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Relationship Between Museum and Cultural Identity

Info: 5513 words (22 pages) Dissertation
Published: 11th Dec 2019

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Tagged: ArchitectureCultural StudiesHistory



As society enters a new century, many cultures have recond to an age of globalisation and, in turn, are embracing the idea of contemporary living. This results in the development of cutting-edge technology, new methods of communication, and the rapid growth of cities, causing indigenous culture of cities to increasingly blend. The desire to embrace this dynamic compels many architects to consider ways of creating architecture truly representative of a wide range of humanity. These new advances create city growth, impacting on urban form and the design process of the public institutions, including museums, which is what this dissertation will primarily explore. The result is to extend the range of materials, forms, cultural references and social thinking available to museum architecture. But does this create an uninspired sameness, where some identities are being ignored and/or distorted? Where the notion of cultures integrating really means the identity struggle between the dominants and the dominated? One could speculate that now, more rapidly than before, the architecture of the museum and the city simultaneously evolve to meet the cultural identity of the people. But are these buildings, in fact representative of the national identity of a city or the individuality of the architect?

This dissertation investigates the architect’s role in designing museums, establishing to what extent the design reflects or stems from the cultural identity of the city. The relationship between the museum and the city in which to belongs is complex. In order to establish an understanding, the study consults a wide range of resources that address issues of cultural identity within a museum’s national and civic perspective. Additionally, the research made reference to economic and political issues regarding museums, the study of how globalisation is reflected within a cultural and affects architecture, and case studies to support the statement that architects may intend for their museum designs to be representations of a cultural identity within the city.

There are now new ways of experiencing, interpreting and remembering. The contemporary architecture of museums are a strong medium of cultural memory, developing from the museum’s traditional forms as monuments symbolising the power of key individuals within a society, into an expressive entity that creates dialogue between its contents and urban context. The otherwise conventional manner of designing develops into a world of contradictions, assorted rhythms and new ideas of beauty in the design of museums. The physicality of the building represents that of theatrical effects, incorporating contemporary elements of architectural form as a method of entertainment, whilst engaging the interest of the city’s individuals and of those from further afield. Millions are drawn to what is no longer a dying institution, but a visual destination for the public, in a form that encompasses the society’s identity. One can assume this is influenced by the cultural pluralism within the building’s city context, and considering the many identities as a plural identity. The diverse elements are woven into a sustainable, integrated spatial fabric that contributes to the life of the city. An approach which allows architectural freedom for a building type that has been described by some sources as overlooked by the public.

Due to this study’s word restriction, it is not possible to evaluate in detail more than four relevant case studies. This limitation resulted in the careful consideration of case studies varying in terms of locality and architect. Furthermore, due to time restrictions, it was not possible to carry out additional primary research which could have entailed supplementary site visits to the investigated case studies and additional data found in initial research methods such as interviews and questionnaires. The dissertation’s methodology consists of individually exploring and studying four case studies against the dissertation’s argument, in order to then properly conclude whether it can be proven to be accurate. These case studies pose as cultural barometers, where during investigation they help assess the extent in which they fulfill a city’s cultural identity. The examination method entails drawing on a combination of primary research such as site visits to secondary research, drawing on existing written information from books, articles and online sources. The case studies follow a chronological order, beginning with Chapter One: Frank Gehry’s Bilbao Guggenheim, a museum which initiated an influence on the case studies that have followed such as Chapter Two: Daniel Libeskind’s Jewish War Museum, Chapter 3: Herzog and de Meuron’s Tate Modern London and Chapter 4: Zaha Hadid’s Contemporary Arts Centre. To further develop whether an architect’s design of contemporary museums truly reflect the city’s cultural identity, each case study is analysed in th light of the following issues:

