The Art Museum: History, Theory, Controversy

A photograph that features a large blue sign in the foreground that reads "Guggenheim Abu Dhabi." A construction site with cranes can be seen in the background.

The construction site of the Guggenheim Museum's Abu Dhabi branch, which is expected to open in 2017. There has been a great deal of controversy regarding the rights of the migrant workers who have been hired for the job. ((c) Samer Muscati Used with permission.)


MIT Course Number


As Taught In

Spring 2014



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Course Description

Course Features

Course Description

Art museums are powerful and contested institutions. They are also innovative sites of architectural and artistic practice. From the exhibitionary complex of the nineteenth century to the experiential complex of today, this course investigates the art museum from historical and contemporary perspectives, striking a balance between theoretical investigation and case studies of recent exhibitions and museum buildings. Where and why did the concept of the public art museum emerge, and how have its functions changed over time? How do art museums continue to shape our definitions of what art is? How have they responded to recent critiques of the self-described 'universal' museum and to claims for the ethical display of ill-gotten artifacts or the restitution of such objects as Greek vases and bronzes looted from Benin? And why is the Euro-American art museum so compelling a model that it has spread around the globe?
To address these and other questions, we will also go behind the scenes. Visits to local museums and discussions with curators are an essential component of the course.

Related Content

Kristel Smentek. 4.609 The Art Museum: History, Theory, Controversy. Spring 2014. Massachusetts Institute of Technology: MIT OpenCourseWare, License: Creative Commons BY-NC-SA.

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