Museum, Theatre and the Cultural Centre

Since the time of Enlightenment, cultural activities and its institution has played an important role in the formation of modern democratic society. Museums, theatres and cultural centres were perceived to be the public space that engage people in civil society, although nowadays they are in competition with market forces that produce other urban public spaces and popular culture. To examine how cultural institutions were conceived and evolved provides the context to understand their position in contemporary society. While the museum and the theatre has a longer history and particular origin, the Cultural Centre is a relatively new type emerged during post-war Europe as social welfare. This article explores the genealogy of the Cultural Centre in reference to the museum and the theatre as archetype, and to discuss its emergence as an architectural and institutional concept.

Museum – institution of knowledge (display)

The museum (including the library) is a place of collection and display. Began during the Renaissance, it was largely a private practice for personal enjoyment or symbol of wealth and possession. Empires such as England and France establish national museums in the 18th century (the Louvre Museum in 1747 or the British Museum in 1759) as an act to display imperial power to their sovereignty and the world. The idea of public museums emerged in industrialised metropolitan in 19th century with the purpose of public instruction. For example in London, the South Kensington Museum (now V&A) was opened in 1857 as the first public museum, after the popular response of the Great Exhibition in 1851. They were made free and with extended hours to accommodate the working class, as it was believed that intellectual cultivation through museums could solve common urban problems at the time such as drunkenness or imprudence. The welfare policy of “the museum idea” [Bennett, 1995] intended to maintain social stability was in parallel to the philanthropic sentiment towards the urban poor through patronage of public cultural institutions. Although the effectiveness to attract the working men to visit the museum instead of the pub is debatable, it has nonetheless opened up the discussion of culture as utility and its social (and economical) benefit.

The 19th century vision presented the public museum as a place for the public, regarded as a tool for public instruction (although a rather top-down perspective), which has built the foundation of cultural provision in later welfare state policy. Art and culture was utilised as an instrument for personal and societal improvement, also signifying a turn of the Museum as a repository of treasured objects towards an institution with a social agenda in the 20th century. The elitist connotation of arts and culture is down played in the post-war years, as the England Arts Council established in 1946 pronounced their mission as “art for the mass”. The cultural institution is supposed to outreach to the largest public, and the role of the museum has also evolved from the subjective display of object into a responsive narrative about the people and the community, as the museum of the public. (Bennett, 2018)

Theatre – institution of pleasure (performance)

As a place for performance, the theatre has a long history linked to rituals and religion in ancient time, thereafter went into vernacular life as leisure activity and entertainment (Carlson, 1989). Musical and theatrical performances appeared in court and in private residence since early Renaissance, usually for a small audience in non-specific architectural setting. Formal theatre buildings emerged in Elizabethan London around 17th century, as a form of popular entertainment such as the Globe Theatre (now famous for its association with Shakespeare). In contrast to the state/philanthropic nature of the museum, the theatre has always been public for its commercial origin as profitable enterprise through ticket sales. It has a closer connection to popular culture, where the theatre was seen as an icon of a modern city in the 19th century industrialised metropolis.

The development of theatres can be read in three different streams. The opera inherited the high society status, until today it is still regarded as a rather exclusive form of cultural activities. The second stream is the popular theatre with a clear economic objective catering to the mass, which was the major form of entertainment in the 19th century and continued to evolved into commercial theatre of the Broadway/ West End nowadays. As theatre was a medium with a strong public appeal, it has also developed in the early 20th century as a civil expression, particularly in continental Europe. Institutions such as the Volksbunhne (People’s Theatre) in German-speaking countries are public theatres supported by local municipalities, who saw the opportunity to react to social issues and building a platform for public discourse (Fleury, 2014). This third stream of theatre development is closely related to the formation of community and solidarity, which contributes to social awareness and later civic forces in the late 20th century.

Museums and Theatres as urban public spaces

The gallery opening at the museum or premiere at the theatre were major occasions for the 19th century urban class to socialise and interact, where the foyer socialisation was almost as important (if not more) as the performance content. Although social interaction is no longer as formalised in the contemporary society, the public space at cultural venue is still where people meet and greet, particularly as the cultural content provides an additional stimulation for conversations. The artwork or performance is an expression often in reference to contemporary social conditions, and the discussions and reactions to the work form public opinion towards current affairs. It creates a type of discursive public sphere in a Habermasian sense, where the museum atrium or the theatre foyer play a similar role to the cafe or salon, as a place that public exchange occurs.

The design of such public spaces varies among different building types, but it reflects the positioning of cultural institutions as a platform for intellectual exchange. Important cultural places, such as the Opera Granier in Paris or Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York built in late 19th century, were designed with grandiose atrium and public area to accommodate vibrant social scene. They are often furnished with clusters of seating and refreshment area that is inviting for audience to linger, and in many cases the activities would extend to its surrounding exterior. Into the late 20th century, cultural institution placed even more emphasis on the creation of public space. In cases like the Centre Pompidou in Paris or the South Bank in London, the design of its public space has become to protagonist as the signature of the institution as well as a popular urban space. These public space are used beyond the occasion of cultural events, as they are usually situated in central location, integrated with the urban fabric and accessible to everyday user. They are no longer the residual space around the gallery or the auditorium, but the core space for public activities. In the past decades, the cultural venues are increasingly conceived as part of urban strategy, in which its public space become important urban places. From the social movements in late 1960s Europe to the recent events in 2019 Hong Kong, public spaces at cultural buildings were often the site of occupation, for its strategic location or institutional connotation to liberal democratic society. The role of the cultural institution is then grew beyond the production of cultural events but furthermore to the production of public life.

The emergence of the Cultural Centre type

This emphasis of cultural institution as public space renders the artistic disciplinary boundary less important, as the institution also became adaptable to different scale and context. The traditional museum and theatres grew in their concern of the public role, in accord with the post-war European states who regard cultural provision as part of overall social welfare, in the ranks of sanitation and education. A new type of hybrid institution — the Cultural Centre (or Arts Centre in the UK) is conceived under this context, usually with compound function that includes theatre, concert hall, gallery, library and other facilities. It focus less on hard assets such as the repertoire or the collection, but on the creation of public place and institution towards an ideal social life.

Since then, the key objective of cultural institutions became public engagement and cultural participation, which has grew into crucial importance since the conception of the idea several decades ago. Although the development context of each country varies, common characters can be found in the way how the cultural agenda is placed within political discussion. These ideals are manifested in the building of cultural centres in the late 20th century. The most prominent case could be the South Bank complex (1951) in London, as a response to the UK cultural policy of “arts for all”. In terms of innovation in architectural and institutional concept, the Centre Pompidou would be the most well-cited Cultural Centre, the progress from the brief to the design and later operation can be seen as a social experiment to examine the role of culture in society. In the next article, the concept of the Cultural Centre will be further discussed, along with key projects in late 20th century Europe.

  • Bennett, T. (1995). The Birth of the Museum : History, Theory, Politics.
  • Carlson, M. (1989). Places of performance : The semiotics of theatre architecture. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press.
  • Fleury, L. (2014). Sociology of culture and cultural practices: The transformative power of institutions. (M. Lavin, Trans.)
  • Pevsner, N. (1976). A history of building types. London: Thames and Hudson.

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