INFORMING PUBLICS: Museums, Mass Media, Informatics (1964 – 1977)

By David Sadighian

This thesis examines museum architecture, curatorial practice, and information design over a two decade span in Cold War-era America: a time when the public cultural institution was recast by shifting contours of the public sphere. Positioned against the historical backdrop of a population explosion and an emergent mass culture, this research unpacks the political, economic, and socio aesthetic strategies behind efforts to “democratize” the museum by ingratiating a populist audience— transforming the museum into an enterprise of mass entertainment. Yet, as my research will show, despite the seeming neutrality of these objectives to popularize the museum, its subsequent transformations were socially fraught, striking a nerve with the ‘60s culture wars by eliding the museum’s public mission statement with privately motivated interests. Indeed, this period witnessed the reconfiguration of the museum as not only a treasury of art objects, but also a source of community identity and hence a socio-political imperative for architects, urban planners, and civic government alike—while also an unspoiled frontier for capitalization.

I will argue that while the contemporary museum as we know it today has, to a certain degree, realized the 1960s critical model of availability and participatory politics, it did so at a cost—having transformed into a decentralized state, whose scale and magnitude eclipsed the modes of dissent envisioned by late-1960s protesters and social firebrands like the Art Workers Coalition (1969-71). Just as the great museum collections of Europe were amassed from the spoils of conquest and the campaigns of empires, the postwar museum, too, would silently flex the powers structures of postwar America—reflexively extending outward and folding inward its dynamic networks of urbanism, mass media, global and domestic markets, and the technological systems of a postindustrial economy. These evolving infrastructures are inseparable from the architectural and curatorial paradigms of the postwar museum, no longer conceived as an inert hoard but rather a site of active knowledge production and aesthetic distribution reliant on these networks for its proliferation and profitability.

In undertaking this research my primary source of investigation is the Metropolitan Museum of Art under the directorship (1967-77) of Thomas P.F. Hoving, who catalyzed the acquisition of several massive collections by corporate donors while overseeing the museum’s “Comprehensive Architectural Plan for the Second Century” (1967-present): a leviathan master plan by architects Kevin Roche John Dinkeloo Associates (KRJDA) to double to museum’s square footage and reorganize its collections through new design paradigms and organizational schemata. While not exclusively a history of the Met, this research positions the museum under Hoving as the core protagonist in an institutional ecology of architects, curators, exhibitions, industries, and emerging technologies—revealing the valences that shaped how the museum (and its expanding set of spatial practices) yielded powerful new forms of agency.