Amelia Hazen February 23, 2012



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Amelia Hazen

February 23, 2012

Museum Or Mausoleum?

Sarah Williams & Lara Evans



M. H. De Young Museum: The Cycle of Destruction And Rebirth

The M. H. De Young Museum’s history is intertwined with its architecture, and cannot be separated from the various physical incarnations the museum has undertaken. It emerged as a permanent museum and an image of San Francisco’s prosperity in the oasis of Golden Gate Park in 1895, evolving as a local and national landmark. It has been successively damaged, destroyed, and rebuilt, a theme echoing in its design; through its modernized construction, the museum is able to communicate its past perspectives to a new audience.

The museum first existed as California’s Midwinter Exposition, which initially opened on Jan. 2, 1894, from the involvement of Michael H. De Young, the then-publisher of the San Francisco Chronicle. De Young saw the fair, which was to be hosted in the city’s Golden Gate Park, as a vital opportunity that would pull San Francisco from its economic depression and secure its place on the cultural map of the United States. Hosted in a series of six pavilions, including one structure that would become the museum’s first permanent building, the fair successfully raised the city out of its economic depression, amassing a total profit of $129,991.6 With such a lucrative turnout, the Fine Arts Building of the Exposition’s original six pavilions was turned into a permanent structure and renamed the M. H. De Young Memorial Museum, in honor of the publisher. This move was initially met with public resistance, because many people in the city were loath to see the Golden Gate Park developed and interpreted the museum as the first move towards a completely urbanized park that otherwise existed as the city’s oasis.2 However, the museum was permitted to remain and reopened as the M. H. De Young Memorial Museum on March 24, 1895. This was the city’s premier art museum for over a decade, symbolizing San Francisco’s economic and cultural regeneration.6

Prestigious through it was, the De Young had not exhausted its share of resistance, or struggle. The 1906 earthquake in San Francisco pulled the city to its knees. A mass exodus of San Francisco’s previously thriving artistic community followed the city’s annihilation. Many of the artists had had houses or studios that had been destroyed in the fires or earthquake, and the number of artworks and collections lost extended well into the thousands. The work produced by San Francisco’s remaining artists during the city’s reconstruction, in the aftermath of its geographical and cultural devastation, is closely expressive of the need for community efforts in the rebuilding of the city. A work produced by Arthur Mathews, The Grape (The Wine Maker), was considered to be a “pictorial response to San Francisco’s battle with nature and itself” (Latimer, 104). Mathew’s painting, which hangs in the De Young that stands today, evokes the monumental struggles of the city and its recovery through the creative community and art. The young female wine maker depicted in Mathews’ painting holds grapes in her hand, crushing them into a basin at her feet that is slowly filling; Mathews’ vision for the city’s future is inherent in a collective effort for production, symbolized in this classical metaphor of making wine. Hanging in the De Young’s American Art wing, the painting is a subtle memorial to the Bay Area artists’ involvement in San Francisco’ evolution in the aftermath of the 1906 earthquake.

In 1915, the museum was rebuilt in a classic Spanish-Revival style, expanding to five more buildings to accommodate its growing collections. The general public of San Francisco also opposed these efforts at first, because of the same reason the century before: the new and larger museum was seen as an encroachment on the natural refuge of the Golden Gate Park. Through the coming decades, the De Young was still a national landmark, but functioned inadequately as a modern museum in various ways. The structure of the building, as proved by the Loma Prieta earthquake in 1989, was incapable of withstanding much more than moderate tremors.1 It also needed updates for controlling humidity and reinforced insulation. The traditional stucco that had once decorated the museum’s exterior had been stripped decades earlier, due to its deterioration and position as a health risk.7 The proposed renovations, however, if first interpreted as another revival of the historic museum, spelled its demolition after the cost was evaluated to spike well over $70 million.2

The seeds for the De Young that stands today were planted after the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake. Diane B. Wilsey, the chairwoman of the De Young’s board of trustees, sought to make the museum’s reconstruction eligible for public funding. Several relocations in the city were suggested, but the De Young’s trustees were in agreement that the museum should remain in the Golden Gate Park. Both goals for government funding in 1996 and 1998 failed, defeated mostly because of the board’s bid for a privately financed, underground parking garage, which would be attached the museum’s construction.4 It was after this second defeat that Wilsey decided to undertake an entirely private funding for the museum’s reconstruction. Through a series of benefits she raised $188 million for the museum’s proposed $202 million budget, allowing the initial amount to accumulate interest over the next few years before the museum started construction.2 With this entrepreneurial move into independent funding, Wilsey risked public support for her vision, but was able to handpick her architects, the Swiss firm of Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron, and have relative creative control in the design of the new building. The museum’s reconstruction, in a historical as well as present context, resonated as “an opportunity to frame…profoundly altered attitudes towards the relative position of various cultures in shaping a world history of art.” (Hirsch, 49)

