Cultural institutions and their public space

The “Parthenon of Books” is a full-size replica of the Athenian temple built with thousands of forbidden books to symbolise free speech, created by conceptual artist Marta Minujin for the documenta 14, in Kassel, Germany [1]. Visitors not only view the installation but also experience it as a public space. The artwork’s dual capacity in making space and conveying message could be an analogy to the contemporary cultural institution, producing cultural content but more importantly producing public space.

Museum and theatre spaces have integrated into everyday urabn life. With the capacity to express and to contain public life, the cultural institution plays a crucial role in the formation of democratic civil society. It can be either inclusive and supportive to social changes, or it can be exclusive and effective tool for capital gain. Most of the time they are somewhere in-between.

While contemporary cultural institutions became more aware of social issues and their public role, they also face escalating challenges of commodification. What is then the spatial implication of this struggle between the social and the capital? A review of how cultural institutions evolves as public space reveals the interplay of private and public interest over the last century with difference social conditions. Projecting into the near future, how do we position the cultural institution in urban social life?

Cultural institution as “common” public space

Historically, arts and culture was reserved for the enjoyment of very few. The museum originated as private collections and the theatre was largely court entertainment (with some religious or rural festival roots). The idea of public cultural institution emerges since the Enlightenment, an age of reason when intellectual discourse and knowledge dissemination was advocated. The British Museum established in 1759 is a prime case of Enlightenment cultural institution, established as a collection that assemble objects into a body of knowledge available for public pursue [2].

Into the 19th century, industrialised cities in Europe saw a growing bourgeois class who are active in the cultural public sphere, as well as the mass of working class who also began to have leisure time to spare. For example, the 18th century London officials saw the establishmenmt of cultural institutions as a tool of public instruction, to resolve urban issues such as drunkenness and imprudence of the working class. The “museum idea” is a concept that believes the amuseument could interest working men to make better use their leisure time, instead of dwell and drink at the public house (pub) [3]. These institutions were largely supported by the state, and has set the tone for British cultural policy well into the 19th century welfare-state direction. Around the same time, public theatre was also flourishing as it found the business opportunity as theatre tickets sales became public [4]. The cultural institution at that time can be seen as a common public space, a social setting where people of different class could get together, sometimes regardless of their interest in the artistic content.

While the cultural content itself directly or indirectly respond to current affairs, the cultrual insitution acted as a platform where urban residents socialise and exchange opinion, as the bourgeois public sphere envisioned by Habermas [5]. While there are multiple critisim of Habermas’ vision as exclusive and not truly public in contemporary view, adjusted for social condition of the time it was indeed proliferating in public life and cultural institutions. This ideal of cultural institution as rational public sphere carries on into the early 20th century, as municipal museums established across Europe and the US. Besides the state-support institutions, the newly-rich industrialists, such as the Rockefeller or Guggienhemi family in the US, also became important patrons who build museums and theatres with a similar public vision. Landmark such as The Museum of Modern Art in New York was founded by philanthropist led by Mrs. Rockefeller in 1928 [6], and developed into one of the most important public cultural institution in the world.

Cultural institution and the struggle of public space

The MoMA today is seen as one of the most successful “cultural entreprise” with assets over 2 billion USD [7], is it still considered as a public cultural institution? The most visited space at the MoMA has become the Design Store, as we now enters the MoMA, is the atrium a public space or retail sales floor?

During the time as cultural institutions flourished in the 20th century, critical scholars of the Frankfurt school also reflected on how culture develops in modern capitalistic society and raised concerns about its influence. Adorno question the premise of Enlightenment and pronounced that culture has become “culture industry”, where mass culture has taken over and became an industry that aims at consumption [8]. As a result, public space became homogenized while it is optimized for commercial activities, with the apparence of choice and an illusion of “public” space. Don Mitchell describes the exclusion of marginal population at the People’s Park in Berkeley caused by this homogeniety, leading to the question of the right to public space [9]. Similar problem of exclusion is also happening in the commodified (and homogenized) cultural space. As cultural instituions began to see their visitors as customer/consumer, the non-consuming public is then excluded from its public space. Cultural insitutions are facing the challenge of reduced government or corporate support, therefore a business model to generate revenue became crucial for their survival. The public space of cultural instituions is becoming privatised public space for capitalistic purpose.

The contestation of private and public interest complicates the position of cultural institutions in the late-20th century, and its public space became the forefront that reflects this struggle. As an effect of social movements from Paris to California in the 1960s, cultural institutions (and their designers) once again picked up the public role and reconsider their positioning for the society. If MoMA examplifies cultural commodification, the Centre Pompidou could be viewed as the pioneer with a clear social direction. Opened in 1977, it is a composite-function cultural centre that house a modern art museum, a library and a music school, with a large “piazza” that gives the dense Paris neighborhood of Beaubourg a signiture public space. Instead of a monumental cultural landmark, the winning entry by Renzo Piano and Richard Rogers was selected for their avant-garde vision that emphasis on publicness, openess, flexiblity and integration with the community [10]. These two types of cultural institutions flourished almost in parallel, and the struggle of public space at the cultural institution continues.

