• Table of Contents
  • Introduction
  • Chapter One
    The Louvre; An Absence
  • Chapter Two
    The Endless Museum; A House of Dreams
  • Chapter Three
    Beneath the Museum, the Street
  • Chapter Four
    The Totalmuseum; Exhibitions/Experiments
  • Chapter Five
    This is a not a Museum
  • Chapter Six
    From Soane to Soane
  • Chapter Seven
    The Mausoleum; Where Death Ends
  • Chapter Eight
    Carlo Scarpa; The Empty Labyrinth
  • Chapter Nine
    The Spiral in Ruins
  • Chapter Ten
    After the Wall: Studio Libeskind
  • Chapter Eleven
    Los Angeles; The Hidden Museum
  • Chapter Twelve
    Las Vegas; The Past Sure is Tense
  • Bibliography

The Delirious Museum

A Journey from the Louvre to Las Vegas


Museums should be invisible. I like art works and institutions that escape any physical presence. Things you can carry in your mind or in your pockets. It’s not a matter of laziness or frustration: maybe it’s a form of asceticism. With an imaginary museum you can do whatever you want, you can think about it before falling asleep, or you can go out in the morning and build it from scratch. And if it doesn’t work, there is nothing to be ashamed of. You can always say that it was simply an exercise in loss. In the end, I just think there is a certain strength in being invisible.

– Maurizio Cattelan1

The title of this work has two sources. One source is an essay called The Delirious Museum by David Mellor, an introduction to a book of photographs.2 Mellor discusses the photographs in the context of two texts. The first of these is by Jacques Derrida and deals with the way in which the ‘frame’ insinuates itself into the view of the object. The second text discussed by Mellor is Theodor Adorno’s The Valéry-Proust Museum which examines how the spectator is drawn into an intimate relationship with the displayed object through the paraphernalia of the immediate museum environment.

The second source for the title is Delirious New York by Rem Koolhaas. This is described by the author as a ‘retroactive manifesto for Manhattan.’3 Koolhaas’ book could also be seen as a selective, maverick history of New York. This book predates Koolhaas’ involvement with museum architecture and is a paean of praise to the urban condition exemplified by the ‘Downtown Athletic Club’ with its fictional representation of naked ‘metropolitan bachelors’ eating oysters in boxing gloves.

I first began to unearth the Delirious Museum in a conversation with colleagues some years ago. We were discussing the pros and cons of museum admission charges. This is a discussion that for peculiar political and historical reasons might only occur in Britain. I am in favour of free admission to museums and I was then. (At the time there was a split between museums in London over this issue. The British Museum, the National Gallery and the National Portrait Gallery all had free entry. The ‘South Kensington’ museums: the V & A, the Science Museum and the Natural History Museum, all charged for entry.) I defended my position by saying that ‘museums should be a continuation of the street.’ I did not mean that they should have to compete with the street in terms of their speed of communication or that they should appeal to passers-by in the same way as, say, a shop or a games arcade. Instead I was suggesting that there should be ease of access to both building and collection which in effect integrates them into the life of the city.

This premise has led me to look in more detail at the relationship between museum and city. In some ways any city is a Delirious Museum: a place overlaid with levels of history, a multiplicity of situations, events and objects open to countless interpretations.4 If there was a single starting point for this train of thought it would be Christopher Alexander’s essay from the 1960s A City is Not a Tree, in which he describes the city as a ‘semilattice’ of interconnections and overlaps. The Delirious Museum that I will examine has continuity with the street and it aspires to the condition of the city. What I want to do is to reclaim the museum on behalf of the city and vice versa. By shifting the perception of the collection and the container (for want of a better word, the ‘architecture’), it is possible to re-evaluate the relationship between museum and city in terms of shared experience.

Most cities have evolved over a long period of time and they have often done so with very little control. The museum, however, is traditionally associated with order and classification. ‘Neutral’ taxonomic systems have been used as a means of ‘clarification’ and education. Often this neutrality has meant limiting, either by accident or by design, the possible interpretations of the museum. I argue that it is possible to subvert this position.

All museums carry within them the seed of their own delirium. To a greater or lesser degree they can be re-interpreted in terms of the breakdown of control and classification. This can happen in a number of ways: an obsessive level of control can be self-subverting, while its opposite, a state of chaos, can up-end perceived notions of the museum. Messiness, category confusion, theatricality, elaborate historical layering and museological fictionalizing can, singly or in combination, go towards creating the Delirious Museum. It is as if some of the museums I describe are about to loose their grip on their contents and themselves. When asked by the curators of the Palais de Tokyo the question ‘What do you expect from an art institution in the 21st century’ one participant said ‘Cheap, fast and out of control’.5 This description applies equally to the Delirious Museum and to the delirious city.

In Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture, Robert Venturi wrote:

I am for messy vitality over obvious unity. I include the non-sequitur and proclaim the duality. I am for richness of meaning rather than clarity of meaning; for the implicit function as well as the explicit function. I prefer “both-and” to “either-or”, black and white, and sometimes gray, to black or white.6

The Delirious Museum does not replace the museums that we know; it exists in parallel to the museum as it has evolved. It brings a new level of ‘messy vitality’ and ‘richness of meaning’ to the museum.

I confess to an anxiety that the Delirious Museum cannot be made; that it can only be brought into existence retroactively and it is, in effect, a construction of nostalgia. Perhaps it is the re-realization of the museum that transforms it, that makes it delirious. Acknowledging this, I have tried to prove that the Delirious Museum can be designed and constructed. So my study moves from ‘history’ to contemporary architecture and back again. My own background is as an architect who designs exhibitions. I have worked in a number of the museums discussed, most notably the British Museum7, so many of the observations made are based on an intimate knowledge of particular places. In creating exhibitions I have been aware of the way these ephemeral events pass into the history of a place. I see the exhibitions I have designed as experiments where unpredictable ingredients are combined. Sometimes the result is quiet resolution and sometimes the consequences of the combination are explosive. By extension these experiments are part of the life of the city too.