Herzog & de Meuron had a responsibility to express the history of the museum in their plans for its reconstruction, which they coupled with their own designs for involving the museum with its surroundings. The architects’ execution of their vision reflects the many strata of the museum’s past, and echoes the historical themes of its destruction and rebirth. Echoing the geographical elements from which it emerged, the museum’s copper-plated roof, dubbed its “fifth façade”, gently slopes upwards, reminiscent of the sand dunes on which the Golden Gate Park was built, itself a man-made paradise.1 Several other elements of the museum’s design give reference to the institution’s natural history. The Andy Goldsworthy installation, commissioned especially for the courtyard prefacing the museum’s entrance, is a metaphor for San Francisco’s notorious and tragic seismic past. A consecutive crack, running from the esplanade through the width of the courtyard, intersects two of the seven large stones Goldsworthy installed, representative of both the city’s fracturing at the hands of natural disaster and its reemergence as a renewed cultural capital.1 The copper-plated walls of the museum were specifically engineered by the architects, who sought an exterior medium that would reflect the museum’s relationship to its surroundings as it aged. The nearly seven million separate copper sheets are punched with holes in varying sizes, modeled after a pixelated photograph of sunlight filtering through the leaves of trees in the Golden Gate Park. From a distance, these perforations create a visual oscillation between light and dark, like sun and shadow. Copper, as a material, will accumulate a black, brown, and green patina as it ages, echoing the trees’ color as well as their pattern.6

Herzog & de Meuron also incorporated the museum’s previous incarnations into its modern design: they included a tower and a courtyard, two traditional features of the Fine Arts Building of 1895 and the Spanish Revival construction in 1915. This design was meant to provide San Francisco’s public with a familiar museum that, despite opposition to its reconstruction, was loved and used for over a century. This desire is echoed in the physical spiraling of the tower, which is aligned at its base with the museum’s design, but twists to match the city’s grid as it rises.2

In addition to a pioneering appearance, the architects were able to model each interior gallery to the specific needs of each collection. Originally, their designs had incorporated five pavilions, reminiscent of the original six that comprised the original Midwinter Exposition in 1894. These were consolidated into three main wings that stretch the length of the museum and comprise nearly 84,000 square feet of gallery space.1, 2 The spaced afforded to each collection correlates with the architects’ vision for the rest of the building: the wings are emphasized by clean, geometric lines, often converging to a vanishing point that compels visitors forward. The exhibition rooms range from angular, organic, unconventional designs, like those showing the African and Oceanic exhibits, to rooms that are more rectangular, filled with natural light, and following more traditional progressions, like the American Art wing.1, 3

It is among the galleries that the architects and the museum often contradict each other. Herzog & de Meuron envisioned restrained, subtle constructs for the interior that incorporated fluid spaces and an abundance of natural light, as part of their vision to constantly incorporate the museum with nature. In the example of the Permanent African Gallery, light had to be restricted, because the curators knew it posed a danger to the preservation of the fragile collection. Primarily three-dimensional, the Permanent African Gallery also faced arrangement difficulties due to the convergence of walls in irregular, non-rectangular ways. Reconciling these differences in needs required a series of adaptations, proving that “exhibitions, whether temporary or permanent…are the result of compromises between what should be and what can be.” (Cameron, 101)



Today’s incarnation of the De Young is a product of modern struggles and understandings for how art should be housed, presented, and maintained. A large part of the museum’s history is involved in, and inseparable from, its architecture and construction. Through its present design, the museum presents the “experience” of history for its contemporary audiences, its various stages of design incorporated in its renovated interior galleries, its tower, and the many points where it intersects with the natural world. The history expressed in the architects’ most central goal for the museum—the inclusion of nature—predates any existing structure, perhaps to serve as a reminder that before any structure imposed narrative on the landscape, the museum’s primary origins are seen in the light filtering through trees.


Works Cited:


  1. Hirsch, Faye. "A New De Young." Art In America 94.1 (2006): 49-53. EBSCOhost. Web. 21 Feb. 2012.

  2. Amelar, Sarah. "De Young Museum." Architectural Record 193.11 (2005): 104-15. EBSCOhost. Web. 14 Feb. 2012.

  3. Cameron, Elizabeth L. "Permanent African Gallery." African Arts 42.1 (2009): 100-02. EBSCOhost. Web. 22 Feb. 2012.

  4. Glantz, Aaron. "Planning News." Planning 64.2 (1998). EBSCOhost. Web. 23 Feb. 2012.

  5. Latimer, Tizra T. "The Art Of Starting Over: San Francisco Artists and the Great Quake of 1906." American Art 20.1 (2006): 96-107. JSTOR. Web. 20 Feb. 2012.

  6. Lizundia, Bret, and Rich Niewiarowski. "Regenesis." Civil Engineering 76.9 (2006): 38-45, +99. EBSCOhost. Web. 8 Feb. 2012.

  7. "History of the De Young Museum." De Young Museum. Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco. Web. 24 Feb. 2012. .


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