The more forward-thinking contemporary cultural institutions manifest its emphasis on social engagement and community contribution, gaining increased importance in the 21st century. As culture institutions evolved from “common” public space to “privatized” public space, we could see a return of its role as a “social” public space. A recent case of cultural institution as social public space is the renovated Lincoln Centre reopened in 2012. The decade-long public realm project led by Diller & Scofidio [11] involves incremental design intervention in public space, circulation, way-finding and new amenities. It has achive the commercial benefit of increasing visitor spending, as well as the social benefit of reconnecting the once elite institution with the public, just as its iconic stepped plaza now opened up to face the city and enjoyed by neighbors and visitors alike. This could be an agnoistic potential for the new model of cultural institution and a new type of institutional public space.

The contemporary cultural centre as institutional public space

The archetype of cultural institutions can be roughly regarded as the Museum and the Theatre, being the institution of Knowledge and that of Pleasure. While this geneaology is much simplified, the two archtypes grew in convergence in the last several decades in their institution and function, with the concern of public space as common denominator. The typological evolution leads to a cross-disciplinary type of Cultural Centre, with the overlap of intellectual and leisure function.

The museum in the last century was a institution of cultural utility, with the purpose of public instruction [12], and it is always embedded with a sense of public mission. The function of museum has transformed from the subjective display of object into responsive narratives about the community, illustrating a transition from the museum “for” the public to the museum “of” the public [13]. Meanwhile, as theatre became popular it also created a new form of public space and social voice. More prominently in Europe than in the US, public theatre in forms such as the volksbunhne (people’s theatre) has gained a position and attention to public affairs, who saw the opportunity to react to social issues in building a platform for public discourse [14].

Towards the second half of the 20th century, cultural institutions began to focus on its public interface and its function as public realm. Museum atriums and theatre foyers became important urban spaces where citizen meet and socialise, as well as the site to manifest public (urban) issues in the case of social movements. The artistic disciplinary boundary became less important, originated as community arts centre, these cultural centres cultivates a social turn in cultural space [15]. They are more adaptable to grow in various scale and context, with less focus on hard asset (the collection) but more focus on curatorial activities (the programme). In this new generation of cultural institutions, public space became the protagonist instead of being the residual space around the gallery or the auditorium. As a central institutional strategy, it is the (generic) space with a new meaning beyond circulation or waiting space. Furthermore, its effect extends across the threshold of interior and exterior space, not bounded by the physicality of the building as an object. The public space plays out its institutional nature through design and operation, which could be the subject of investigation in order to study and question the role of cultural institutions.

As we unpack the idea of institutional public space, the core question to ask is what is the role of cultural institutions? In the social struggle of public space, cultural institution occupies a position that is neither the authority nor the capital, and this position allows the cultural institution more liberal expression and flexible practice. Along with its capacity of creative intervention, it has the opportunity to become free space, a critical discursive platform. How can the institution utilise this potential for social changes? How can the public space be an active agent to social engagement?

These questions have become particularly significant for Hong Kong in the face of current social movements. At recent events of 2019, many cultural public spaces has been used as the site for rallies and civic protest activities in multiple occasions. The public space and cultural institutions then plays a crucial role, where the unexpected use of public space at cultural buildings renders them important cases to study. There is also a sense of urgency for both the public and the authority to learn about the working of these public spaces, at this moment of critical civic response to institutional power. The cultural space as institutional public space is inhabited, lived and experienced, serving not only cultural users but most importantly the general public. The perspective to see it as part of the urban fabric could liberate the cultural building as a landmark object with greater effect to the public.


[2] Although it is only until 1810 that it is fully accessible to the public.

[3] Bennett, T. (1995) The Multiplication of Culture’s Utility. Critical Inquiry, 21(4) 861-889.

[4] Carlson, M. (1989). Places of performance: The semiotics of theatre architecture. Ithaca, NY:Cornell University Press

[5] Habermas, J. (1989). The structural transformation of the public sphere: An inquiry into a category of bourgeois society. (T. Burger, Trans.) Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press. (Original work published 1962)



[8] Adorno, T., & Bernstein, J. (1991). The Culture Industry: Selected Essays on Mass Culture. London: Routledge.

[9] Mitchell, D. (2003). The right to the city: Social justice and the fight for public space. New York: Guilford Press.

[10] Silver, N. (1994). The making of Beaubourg: A building biography of the Centre Pompidou, Paris. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.

[11] Diller Scofidio + Renfro. (2012). Inside out: Rethinking Lincoln Center. Bologna: Damiani.

[12] Bennett, T. (2007). Acting on the Social: Art, Culture, and Government. American Behavioral Scientist, 43(9), 1412-1428.

[13] Bennett, T. (2018). Museums, power, knowledge: Selected essays. London: Routledge, Taylor & Francis.

[14][15] Fleury, L. (2014). Sociology of culture and cultural practices: The transformative power of institutions. (M. Lavin, Trans.) Lanham, Maryland: Lexington Books (Original work published 2011)

1 thought on “Cultural institutions and their public space”

  1. […] There was a paradigm change around mid-20th century in urban design and planning, from the Modernist top-down planning manifesto to a concern in human-scale urban experience. Urbanist such as Jane Jacobs advocated an observational approach to learning about how the city works (1961). This is a view shared by the Danish architect Jan Gehl, who over the years has developed a comprehensive methodology to study public space, which is effectively the study of public life that focus on people and activities (Gehl, 2013). These studies looked at the static public space and speculate the activities happen, or could happen in it. What if we extend the scope to look at the interactive aspect of these actions? What is the specificity of public life when it is placed in cultural context among the wide spectrum of generic public space? […]


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