Globalisation outlines whether certain cultural identities are lost or just changing within the museum’s civic context, especially as cities more than nations contend to draw global attention through these culturally significant public buildings. The sub-chapter concerning National and Civic Identity explores how culture influences in terms of the architectural context of the museum in a national and civic perspective. This provides a framework for exploring how architects use ideas about culture and cultural contradictions to create the structures and spaces to engage a society. The issue will discover how the design of the museum is a task of seeking an image essentially of ourselves. Style and Identity of the Architect briefly examines how the architect’s own identity, who themselves are either travelers or immigrants, insiders/outsiders of the city in which they design for, influences the ultimate design of the city’s museum along with their own architectural style. Economy and Politics is a sub-chapter concerning who pays, owns and benefits from the establishment of these institutions. How cities acquire signature museums in order to stimulate their economic and ultimately cultural development. The museum building boom has been accelerated by what has become known as The Bilbao Guggenheim Effect . The sub-chapter investigates how Frank Gehry’s museum has influenced these case studies to replicate their own “Bilbao Guggenheim Effect” within their cities. By putting up a museum with architectural credentials, Gehry revitalised a civic and cultural image, demonstrating that a single building could energise and enhance an entire city and region.



Layer upon layer, past times preserve themselves in the city until life itself finally threatened with suffocation: then, in sheer defense, modern man invents the museum.

[Lewis Mumford, The Culture of Cities]

These words from Lewis Mumford’s The Culture of Cities depicts how the museum was manifested as a commodification of a city’s overpowering history (Giebelhausen, 2003 p. 1). The design development of this building type has been changing since the museum was established in the 18th century, beginning as a space for private collections of wealthy individuals, only accessible by the middle and upper class (Giebelhausen, 2003 p. 4). Presently, the museum is a response to contemporary social change, a space that wishes to connect within its urban fabric surroundings and open to all. A museum’s design acknowledges the way in which it can order, store and display its belongings, the institution’s relationship to a city and surrounding cultures lacks investigation, leaving questions about the museum’s role in an urban context (Giebelhausen, 2003 p. 2). Culture surpasses the ways in which something can be represented and housed, it can be seen as an expression of us. Today, culture is challenged in a world struggling for established institutions such as schools, libraries etc., which often are said to lack in relation to the people (Zukin, 1995, p. 11). Museums are no longer seen as fixed frameworks, but a place for public interaction and exchange. One could consider that one of the building’s functions is to absorb the cultures within the city, and then reflect and shape this within an architectural form. The museum itself visually exemplifies its roles within a city, for instance unlocking urban memories, reconfiguring the past, aiding in touristic rediscovery and exploitation of a place to the whole urban environment, roles that challenge the museum’s attempt to reconnect culture and a city’s built form (Giebelhausen, 2003 p. 2).

There is an ability to recon a city with the use of museums, from “systematically inserting them, to salvaging or reconstructing them” into the urban fabric (Giebelhausen, 2003 p. 2). Therefore the museum’s cultural significance surpasses that of any other building types. In The Museum Transformed, by Douglas Davis (1990, p.14) asserts that, “no building type can match the museum for symbolic or architectural importance” because it is so often redefined due to its stimulation from cultural development. The museum can be considered as an entity that defines, represents and creates cultural trends ahead of its own place in time. As quoted from MacLeod (2005, p.1), “As museums have come to be consciously recognized as drivers for social and economic regeneration, the architecture of the museum has developed from its traditional forms into often-spectacular one off statements and architectural visions.” Architects persuasively argue for a new type of experience, aiming to appeal to a general audience rather than the scholarly advisors soughing to replicate tradition (Giebelhausen, 2003 p. 3). This is an aspiration expressed from an analysis of contemporary society and its future direction, that being cultural diversity, resulting in the commissioning of strongly conceptualised museums to devote to multiplicity. As Relph (1976, p. 33) claims,

…for each setting and for each person there are a multiplicity of place identities reflecting different experiences and attitudes; these are molded out of the common elements of appearance…through the changing interactions of direct observation with preconceptions.

In the past however, the significance of museums were solely to serve a refined function, transcending the thinking of the scholars and academics, along with manifesting the power of a city (Giebelhausen, 2003 p. 4). Relph (1976, p. 35) provides evidence to this claim in mentioning,

Public places which achieve their publicity through high imageability are not necessary innocent- their distinctive appearance or form maybe capitalised upon or even created as a statement of grandeur and authority to be regarded in awe by common people.

