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In Defense of the Small Museum

the "new" Kimbell as seen from the "old" Kimbell

the "new" Kimbell as seen from the "old" Kimbell

As I mentioned in a post a few weeks ago, I grew up about fifteen minutes from the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth. Growing up in the shadow of that building certainly played a part in my decision to become an architect. It's certainly one of Kahn's best works and arguably one of the best pieces of architecture in the state. I am not alone in this belief.

That said, one of the things that was rarely talked about when praise is heaped onto the Kimbell is how perfectly scaled the museum was. Now when I talk about scale I'm not talking about the scale of the architecture - I'm talking about the museum itself. With a single large, a single medium and single small gallery, whatever was on display could be comfortably taken in over the course of a casual morning or an afternoon. This is in stark contrast to a place like the Dallas Museum of Art or MoMA whose vast exhibition spaces are so extensive that it is all but impossible to "see everything". I always leave that type of museum frustrated that I didn't see everything and tired for having tried. That was never the case at the Kimbell. I always left reinvigorated and happy. I always left inspired by the art I had seen.

Of course, I'm using the past tense when referring to the Kimbell because they expanded the museum so that now it is much larger than it was. In 2013 a separate structure designed by the Renzo Piano Building Workshop was opened on what had been an open lawn facing the original building. The new building was perfectly respectable (as most Piano buildings are) and although the loss of the lawn was unfortunate, it wasn't so noticeable from within the original building itself (see the image above).

What was noticeable was that the size of the museum had more than doubled. Now there are multiple galleries spread across two buildings. It's still nothing like The Met in terms of its vast scale but it is also no longer intimate like the Kimbell used to be.

There are economic realities that force museums like the Kimbell to expand. They are similar to the forces that cause Walmarts to get bigger, SUVS to grow larger and portions at restaurants to become obscene. Smaller museums are apparently much more difficult operate - one of my favorite small museums in Chicago, the Terra Museum, was forced to close in 2004.

And so even though I can understand the logic of the ever-expanding a museum, I can still be nostalgic for the small museum.