In a famous 1976 New Yorker cartoon by James Stevenson, an astonished-looking guard stands outside the Solomon R Guggenheim Museum as a small boy on a skateboard comes whizzing out of the open door. The grin on his face says it all. He has just fulfilled the wish of every child who has ever visited the Guggenheim: to come down the ramp of the spiral on wheels, at speed.
A child wouldn’t have got very far with a skateboard on visits to the great 19th-century temple-front museums: the Scottish National Gallery in Edinburgh, the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge or the Glyptothek in Munich. As late as the mid-1930s, Eric Maclagan, then director of the V&A, described the public ‘as a noun of three letters beginning with A and ending with S. We humour them when they suggest absurd reforms, we placate them with small material comforts, but we heave sighs of relief when they go away and leave us to our jobs.’ By then, however, things were starting to change. The museum as ‘Fun Palace’ – Joan Littlewood’s phrase – is a relatively recent phenomenon.
In The Art Museum in Modern Times, Charles Saumarez Smith argues that until at least 1929, when the Museum of Modern Art opened in New York, museums of art were ‘monuments to a certain kind of moral, intellectual and cultural authority. They were designed to impress visitors, not to make