The museum was considered a monument, take examples such as The Louvre in Paris, or the Uffizi in Florence, they are models of the grandeur museums encompassed (Merkel, 2002, p. 66), significant in urban context, deliberately chosen to emphasise a city’s status, and drawing attention within a public space. Traditionally understood as temples of knowledge, the architecture itself could be said to represent the value of knowledge. This belief was prominent in the early period of museum founding where the scale of buildings also symbolised power, so much so that the museum evoked the metaphor of a cathedral. Historian Jayne Merkel (2002, p. 66) writes,

Not surprisingly, palace architecture-grand, classical, urban, and horizontal-was a principal influence when the first museums were designed. But like most public buildings at the time, they were built in the classical style for other reasons as well, including classicism’s associations with government, law (Roman basilicas), with the sacred (Greek temples and Italian Renaissance churches) and with the culture and art of the past.

Today, the museum could be considered as a building type that satisfies a city’s need for symbolic signification, and an indicator of metropolitan aspirations such as world-wide recognition. A desire to entertain and educate society, along with a “sensitivity that refuses to bore, alienate or pander to the public” (Zieger, 2005, p. 17). If this is the case, then the status of a great city can entail in encompassing several of these institutions, thus the spread of museums witnessed during the nineteenth and twentieth century indicating the start of city rivalry.

At the start of the twenty-first century, the museum as architecture has been reinstated as an evocative entity, as opposed to decades devoted to neutral, voided spaces lacking symbolic significance and strict functionality termed as “white box” (Lampugnani & Sachs, 1999, p. 15). Museums began to create dialogue with their content and urban context. They can be seen as similar in some ways to churches, to shopping centres and other places of gathering, but they have a function different from these examples, they contain things of enquiry. The museum has made a considerable contribution to a city, adding historic and cultural significance along with contributing to a city’s metropolitan status, presumably due to the transformative possibilities of museums (Giebelhausen, 2003 p. 9). The city and its museum are in conjunction to one another, one could believe the museum is a city’s method of revealing cultural meaning through its architectural forms. This belief is an advancement from the words of the theorist Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, ridiculing museums as cemeteries, stating that they were “truly identical in their sinister juxtaposition of bodies that do not know each other,” along with a judgement that cultural institutions were dilapidating. (see Zieger, 2005, p. 7) A society today uses the museum to represent a new dynamic form of culture, reflected through an innovative physical form that is often considered a visual spectacle of the city, that one could believe draws visitors to it in theatre like fashion. Consequently it can be theorised that they are quickly becoming radical buildings constructed in a world driven by the need to address new concepts of diversity and equality (Zukin, 1995 p. 2). Rather than just “cultural cemeteries piling up gilt frame paintings” (Zeiger, 2005, p.11), they are spaces of social condensing- a space attempting to build a community rather than filling a city with volumes of emptiness. As Daniel Libeskind was quoted in saying “…it’s not just some sort of container, some abstract piece if glass and concrete, it is part of a communicative system.”

The design challenge in the multicultural growth of cities is to find an architectural expression that goes beyond the conventional, while something relevant to contemporary life. Contemporary museum design can be deemed as a physical entity of cultural trends developing within the city (Zukin, 1995 p. 2), either recognising which cultures are integrating or if the city epitomises a specific one. No matter what conclusions are drawn out from a city’s cultural make-up museums are a place where people go to mix with others unlike themselves, by having a broad appeal they must aim to please a vast variety of people. Libeskind confirms this in his words,

…(museum) architecture is what is common between people, and what a contribution it makes to the viability of a city, and to civic space. …we might as well make in inspiring environment, an environment that is more than just a shallow façade of something inauthentic. (Cathcart, 2001)

To avoid the idea of an undistinguished environment is by physically fitting in the cultural identity related to the city. The museum in a physical setting is a structural body of city understanding and city change. There can be no denying the importance of its architecture in the urban environment in terms of regeneration, tourism, symbolism and so on (Zukin, 1995, p.2). Society as a whole has been persuaded that museums are agents of social economic change. There has been an unprecedented period of radical reshaping, building, rebuilding in the design of these institutions that cannot be disassociated from the drive for cultural inclusiveness and diversity. A building with space that can be considered with endless possibilities for use when “escaping the straitjacket of conforming to a giving role and move into a sharing mode” (MacLeod, 2005, p.25). In other words, a diverse audience needs a diversity of spaces that reflect, provoke and thrill.






Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim museum is acknowledged worldwide as a magnet for tourism, but can it be truly considered an expression of the Basque people’s cultural identity? Or is it just an architect’s expressionist gesture in an industrial city? The New York Times depicts The Bilbao Guggenheim as part of an ambitious plan to revise the city as an international centre of culture. The museum is not just a neutral container where art is stored and presented, but a place where the institution itself is in relation with the public.


It could be said that globalisation creates struggle between the dominant and the dominated cultures within a society and the search for a reconstructed identity of a society. (AlSayyad, 2009, p. 22) Within the Spanish Basque region, it is evident that their identity has been burdened with tension in their attempt to stress their own regional identities and singularities from the rest of Spain (Guasch and Zulaika, 2005, p. 74). However one can argue that in this case globalisation has become a force in strengthening and proliferating a cultural identity, allowing the idea of identity to change into a more universal commodity represented by the museum itself.

But how do issues of globalisation affect the architecture itself, especially in terms of the Bilbao Guggenheim? The new advances of technology, communication and construction methods create interventions for local cultures and establish the identities of a place. Gehry’s use of cutting-edge computer design technology enabled him to translate his forms into reality (Chulvi, 2007) (see 1.1). Architectural statements such as the Guggenheim Bilbao are often questioned at times in whether or not they have relation to the place and identity. There could be two sides to this argument, one side could be seeking to safeguard and extend already established indigenous architectural traditions, promoting historical continuity and the preservation of identity through traditional decorative forms. The other side which is in more relation to the Guggenheim Bilbao, considers globalisation as a force that seeks to encourage invention and distribution of new forms using new materials and technology in response to changing needs to have relation to the place and identity. Gehry has been quotes in saying, “Democracy is good for architecture. Pluralistic ideas are what we want presented in architecture, the lead to a visual chaos is part of our lives” (Guasch and Zulaika, 2005, p. 58). There is an opportunity for growth in unique architectural forms in all of its diversity and 2903687145_5cb25af9b6


The Basque people have been able to preserve their distinct culture and language while flourishing in an environment of globalisation, post-modernity, and European integration (Castillo, 2008). Currently, integrating the two social collectives of nationalists and non-nationalists within the region is growing (Castillo, 2008). However how does a group of people who have never had a country to call their own continue to hold on to their own cultural identity? The Bilbao Guggenheim is a phenomenon of cultural development employing “the three successive phases posited by the theory of cultural epochs- a period of chaos, a period of adjustment, and a period of equilibrium in cultural change” (Guasch and Zulaika, 2005, p. 74). All around the world culture operates as an engine for new regional and urban development, one could say that no strategic growth of a city would take place without the role of culture (Zukin, 1995, p.11). In the case of the Basque region, it was suffering deterioration caught up in a decline in inspiration along with cultural institutions progressively being abandoned. Simultaneously, the Guggenheim Foundation was in need of a new concept of the museum, capable to withstand the achievement of Guggenheim in New York, yet gaining its own recognition abroad. Co-operation between two considerably different cultures occurred in recovering the identity of a small society (Guasch and Zulaika, 2005, p. 77). As Frank Gehry himself explains , the museum embodies two different cultures, the Basque culture and American, which is considered as a melting pot used to extend its arms to everybody (Farnsworth, 1997). The Bilbao Guggenheim is proof of culture being a key strategy in not only providing a physical renewal but a new injection of self-esteem within a city and an entire region. (see 1.2) Culture in the case of the development of this building, can be seen as something essential to humankind and above all to a society in regaining values and providing a sense of identity.

