Encapsulated Vision: Relocating the Barnes Foundation Collection

With the design of a new building for the Barnes Foundation, this studio will explore the relations between the virtual and actual architectures of collecting and display, developing strategies to interpret the encapsulated and idiosyncratic visual legacy of the renowned Barnes Foundation collection of artworks – one of the world\’s finest collections of Impressionist, Post-impressionist and early modern art. An actual project, the new Barnes foundation will be located on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway in downtown Philadelphia.Spatial ApparatusA collection\’s conceptual organization forms a spatial apparatus that underpins the affiliation of collected artifacts, most often distinct from the actual arrangement of objects in space. What Jean Baudrillard termed a \”system of objects,\” a reverberant, mutable framework drawn from the act of classification, is not usually explicitly visualized within a collection, remaining a virtual entity rather than an actual construction. This has not always been so — the historical precursors to the museum, for example, the Ark or the Wunderkammer (Cabinet of Curiosity), were simultaneously conceptual, spatial and architectural armatures for the collections they contained. Today however, it is not possible to recover the inherent spatiality involved in the collection and classification of artifacts within a comprehensive architectural form. The viewing sequence within the museum has often been recast as a self-contained attraction in itself, or conversely, sublimated to such a degree that it has been denuded of architectural character altogether. More important, the prolific expansion of programs, audiences and exhibition venues for contemporary museums, as well as profound shifts in what constitutes artistic practice and its modes of reception, have eclipsed the historic attempts from previous centuries such as those of Charles Wilson Peale or Patrick Geddes, to calibrate architectural form, spatial configuration, and a specific array of artifacts that comprise a collection into a singular architectural work. Yet, in a less potent form, the segregation of artworks by artistic genres and historical periods into discrete precincts within the museum persisted, even as the character of exhibition spaces was neutralized. Earlier in the 20th century, architects such as Carlo Scarpa, Franco Albini, or Lina Bo Bardi, in strategies that are worth reexamination today, worked directly with the visual rhetoric of display apparatuses as a means to catalytically charge both exhibited artworks and architectural space, achieving both an expression of universal space and a syntactical arrangement of artifacts. Encapsulated VisionThus, it is an anachronism to encounter a new project for a major art collection where there is not only a desire, but in fact, a mandate to retain a form of correspondence between a series of architectural spaces – however this may ultimately be interpreted architecturally – and the collected artworks and artifacts themselves. Yet this is precisely the case regarding the remarkable collection of Albert C. Barnes, currently housed at the Barnes Foundation in Merion, Pennsylvania, a suburb of Philadelphia.To explain this curious circumstance, wherein vision has been made into an artifact in its own right – architecturally encapsulated in both a spatial and a historical sense — more must be said about the figure of Dr. Albert C. Barnes, the collector, educator and persona whose vision, over 50 years after his death, has been precisely retained. Albert C. Barnes and the Barnes FoundationAlbert C. Barnes (1872-1951) was trained as a medical doctor and later, became a chemist who made his fortune from an antiseptic silver compound called Argryol. By midlife, he had become one of the world\’s foremost collectors of Impressionist, Post-Impressionist and early Modern paintings. The Barnes Foundation, fou