being very much about learning and teaching and history, towards being about visitor experience, was one which in retrospect seems fairly obvious. If you look at the Portrait Gallery and what happened at Tate Modern as ways of making a change from a rather didactic attitude about the way visitors were meant to experience museums, to one which was more about self-discovery, I can see that now, but at the time it was more about the installation of public facilities.

The escalator was oddly controversial at the time. In retrospect it seems an obvious thing to do, but I remember going to defend it at the Royal Fine Art Commission, and a lot of them were hostile to it because they felt that an escalator belonged in a department store, it didn't really belong in a museum, because a museum was meant to be serious and earnest.  And I think I knew that an escalator was a symbol of public access.

Beatrice: Was it a hard battle?

Charles: I was appointed Director at the Portrait Gallery when I was 39. I was relatively young and I was very enthusiastic about this idea of opening up. In retrospect, it was also strangely straightforward. When I was at the Royal Academy the building project we did took all the time from when I arrived in 2007 until 2018. But in the early days of the National Lottery we were given the great bulk of the funding from one source. We had to raise about a quarter to a third of the funding, and we did it from about three people. We had recruited architects by the end of 1994, and the building opened on the 1st of May of 2000. Well, that's very fast for a building project.

It's funny looking back on it because I'm sure there were difficulties, but I had a very good head of administration who ran the details of the project, the architects came up with the basic idea in the competition entry, and then they worked on the detailing of it over the next three or four months. So we had the great bulk of the idea behind the project very quickly.

The National Gallery recruited the same architects but they didn't want an escalator. I think for the same reason that people were a bit suspicious about it at the Fine Art Commission; they thought it was too inverted-commas "modern".

The major hostility that I experienced was not about the building project, which I think got a pretty good press and reception, but from doing contemporary photography exhibitions. Strangely, for reasons I've never quite understood, just before I left, we did an exhibition at the photographer, Mario Testino, and that hit some kind of art taboo. We had done Bruce Webb and Richard Avedon without anybody batting an eyelid, but Mario Testino came slightly more from pop culture, magazine culture, and it was phenomenally successful. Somehow the success upset and irritated the art critics. I remember somebody coming up to me and saying, "You’re going to get hell at the National Gallery for having done Mario Testino", and there was some truth in that.

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Beatrice: For me, one of the great pleasures of reading your book was the feeling of traveling to these museums in these diverse locations, which, especially after the year that we've experienced, was a real treat. What you think the challenges are for museums now, and what do you see in their future after the pandemic?

Charles: It's been a curious year for me as for everybody, because I delivered the text of the book on the 31st of March 2020, and as I delivered it I knew that it was almost instantaneously out of date. I spent April adding that final chapter, the Conclusion, addressing what I thought was going to happen, at the time.

I'm not sure I’d write it in quite the same way now. Several people have said it was too "doomsday". It was a bit doomsday because the atmosphere in April 2020 had an element of doom to it. It was obvious that institutions were going to have huge problems, huge financial difficulties, because of not having any visitor income. Almost immediately, they started shedding staff.

You could feel that was going to be a problem. I knew from my experience at the Royal Academy, that there was a desire to be more puritannical about where you took money from. The trouble is, that reinforces the financial difficulties. If you’re going to be deep in financial difficulties because of loss of income, loss of visitor numbers and reduction in government support, and simultaneously, you're going to be really puritanical about who you take money from, both corporate and private, you're reinforcing the financial difficulties. And that I think is really the biggest issue.

Then I hadn't included the other thing about restitution, even though my editor said "include something about restitution." In April 2020 restitution wasn't such a big issue as it's become during the course of the past year. The third thing which is coming up, which is a topic in the book, is the change in the canon — not being so confident about what you should collect because of a desire to represent non-traditional practitioners.

The fourth thing I added in June last year was Black Lives Matter, because immediately Black Lives Matter happened, we realised museums are going to have to adapt to it.

And so those things in combination give a sense of anxiety about what the future might hold. I deliberately added a final paragraph, which was more optimistic because the point of the book is that museums have reshaped themselves quite a lot in the last two years, and they are going to go on doing so. Now, if I were to try to write it, I would be a bit more confident and optimistic because you can see museums now they're reopening, and they are reopening with quite a lot of confidence, and they're doing things slightly differently. Well, that's a good thing rather than a bad thing.

Beatrice: In what way are they doing things differently?