Rather than ignoring the cultural context of the city entirely, the fabric is restored, connecting any form of cultural isolation with the new building. The curving forms of the building glide over the River Nervion, a main bridged entry to the Spanish city, shattering strict perpendicularity and ridged geometry regularly associated with museum architecture, providing a new model of collective identification (Guasch and Zulaika, 2005,p. 42). The rejection of these norms is emphasised by the titanium cladding, making the building appear as a single entity that intertwines the city around it. Like the Basque region the building is a place of “contested borders” (Guasch and Zulaika, 2005,p. 42). (see 1.3) Whether Gehry’s building actually erases the city’s cultural heritage is debatable. Bilbao is famous for its maritime history, after Barcelona, it has Spain’s largest port. The Bilbao Guggenheim pays tribute to its own surroundings as it edges onto the riverfront. Its exterior sculpted out of steel, which is

traditionally the main industry of the city (Guasch and Zulaika, 2005, p. 154). The museum’s relationship with the city is conceived as the outcome of a perceived social need, as society changes and new social needs arise, new building forms will be produced in order to fulfill that need. The Bilbao Guggenhem facilitates a complete urban facelift, a driver for the city’s urban regeneration, communicating not only its importance to the city as a powerful foci, but the city’s mark in the cultural world. As a result, after Bilbao every city aspires to its own Guggenheim effect – the “build it and they will come” (Barreneche, 2005, p.6) belief is what cities have taken on for their museums after untitled


Frank Gehry is widely recognised as a North American architect whose combination of steel, high-tech and flowing designs have broken the rigid hold of rectilinear design that has dominated most of Modern architecture (Zieger, 2005, p. 8). However the question remains: is it a good idea for the city to have an international museum built by a foreign architect? Gehry was quoted as spending a lot of time trying to understand the culture and trying to understand the Basque people. He explains,

I related to them because I was raised in a Jewish upbringing in Toronto, Canada, so I was an outsider into the culture when I was a kid. And I understand–I empathized with this outsider role, and–but I can’t put my finger on a piece of the building and say this is Basque, but they seem to think I captured their spirit. I tried to use the materials of the region to build the building. The stone in Spanish. The steel structure is Spanish. All the work people were Basque. (Farnsworth, 1997)

One can assume to Gehry a rich piece of architecture would combine elements in a way that preserve the coherence of their origins. At its best, the process of gathering cultural elements and marrying them to the sensitivities of a gifted architect can result in a powerful work of architecture such as the Bilbao Guggenheim. According to the Bilbao Revitalization Plan, the natural slope running down to the riverfront was to be transformed into a green valley, but Gehry did not want to lose the industrial feel of the existing waterfront. (see 1.4 & 1.5) People say that the design of the museum’s architecture was inspired during Gehry climb up the Mundana, one of the highest mountains in the outskirts of Bilbao. “Seen from the river, the building appears to take the shape of a boat paying homage to the port city that has given its home. The museum’s bright, shining panels resemble fish scales, reflecting the influence of natural forms and shapes.” (Chulvi, 2007) One could argue that the architect’s use of abstract, free-form components from local materials are reminiscent of Modernist Spanish sculptures, a cultural aspect valued by the Basque, or how the architect’s design of the enormous boat-shaped gallery is a dedication toward Bilbao’s past as a centre of shipbuilding and trade (Guasch and Zulaika, 2005, p. 154). Many would argue that Gehry’s design for the Bilbao Guggenheim truly reflects the identity of the Basque people even though the architect himself has no relation to region. However, there is a degree of sensitivity to the region’s character that can be witnessed through the architecture. The city of Bilbao places an emphasis on the institution Gehry has designed, as having an important role in defining public culture. This has been achieved through the architect’s process of negotiating what architectural expressions could be accepted by the people.


Gehry’s museum was hailed an as instant landmark, bringing a sense of relevance to architecture in the transformation of cities. (Guasch and Zulaika, 2005, p. 7) The Basque region was in need of local development due to its rustic city appearance and distinct regional identity compared to the rest of Spain. Primarily, the Basque region was in need of distancing itself from the negativity that it was associated with, such as being recognised as a terrorist region. Bilbao, the largest city in the Basque country, is a stronghold for the separatist group ETA (Basque Fatherland and Liberty), which seeks independence from Spain through often violent behavior (Farnsworth, 1997). For the Guggenheim Foundation this was an opportunity to fund a centerpiece of huge urban renewal for Bilbao.

