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A Manifesto from "Making a Museum in the 21st Century"

Published on
May 27

 

The 20th century was an era of white cubes and treasure troves. The idea that a museum is a “guardian of the past” has shaped renowned institutions the world over. But does that idea still serve us now in an era of smartphones and institutional critique?

Just by looking around New York I can tell museums are engaged in new conversations about their place in society. However, it wasn’t until I read “Making a Museum in the 21st Century” that I was able to put my experiences in perspective. The interactive Pen at Cooper Hewitt, the website copy of the Gabriel Figueroa exhibit at El Museo del Barrio, the piece-specific architectural design of Dia: Beacon,  and the ticketed creative audio tour, Songlines, for the Bjork retrospective at MoMA are all products of this new line of thinking. This book is a stimulating introduction to what museum-makers are questioning as they shape the museums of the present. I know I engage better when I understand the terms so I would highly recommend this book if you want to get more out of your museum going experience.

 

“Making a Museum in the 21st Century” is a collection of transcripts from discussions at the Asia Society Arts & Museum Summit held in Hong Kong in 2013. The book features perspectives from eminent museum leaders, directors, and curators such as Glenn Lowry from MoMA and Caroline Collier from Tate alongside artists and architects like Hiroshi Sugimoto and David Adjaye. The catalyst for the summit was the enormous growth in museums projected in Asia over the next decade. According to Wang Chunchen, the head of curatorial research at CAFA in Beijing, China alone is building 100 new museums each year. This growth is a tremendous opportunity to reflect on the role of the museum and reimagine what a museum can be. Both new and old institutions are facing a need to evolve with the times and this book recorded an exciting exchange of strategies.

 

It took a lot of reading, rereading, annotating, and time for the knowledge to settle but I feel this is an accurate composite manifesto that reflects the ideals of the varied voices in this book. These are some of the qualities of a museum of the 21st century:

 

- The museum is a public platform for its community and a "catalyst for creativity."

-The visitors are educated in school and through the museum about art in order to better appreciate their experience of the works.

-The visitors are treated as participants and engaged in interactive experiences that can only be experienced live; they would have a stake in the museum and there would be no separation between the museum and its audience.

-The museum has an independent and complementary web presence that serves as a resource for the world and has its own programming.

-Exhibits use technology like iPads or apps to give the audience more information so they could dive into the pieces as deeply as they would like.

-The museum building is designed in a way that conditions the experience to be interactive, it would serve and frame the work in a way that enhances their interpretation, and it contains insights into understanding the values of the museum in its design.

-The museum is organized around what visitors are interested in, aid their navigation based on their knowledge, and facilitate their personal curation of what they encounter.

-The museum calls into question classical narratives audiences have been given about history, especially world history, and better contextualize the art from different cultures.

-Museums have a way to make their extensive archival collections accessible to the public instead of locking away in storage all the art they collect but will never have room to show. This solution could be anything from multiple museum buildings in cities around the world to repatriation, to a lending network.

-Curation is the big draw of museums, not what pieces they own. They juxtapose seemingly unrelated things to encourage new connections; artifacts would be treated as “dialogical prototypes that would be a trigger for future concepts and mediation.”

-Museums  “build in their own disruption” and have a sense of humor.

-Museums create public spaces that benefit the community and would outlast the museum itself.

-Special meditative museums exist apart from urban centers that create otherworldly art encounters either as eco-museums, or piece-specific or artist-specific realms.

-A museum would not erase the labor that goes into making museums.

 

The leaders at the summit all spoke about a grand vision for the museum’s place in society. They envisioned a museum as a public platform, “a catalyst for the city,” “crucial to creativity,” “a place to learn about the present with other people.” Yet they are very aware of the obstacles. For museums to be seen as legitimate and engaging spaces of debate, art education is essential yet woefully lacking. The curatorial fluidity possible in new institutions to reorganize knowledge or the innovations older institutions integrate are valuable but ultimately fall flat without audience engagement. Advances in technology can be used to dynamize exhibits and address the problems with art education. As renowned architect David Adjaye said, it’s unfair to expect an audience to gain meaning just by looking at an object when art historians spend their lives studying to understand it. He lauded the use of on-hand screens or downloadable apps to access more information about an object at a museum. In some ways, the inherited structures and categories seemed to be the biggest challenge for historical institutions seeking to become relevant in the 21st century because they have literal walls built in to organize knowledge the way it was seen in the past. Janet Carding, director of the Royal Ontario Museum, shared her vision to organize her encyclopedic museum around what the audience is interested in. Her view is that the museum’s role is as a facilitator: the museum is there for the visitor to find their own way through and make their own connections. The museum is “made unfinished” and the curation is fulfilled as the visitors make their own connections that are relevant to their circles.

 

“Making a Museum in the 21st Century” is only available for purchase at the Asia Society Store online or in person in its Manhattan address. Columbia libraries are currently processing a copy. It says something that when I did a search for “21st century” and “museums”, this was the only book with such breadth on the topic in the library directory. A google search wasn’t any more fruitful. These conversations about museums don’t make it far outside art world circles and it is such a delight to have a comprehensive introduction for a regular museum-goer to engage in the conversation.