Charles: My sense is that they are going to do fewer big building projects. The focus will be on what you've got rather than trying to create something new. I don't think that's necessarily a bad thing, even though the book is about new building projects, if there's a desire to make better use of the existing holdings and the permanent collection, which I think is inevitable. That's a good thing. It's a reorientation.

I suspect people will do more exhibitions from their permanent collections. If the V&A is doing bags, two thirds of the bags probably come from the storeroom. Going to the Iran expedition, which just opened, they take a lot of the work from a single collection, the Sarikhani collection, which is conveniently in Britain, so you don't have to pay for shipping. And then the rest of the objects I noticed mainly came from the V&A's own collection or from the British Museum. It just didn't involve large international loans. So that in a straightforward way, it's monetizing what you've already got, and capitalizing what you've already got rather than having big blockbuster expeditions from different places.

Beatrice: In a way it's a slightly more, I don't want to say soulful, but it's like a lot of things that we're doing post-pandemic. It has a quietness to it. And a stillness.

Charles: I’ve very much of that view, I don't know how long it will last. But between the lockdowns  we've been several times to the National Gallery, and the experience at the National Gallery to me feels quite considerably different at the moment. It is partly because you have to book and partly because there are fewer people, and partly because, certainly in the autumn, you were expected to follow a set route.

And that meant you did it, but because of social distancing, sequentially, which meant that you had to look at each picture in turn for quite a long time. It sounds funny, but I think people, and that includes me, have got used to browsing through museums and not really paying close attention to the individual work. I certainly haven't been through the National Gallery so systematically and carefully, picture by picture, for decades, and I found it very rewarding.

If people learn to look at things more slowly and to appreciate them, which I think is the current consequence, then that's great. But you can feel at the moment that half our tendency is just to revert to how things were, as quickly as possible. There's a risk that, as we all start global traveling, and not paying deep attention, we forget that actually there were good things about lockdown down in terms of getting people to be more thoughtful.

Beatrice: Let me ask you now about the spiritual aspects of visiting galleries, certain galleries in particular. You discuss galleries that you yourself have made pilgrimages to, and ones which explicitly encourage meditation or contemplation, even ones which have prayer rooms. Do you think art can carry the responsibility of spirituality in a way that religion used to do, at least in the West?

Charles: When I came to the National Gallery I inherited a traveling exhibition in Japan, and I'd never been to Japan. I went to a new museum, which nobody else I've ever met seems to have gone to, in a town called Koriyama, 200 miles north of Tokyo. It was very beautifully built and designed, and it didn't have much of a collection. At the time, the drive among Western museums was towards commercialisation, "more pop". And I was very impressed by the fact that the Japanese were going in the other direction. It made me realize that there's a logic and legitimacy to the idea that museums can be spaces of what I think of as secondary spirituality, places for reflection and quiet — in a way, for meditation. I'm not pretending in any way it's religious, but there is a sense in which they can provide quasi-sacred spaces.

Then, in 2008, just after I'd come to the Royal Academy, I was asked by the Japan Foundation, which is the Japanese equivalent of the British Council, if I’d like to go to Japan. And I said, I'd like to go to museums outside Tokyo. And one of the ones we went to is at Naoshima, an island off the coast.

You go on a train and then you on a bus or taxi, and then on a boat, and you arrive on this small, out-of-the way island, which is now a place for fine art only. It was bought by a publishing executive, he built the museum, then he realized nobody would come to the museum if he didn't build a hotel. So he built a hotel and the hotel is designed in a sort of monastic way.

And because you have to stay overnight, spending a longer time there, you're slowing down. It's sort of obvious when you go there, but it's a secular form of pilgrimage. It's a sort of anti-consumerism project and a very successful one.

Beatrice: Do you think, do you think your life has been enhanced by the experiences you've had in museums?

Charles:  I'm excited about having had a career to museums witout necessarily intending to. I thought that I was going to be an academic, I got an academic job at the V&A, then I got the job running the National Portrait Gallery. And the book is, in a way, about the importance of museums within cultural life. And I certainly feel that they're important, not just to me, but to the millions of other people who go to them and experience them. That's not why I wrote it, but I certainly feel that it would be better if there was more discussion and debate about what the quality and nature of the experiences is — because, for example, during the pandemic, the fact that the government has felt that it's more important to get shops open, but it hasn't allowed museums, which are therapeutic spaces. It seems to me that the National Gallery is the safest of all spaces to go to, you know, you walk far away from everybody else. Of course, institutions were upset, but most of them were upset because they wanted the revenue. I don't think they were necessarily as good about advocating for themselves as a necessary and desirable part of everybody's life experience.