Previous museum concepts were of a private space for seekers of wisdom, philosophers and historians. Currently the museum’s directors are in favor of new futuristic architectural visions that were unimaginable years before, representing a museum’s city and forming the basis of urban regeneration such as Bilbao Guggenheim. The titanium shapes flourish through Bilbao’s dark cornices and nearby smokestacks, as Andrew Friedman (see Zieger, 2005, p. 9) explains,

…the nearby smokestacks and cranes; they seem…to be Gehry’s whimsical idea of visually rendering the tumultuous and violent process by which a once-working industrial waterfront is brought to heel-an actual enactment of the grim process that the Guggenheim makes a point of capitalising on.

The capitlisation Friedman mentions is the transformation of Bilbao from living city to an architectural destination. In other words the city acquires a signature building in order to stimulate a city’s makeover (Zeiger, 2005, p.9). The design of the museum is recognised as a drive for social and economic regeneration, from traditional forms, to, in this case, a spectacular one off statement that challenges architectural preconceptions and creates a visual feast while maintaining the integrity of the site. Why have contemporary museums become a favorite tool of urban regeneration and redevelopment schemes since the Bilbao Guggenheim? Referred to as the “miracle,” (Guasch and Zulaika, 2005, p. 7) Frank Gehry’s Bilbao Guggenheim changed the face of the Bilbao city, and set up to give a new purpose to an abandoned industrial estate. “Since the Guggenheim was built, Bilbao has never been the same again – the museum has helped create pedestrianised areas that run from the town hall to the port on the shores of the river.” (Chulvi, 2007) The answer is that museums allow an opportunity for growth in unique architectural forms in all of its diversity and inclusivity.






The Jewish War Museum’s design is so powerful that it can be considered as an artifact in its own right. Even as it was unveiled in 1999 with nothing in it, the building was said to evoke a sense of loss and dislocation inflicted on Europe’s Jewish population the Holocaust in World War II (Barreneche, 2006, p.121). Through the building’s brief and urban site, Libeskind’s Jewish Museum echoes the history of Berlin creating an emotional effect on the visitor.


Cultural identity is something people have, and a form of traditional inheritance that is shared, something that needs to be protected and preserved. In contemporary society, globalisation has been portrayed sweeping through diverse cultures, and bringing a homogenized cultural experience (Tomlinson, 2003, p. 270). However, one can argue that globalisation, instead of destroying, has become a force in creating and developing cultural identity, allowing the idea of identity to change into a more collective entity. In terms of how this relates to the Jewish Museum, the building is not just seen as a response to some traditions, it is also open to new ones, a link to the past and the future (see 2.1). The mission of the Jewish Museum, and for all new museums, is not just for the city themselves but for the wider public, in which it becomes a communal existence. Around the globe, in every corner, new museums have appeared, coming in every shape and size, appealing to various preferences (Barreneche, 2005, p. 6). As Victoria Newhouse notes (see Barreneche, 2005, p.6), “One intriguing aspect of the current proliferation of museums is the ‘museumfication’ of seemingly every phenomenon”. The Jewish Museum is an example of this, and one could assume that through the guidance of globalisation, there are Jewish Museums in cities from New York to Sydney stemming from Libeskind’s prominent Berlin museum. (Barreneche, 2005, p. 6).


Culture is cumulative and changing by additions of successive generations, reinterpreted from one individual or group to another. The designed environments of contemporary museums create a setting and representation of particular cultural identities. Daniel Libeskind’s Jewish War Museum in Berlin encompasses these attributes, it is a building that engrains Jewish history. The design is based on a process of connecting lines between the locations of historic events and the locations of Jewish culture in Berlin. This is evident from the building’s plan with the zigzag footprint, symbolically derived from a fragmented Star of David (Barreneche, 2006, p.121). (see 2.2) The architect has created metaphors for the absence of Jewish communities in Berlin where the lines slices the plan (Barreneche, 2005, p. 121). The concepts of absence, emptiness and the invisible express the disappearance of Jewish culture in the city. Libeskind proves there is a powerful faith in the ability of people to learn

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