El Museo Soumaya: It’s just as confused as I am

by Leslie Moody Castro June 21, 2012

Museo Soumaya in Mexico City

I always find it curious when art institutions decide to go into ambitious building programs.  Typically the reasoning is the same: to offer a space in which the public is invited to enjoy the works of art in the collection, or the exhibitions produced specifically for the space.  Either way, it always seems as though these expanding institutions are operating with the visitor, and the visitor experience at the forefront of their expansion projects.  Fast forward a few years after multiple fundraising campaigns, an exhausted staff, an overworked executive director, a new strategic plan, and a new public oriented mission, and you have a massive new structure for the experiencing and exhibiting of art.  Somewhere along the way, however, a disconnect occurred, and to use the example of Arthouse in Austin, this public/visitor centered space didn’t exactly turn out to be what it was intended, and as a result you end up with visitors confused about where the front door is, and instead walking into the glass façade.  Design features that create physical hazards aren’t exactly visitor friendly. (I witnessed many children run smack into the glass on multiple occasions during my tenure there.)

Detail of the exterior of the Soumaya building

When I visit a newly constructed museum I always think of these things.  With a shift occurring in the museum world to focus on being more visitor friendly, it’s dumbfounding to witness these constructions pop up that are really just the vision of a handful of people and don’t actually have the public in mind.  The excuse of building a new structure meant to house exhibitions of art for the public really just becomes a fundraising ruse.  How is it possible that an art institution is thinking about its public when it’s design is physically treacherous?

With these things in mind I went trekking to the Museo Soumaya in the Polanco neighborhood. The Soumaya is the museum built by Carlos Slim, the owner of all telecommunications in Mexico, and one of the richest men in the entire world.  The Soumaya was built to house his family’s personal collection, and was designed by Carlos Slim’s nephew Fernando Romero.  I think it would have been best if they had just kept it all in one of their homes.  It goes without saying that this visit was also premeditated given my recent posts about Mexic-Arte Museum and its pending building project (here and here).  However, once I was at the Soumaya, the logistical and institutional fears of Mexic-Arte’s building project gave way to a whole other set of concerns which highlighted the clear disconnect between the architect, the museum, and the general public, which then opened the door for an even greater fear as Mexic-Arte proceeds into its period of expansion.  Will this disconnect happen again in Austin?

Atrium of the Soumaya museum.

Honestly, the Soumaya building itself is impressive.  It feels reptilian.  It scales up into the sky, reflecting its surrounding skyline.  The front door was easy to find with the obvious positioning of a massive stairway from the sidewalk right up to the door.  But once I walked in everything else was maddening and the obstacles just kept stacking up.  The small doorway opened up into a cavernous, pristinely white atrium at least three times the size of the Blanton which had two randomly placed casts: Rodin’s The Thinker, and a copy of the Laocoön Group.  Meanwhile my eyes took a number of minutes to adjust because the fluorescent lighting that ran the perimeter of the ceiling mixed with the generic office lighting in the center of the ceiling was bouncing off the white walls, and the white marble floors.  The result was like some strange snow-blindness, I had to stop and resist gravity for just a second.

Partial view of the grand staircase of the Soumaya with Michelangelo's Pieta situated in a break in the stairs

From the atrium the visitor is expected to see the grand staircase on the left side and proceed up (or find the elevator, good luck).  Normally this wouldn’t be an issue considering a grand staircase is fairly self-explanatory.  However, the grand staircase is white, and each step blends in with the next.  Without anti-slip strips it’s hard to distinguish one step from the next, especially on the descent.  Simply put: it’s just plain dangerous.

This is what the descending the stairs looks like. It should be noted that the top grouping of steps did have grip tape

The galleries were even more frustrating.  Paintings were hung with their backs exposed, there seemed to be no rhyme or reason to the installation whatsoever (I turned a corner and found JESUS!), and at one point as I suddenly realized that I was walking up a ramp that came out of nowhere, and then took me to another level with another hodgepodge of stuff.  There were a handful of nice things amongst the silver spoon cases and strange landscapes, but overall everything was so crammed in the space, so badly lit with standard office lighting that the whole collection left me feeling like I had just walked into a rich person’s cabinet of curiosities.  Actually I think I would have appreciated a cabinet of curiosities much more.  To say that this visit was frustrating as a whole is an understatement.  I opted to take the stairs down…verrrrry slowly, gripping the handrail the entire way down, and 52 or so stairs later (it’s a GRAND staircase) as I went looking for the washroom I nearly walked into the men’s.  So, scratch the aforementioned thought: it was not a frustrating experience, it was an embarrassing one.

View of the Soumaya galleries

View of the Soumaya galleries


Installation view of a series of paintings. What you are seeing is the back of a painting on view.


With all the research that exists, and with all the resources the Soumaya has, what’s most frustrating is that there is no attempt to breach the gap between the architecture, the collection, and the public.  The building feels like it was just thrown up and kinda filled with stuff.  Even the gallery spaces are small and incredibly disappointing.  It feels like it would be best if the public actually stayed outside of the building and just stared at it for a few hours before going to the Costco next door.


Bulgari model of the Museo Soumaya plopped into one of the exhibitions. Show off.


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1 comment

Esteban Peralta June 25, 2012 - 11:03

There are two projects for art institutions in my hometown that are sort of book ends to your argument – both designed by rock star architects. One design is a failure and the other a qualified success.

Denver Art Museum, architect Daniel Libeskind = FAIL. I had a conversation with a pretty well known internationally known contemporary artist a few years back about how ridiculous the redesign on this was. She pointed out how the walls were impossible to hang work because the whole museum is like a Libeskind wet dream like all of his projects. He’s like a dog pissing on hydrants except the hydrants are gullible cities and the water is in the form of hundreds of millions of dollars.

The first time I visited the newly designed museum was a short time after its opening. There had been a heavy snowfall and the ceilings were leaking melted snow. Seriously.

Exemplifies the “disconnect” you talk about.


Museum of Contemporary Art, architect David Adjaye = AWESOME. Huge spaces and walls that are actually vertical and conducive to nice installations. Whole building is minimal, but nicely designed. I’ve been back numerous times to MOCA Denver and every installation has been clean and well-executed.

The major difference between the two is that one was designed with the idea of making some sort of mark. Libeskind was in the news a lot over the new WTC project. Presumably, officials at the Denver Art Museum felt they needed the star power.

MOCA was better in tune with the needs of the artists and chose an architect who already had an established and positive reputation in the contemporary art community based on his previous work.

If you want a pretty accurate predictor for success or failure of a project like this, look at what motivates it.


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