One thing I've found in the pandemic is that I pay much more attention to music. It's partly having the time, but also wanting a cultural experience and not being able to get it by going to a museum, whereas music you can experience as far as I'm concerned – of course, it's not quite the same as sitting in the hall, but it's a version of it.

Beatrice: Another difference I thought that you drew so well in the book was between museums which work as an extension of the civic space, a spot for the urban flaneur to see and be seen, and museums which are deliberately set apart from our usual experience of urban or civic life — I'm thinking, for example, of the Whitney's Marcel Breuer building, which has a moat and a drawbridge.

Charles: I've tried not to be too judgmental through the book as a whole. Those different architectural approaches are exactly as you describe. The 1960s Breuer Building seeks to create an environment which is very much away from the city and outside the city, even when it's on Madison Avenue. The Renzo Piano building is completely the opposite, partly because it's downtown. It's in an artist district rather than a uptown connoisseurs district. And it’s so open, you're looking out onto the Hudson river, and you're looking at the other side onto the Highline and you're wandering in off the street, and there's a cafe on the ground floor. And in a way, if I think about it and as I describe it, it's not really about gallery space or exhibition space.

I mean, there's a risk – the editor I work with said, "look, for God's sake, you've got to get rid of these schoolmasterly phrases." I did actually adapt the way I described the Whitney, because there was a risk of it appearing, not exactly derogatory, but I think it's perfectly legitimate. I think the new Whitney is very successful in what it's trying to do, and I'm happy to go and hang out there, and I'm not being derogatory of people who choose to do that.

Beatrice: We were talking about the different ways that people will experience museums now after the pandemic. I wonder if this will lend itself to people who live locally really re-experiencing galleries that they love.

Charles: People do love Tate Modern, and I think it's an unbelievably important and admirable project. Obviously the inscrutability — if it's inscrutable — of the Blavatnik building doesn't stop people going to it. I don't think anybody that I've met is going to Tate Modern in order to see the Tate's early 20th century collection.

Beatrice: So could you say that these monumental buildings — and obviously I'm also thinking of Bilbao — increase the diversity of people who come to visit the museums. Seeing a building is a highly accessible experience for most people.

Charles: Lots of art people are anti-Bilbao because they think it's a great building but it doesn't do what it was supposed to do, which is to show works from the Guggenheim collection in New York in another setting. They felt it was too much of a civic project and not enough of a museum project. But the fact is it does exactly what it was designed to do. Bilbao was a declining industrial port town, which was very run down. And the person who commissioned it was the person who was in charge of the Basque area.

I didn't know the story in any detail, but Tom Krens essentially got a telephone call from a man who asked him to go out there. On the airplane, he jotted down how much it would cost to do a brand-new museum. It was a huge amount of money — say, 350 million euros, a hundred million for the building and a hundred million for the collection and so on. And the man just said, "fine, great, let's start, let's do it". I hope the Basque people feel that it was a very good investment. I've been to Bilbao in order to see the museum, several million other people have as well. Bilbao is now quite a thriving town. It's got new subway and it feels very lively and the museum has definitely contributed to that so that it has its legitimacy.

Beatrice:  Some museums have brought in a much younger, much more diverse crowd through using digital platforms. Does that digital engagement translate into new visitors? What are the differences between looking at art online and looking at it in a museum setting?

Charles: Technology can be a means for attracting a different and younger audience. You see queues of people who are always on their mobile phones. Museum directors are using technology successfully to relate to that generation. They are changing the demographic in a good way.

I was particularly impressed by the Museum Of Old And New Art in Tasmania, because that was a very deliberate attempt to do things differently.

One of the things that it does differently is to have no labelling whatsoever, so that all the information is conveyed while you're getting around is through a proprietary system, which you get given when you arrive. They use an app which you carry around, and which picks up where you are standing, and lets you call up information.

What Mona realised is that if you have labeling, you have to have light white space. Whereas if you're getting all the information on a headset, you can make the space darker, more exploratory.  The experience of Mona is based, funnily enough, on Sir John Soane's Museum in London, which is very exploratory, and there's no system to the way the Soane museum is laid out, it is purely experiential.

I think digital technology has reinforced that shift from learning from wall text to an experience where you just wander around freely. And if you want information, you can get it but you don't have to have it.