What is the Delirious Museum of the title? It is something both built and unbuilt. It inheres in certain buildings and museums, in some artworks, and some unplanned city spaces. The Delirious Museum is nebulous and slippery. It is a parasitical idea found in the fabric of cities, in urban practices and fragments, that is, in space. But you also find it in narratives, both in and out of time – in fictional fragments, in historical anecdote and near forgotten detail.

This book weaves together myths, histories and buildings. It tracks the Delirious Museum first as an idea that is embodied in several forms – chapters that are, respectively, a story, a theory, a laboratory, a collection and a walk. The idea of the Delirious Museum is ‘grown’ in the first six chapters, like a culture in a lab. In the Petrie dish in the lab it looks very different from how it will appear later in the book, out there in the world, in the built environment. In the lab the microscope takes the familiar and magnifies it into the strange and mysterious.

Yet once it does move out into the world, it is no less strange and mysterious, merely differently so. Subsequent chapters look at the Delirious Museum as architecture, not as a finished ‘thing’ but as a new mutation. Escaped from the lab, it settles into its new host, the built form. There it mutates into several forms, all of which can go unnoticed – but, equally, can be perceived by the naked eye if you know where, or rather, how, to look. You need a different way of looking to access London of the 1800s, Paris of the 1840s, Las Vegas of the 1990s, and to tie these in to certain European artistic and architectural projects of the 20th and 21st centuries. You need historical knowledge and visual and conceptual acuity to see what is already there but that goes unnoticed, incognito, as if in a parallel universe.

All the forms that constitute the Delirious Museum also determine the form of the book. It is neither pure architectural analysis, nor urbanism, nor history nor literature alone; instead it weaves these forms together. Perhaps the book itself is a Delirious Museum mimicking what it describes, for it is, among other things, a repository of anecdotes and arcane facts. It is my collection.

If the Delirious Museum is first and foremost an idea, the second half of the book pursues the Delirious Museum from urbanism, image and idea into architecture. Key practitioners include Soane, Scarpa and Libeskind. But the idea escapes again, makes its own way, and scuttles into the New World of the late 20th century – the rampant capitalism of Las Vegas via the global art brands of Guggenheim and Getty. This is not so different from the origins of the Delirious Museum in other moments and places of rapidly expanding consumer culture: Soane’s London during the industrial revolution and mid-19th century Paris.

The book suggests a historical moment in the development of capitalism and its offshoots after the Enlightenment as a conceptual framework for the context in which the Delirious Museum can lodge itself and grow in its various mutations – image, idea, architectural form, historical fragment, cemetery, department store, fiction, motel, museum, film or artwork. The Delirious Museum makes its way into the cracks and crevices of many aspects of commodity culture; there it lodges and grows in all its forms, in a parallel life but still dependant upon its ‘host’.

The chapters are numbered in a conventional way but they can also be read as one might visit the rooms in a museum, visiting different collections of interest, doubling back, taking the shortest route or heading straight for a particular exhibit or the cafe. (Though I do not know which chapter that might be.) I begin with a convulsive moment for modernism, one of the events that make up the history of the Delirious Museum. In Chapters Two and Three I develop the ideas created in the preceding narrative in terms of a theoretical background.

This is, in effect, my own ‘manifesto’ for the Delirious Museum and it will draw on a series of modernist views of the city: the flâneur, as identified by Baudelaire and theorized by Benjamin, surrealism and the Situationists. Chapter Four describes the ephemeral experiments of the early history of the Delirious Museum. Chapter Five is a description of an imaginary museum devoted to the work of artists who worked or are working with the idea of the museum. Chapter Six constructs, from existing fragments of a real city – London - an unstable and restless version of the Delirious Museum. Chapter Seven expands on the peculiarly inter-dependant relationship between the mausoleum and the museum, between the deathly and the displayed. Chapter Eight deals with the particular delirium induced by obsessive architectural (and curatorial) control as exhibited in the work of Carlo Scarpa. The following chapter takes a broader view of the architecture of the museum in the 20th century. Chapter Ten is an examination of the work and ideas of Daniel Libeskind. Chapter Eleven represents a geographical and historical shift to a relatively new city on the ‘Pacific Rim’, Los Angeles, and concentrates on two museums that exemplify separate museological tendencies. The first of these is the acropolis that is Richard Meier’s Getty Center. In contrast, the second, the Museum of Jurassic Technology, almost disappears behind a Culver City shopfront. The final chapter tentatively suggests a re-reading of the fantastic urbanism of Las Vegas in terms of the Delirious Museum; a place containing both ‘spectacle’ and ‘situation’ and where the museum exists alongside the museum’s antithesis.


Click Footnote number to return to text.

1Palais de Tokyo, What Do You Expect from an Art Institution in the 21st Century? (Paris: Palais de Tokyo, 2001), p. 51.

2In Ross, Richard, Museology (Santa Barbara: Aperture, 1989). At a discussion at the Photographer’s Gallery in London David Mellor said he had no objection to my re-use of his phrase.

3Koolhaas, Rem, Delirious New York: A Retroactive Manifesto for Manhattan (London: Thames and Hudson, 1978), p 6.

4Reprinted in Zone I & II (New York: Urzone Inc., no publication date.

5Kurimanzutto, in Palais de Tokyo, What Do You Expect from an Art Institution in the 21st Century? (Paris: Palais de Tokyo, 2001), p 68.

6Venturi, Robert, Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture (London: Architectural Press, 1977), p 16.

7The British Museum returns throughout this text in various disguises.