NEW YORK — Late-afternoon light streamed in through the vast glass roof of the Metropolitan Museum of Art's New American Wing--"a big old barn," said museum Vice President Arthur Rosenblatt, sitting alone by a potted fern and looking rather pleased with the pronouncement.
But on most days, weekends especially, that big old barn is more like the main floor at Bloomingdale's--mobbed, with a constant, steady din vaulting off the ceiling, floors and walls. "Museums," said Rosenblatt, director of architecture and planning for the venerable institution that has come to be almost synonymous with the words "American museum," "have undergone enormous change."
Indeed, he remembered, "as a child growing up in New York, if you came to the Met on a Sunday afternoon, it was the place for solitude and quiet." These days, making the cocktail and dinner-party circuit, Rosenblatt said he is more likely to hear rumblings that museums have become too accessible, too crowded, too popular and complaints that "we're making the museum so large you can't enjoy it anymore."
Certainly in recent years the buildings themselves have become almost as much an attraction as the exhibits they house, evolving as they have from dusty, hands-off warrens of touch-me-not art and menacing security officers into dynamic structures that invite participation and challenge a spectator's imagination.
"It's far more entertaining and far less oppressive now to go to a museum than it ever was," Rosenblatt said. "A person who visits a museum now is going to be entertained."
The interest in this field of museums and museum design, or "the architecture of culture," as Rosenblatt and others prefer to call it, was sufficient to provoke UCLA Extension to schedule a five-day seminar (today-Friday) on the subject, capped by a Saturday special program Rosenblatt will deliver on the Metropolitan Museum of Art itself. Never mind the standard East Coast/West Coast prejudice; Rosenblatt, a non-driver, was mildly apoplectic at the notion of a week in car-crazy California.
Still, the architect turned anthropologist at the prospect of spending time in the burgeoning museum culture of Los Angeles. "The dreams that L.A. County now has!" Rosenblatt said, more than a shred rapturously. "Finally, to have more than a museum that looks like a shopping center.
"Look what is happening in L.A. You've got the Temporary Contemporary, the County, the Norton Simon, the new Getty--all inspiring reverence for an army of serious young architects."
Rosenblatt's own architectural eyes could not help but widen as he contemplated proposals for the new J. Paul Getty Museum, high in the Brentwood hills. "It's the most important museum commissioned in the century perhaps, because finally an architect has a client with the money to pay for it. Finally, somebody is building a museum with sufficient funds to do everything they envision."
Nevertheless, Rosenblatt said, "It has been a desert, Los Angeles." In the history of museums, "L.A. County Museum is about 20 minutes old."
On the other hand, museums themselves, it turns out, are something of a cultural Johnny-come-lately. With collections confined to the private eyes of the very rich, Rosenblatt said, "museums did not exist until, frankly, the Belvedere Tower in 18th-Century Rome." Then, "in the 19th Century it was an extraordinary period, because all the great national collections became public."
Motivated, perhaps, by "guilt--the robber barons thought they ought to be doing something for the working hordes," philanthropists began endowing American museums in the 19th Century," Rosenblatt said. The proudly patrician Metropolitan, for example, saw its beginnings in a former carpet showroom on dingy 14th Street, before moving to its current, grand 5th Avenue location in 1880.
"Museums did have a hard time entering the 20th Century," Rosenblatt said. "They were not the liveliest and most open of institutions."
Rosenblatt himself credits much of the revolution in museum design to former Metropolitan chief Thomas Hoving: "He simply had the vision, the feeling that museums should be more accessible." But changes were at work in the evolving science of museums as well, he noted, making for new advances in lighting, conservation and display of art, and in "controlling the environment so that the great works of art did not disappear after 20 years, after they had lasted for 2,000 years."
And there was another element, Rosenblatt believes: "The times--it was the middle and the late '60s, and there was a much greater social concern."
Changes in the kinds and dimensions of exhibits that museums began to show brought more and more people through the doors, Rosenblatt said.
The museums have discovered this renewed interest on the part of the public, and they are responding. The public's expectations are greater." Rosenblatt smiled. "Having entertained them, now they expect more."
One thing they do not expect, however, is sore feet, an ongoing problem in the high-tech world of stone and concrete floor surfaces. Two hours in a museum and anyone who is not in specially constructed shoes is likely to find himself hobbling, exhausted.
"Oh," Rosenblatt said, eyes twinkling impishly, "that's the problem. You should never spend more than an hour and a half in a museum."