The City as an Ideal Art Museum

Image of art gallery.

Image by Jessica Pamp.

By an art museum, I mean a place displaying a collection of art. There are two ways to make an art museum. The first way is to have curators collect artworks, design and build a museum and assemble these works within that museum. Art museums are very varied. Some are devoted to world art history, while others have more specialized interests. A few are large, others, however, are small. And some are public institutions but others are the creation of private collectors. But they all have this same basic structure. Isolating the individual works of art, in a building devoted to that purpose, they encourage contemplation of those objects.

Described in this sparse way, art museums raise an obvious critical question: do the older works of art survive this movement into the museum? When, for example, an altarpiece is taken from a church, where it supported religious rituals, can it survive in this secular setting? My Museum Skepticism: A History of the Display of Art in Public Galleries (2006) considered the ins and outs of that question. As I observe with elaborate documentation, when the earliest influential art museums were created in Europe in the late eighteenth-century, many people considered the implications of museum skepticism. Some of these commentators welcomed the art museum, but others felt that older artworks were being destroyed by being placed in the museum.

There also is a second way to make an art museum, a display of a collection of art. Imagine that you move around Venice looking in succession at a sequence of objects, A, B, C . . . selected for your museum. And then you write a narrative, telling other people how to replicate your journey. The creation of a conventional museum involves moving artifacts and constructing a building to house them. This second way of thinking was the discovery of John Ruskin, in his late, short book about Venice, St. Mark’s Rest (1877). I became aware of this important claim thanks to the brief discussion by Robert Harbison, Eccentric Spaces (1977). The English art writer Adrian Stokes (1902-72) published a number of remarkable books developing Ruskinian ideas about the place of art, especially Italian art, in its urban setting. So far as I know, however, this alternative view of the museum has not yet been much discussed. The creation of this alternative, call it an ideal museum, requires only composing a travel narrative for as Harbison says: Ruskin “locates his objets in real space.” For our purposes, it’s most convenient to isolate Ruskin’s basic concept of the ideal museum from the way that he develops it. (He tells the story of art in Venice by imagining the reader to have a gondola at his disposal, and has some amusing ideas about how to understand these art objects.)

The fundamental basis for this ideal museum is found in many good tourist guidebooks, which use a detailed map to walk the visitor through some historical site. And I have applied this idea to Naples, whose surprisingly well preserved historic center makes it an ideal case history. But Ruskin’s method, so well adapted to Venice (or Florence or Rome), can, with obvious minor modifications, also be applied to the history of Amsterdam, or to more recently developed cities like London, Paris and New York. The marvelous contemporary artist Loren Munk has for several decades developed this way of thinking about the New York art world, creating artworks that chart the history of the American art world.

All that’s required for constructing an ideal museum is a listing of the artworks and some brief discussion of how to view them in order, whether by walking, pubic transition or car-hire. And best, of course, that they not be too far apart, so that you can easily assemble them in a sequence. But if need be, you certainly can briefly enter buildings to see the art. In the office lobbies of Manhattan, for example, there is an important selection of art, enough for an ideal museum of modernism. An ideal museum is more economical than a traditional museum, for creating it doesn’t require constructing a new building. All that’s required is a narrative.

Museum skepticism becomes important when people worry about whether older art survives when it is moved into the art museum. But it’s important to note that the same concern arises with art in the urban environment, when that setting changes. Perhaps the modernization of Venice makes it impossible to appreciate the Venetian paintings that remain in their original settings.

Just as the museum handbook discusses the artworks, but not the guards, the restaurant or the restrooms; so an ideal museum guide focuses on the art, and not on the shops, residences and businesses nearby. No doubt focus on the art is more difficult, and certainly more eccentric in the city than in the art museum, for on the street most people don’t focus on the visual artworks. Ideal museums were initially a produce of traditional, walking friendly cities like Venice. But, as I noted, this basic concept can be adopted to any city.

Historians have devoted a great deal of attention to art museums, discussing the ways in which these settings influence the ways that we view the art on display. To place these works in a chronological order is to project one interpretation; to display them according to elective affinities is to offer another. And commentary often discusses the lighting, the colors of the gallery walls, and the other features of the museum architecture. We never view an artwork in complete isolation, but always with some awareness, perhaps merely peripheral, about its position. The same is true, of course, of art in ideal museums, which often provide settings that have changed drastically over time.

Here, then, is an exercise for my reader. Consider some city that you know reasonably well, sit down with a street map, and construct your own ideal museum of the art it contains. There are many ways, true to the geographic and historical facts, of doing that. No doubt ideal museums were initially a produce of traditional, walking friendly cities like Venice. But this basic concept can be adopted to any city, including those where travel requires a car.

The implications of this view deserve further discussion.


This essay is the sketch extending an analysis proposed in and in my In Caravaggios Shadow: Naples as a Work of Art(2025).

David Carrier is a philosopher who writes art criticism. His Aesthetic Theory, Abstract Art and Lawrence Carroll (Bloomsbury) and with Joachim Pissarro, Aesthetics of the Margins/ The Margins of Aesthetics: Wild Art Explained (Penn State University Press) were published in 2018. He is writing a book about the historic center of Naples, and with Pissarro he conducted a sequence of interviews with museum directors for Brooklyn Rail. He is a regular contributor to Hyperallergic.