Beatrice:  So in a way, it paradoxically enhances your actual, immediate physical experience with the piece of art itself.

Charles: I went to Mona in February 2019, just before lockdown, because somebody had said to me, "you really ought to go to this new museum". I did something which in retrospect was completely bad, which was fly there essentially for the day. It wasn't long enough, and they have a hotel, and nobody had told me that I could have stayed overnight and spent more time.

Mona is an attempt, a deliberate attempt to invert the character of a museum so that it's underground. It's incredibly exploratory. It has these staircases going in all directions. You go down in a lift and as you come out to the lift, there's a bar. And the bar is a way of saying, you know, this is a site of entertainment. There's no education involved at all. Just enjoy it. I think it has in many ways broken the barrier of the type of people who go to it, because you looked around and people were going there as a day trip. The aura of improvement, which still hangs around museums, has gone completely. And I was very admiring of it. I enjoyed it.

Beatrice: It certainly seems very disruptive. The founder made his fortune, I think, through gambling. Is it better for the very rich to start private museums, or to support public ones, as donors and trustees?

Charles: You can’t predict what private individuals are going to do, particularly if private individuals feel that their money is going to be in some way unwelcome in institutions, because institutions are thinking, well, where did they make their money? It's possible that there will be more private museums, a shift from public museums as being where things happen, to private museums which can be more "disruptive".

I very much admire the Museum Susch in Switzerland. The owner, Grażyna Kulczyk, had offered her collection, first, to the city that she lived in and was brought up in in Poland, and then to the national government in Warsaw. For whatever reason, I don't know the details, neither of them accepted it. Then she discovered this old brewery up in the mountains in Switzerland and did what she wanted to do. So that is about the autonomous individual, doing their own thing in a way, regardless for the conventions of public and civic museums. And I guess there will go on being billionaires who want to do things to house their own collection in such a way that they are remembered, which has traditionally been why people have done public museums.

Beatrice: Let me ask you now about pressure from governments who want museums to shape the narrative of national culture and history in particular ways. How can museums respond?

Charles: That has obviously been a big issue of the last year. There are two examples I've seen over the last nine months, which I thought are good responses. One is the British Museum which to an extent, but to a very incomplete extent, has added labels which discuss and explore how objects were acquired. That seems to me an obvious and straightforward way of being open and transparent about how the objects have arrived. I found it really interesting, I went around quite carefully and slowly, and as I was looking at something, a man was with a small child and gave an account of how the thing had been robbed, which I'm sure it was correct. It shows that people are interested, that in a way, rather than suppressing that knowledge, it seems to me totally correct to make it transparent.

And then recently I went to the Holburne Museum in Bath. At Holburne, and in fact all of Bath to an extent, which I don't think I properly appreciated though I knew it subliminally, a lot of the money in Bath came from sugar, and sugar was the result of slavery, so that a lot of the big Bath families made money from plantations in the West Indies — and the museum had displays which made that clear. I think it is correct for museums to do that.

I am following with interest the debates and discussions around the statue of Robert Geffrye, on the front of the almshouses which are now called the Museum Of The Home. Nobody paid the remotest attention to Geffrye, he was just there over the door. But when it was discovered that he had invested in the Royal African Company, he became a huge issue.

It seems to me that the core responsibility of the museum is the interpretation and display of the collection — not fretting about how Robert Geffreye, who set up his almshouses in 1714, had invested in the Royal African company in 1680. It's a warping of historical issues because of this feeling that we all have to fight a culture war. And, yes, I regret it.

Beatrice: A great delight of your book is the sense of visiting all these different museums in such well-informed company. What does it do to your own experience of a work of art, to come to it with so much knowledge of the art world, and of the history of art, and of artists?

Charles: Last week I was asked to speak at the Oxford Union. I spent the day at the Ashmolean, which I knew when I was a child. I just wanted to go back to it, be back in a collection one knows. I don’t think I viewed it as an art historian. And I’m thinking of that particularly because I made an incredible error in the Union debate by saying I didn’t think that the Uccello Hunt had a political content. One of the undergraduates stood up and gave a five-minute lecture telling me exactly what its political and cultural content was. It made me realise that I was trained as an art historian, but of course art history is now very different. One of the things which has changed is that students are encouraged to think of paintings as political and cultural statements.

Beatrice: Thank you so much for talking to us. That was hugely enjoyable, as was reading your book.

Charles:  It's been a pleasure.

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