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What does a modern museum look like?

Major institutions need to reassess their place in the global hierarchy

An Emirati visitor at a presentation of the permanent collection thus far of Abu Dhabi’s planned Louvre Museum on Saddiyat Island. Photo: Topshots/AFP Photo/Karim Sahib

A short history of the international perspectives of Western museums might run something like this:

Chapter One. Through much of their past, museums of wealthy nations looked to the world as a treasure chest of exotic and beautiful objects. They gathered collections feverishly, motivated by everything from Enlightenment curiosity to the temptation of easy plunder. Over time, the stories museums told became more complete and organised. But in art as elsewhere, history was written by the winners. It was, by and large, a one-way street.

Chapter Two. The late 20th century: museum culture spread its wings around the world. It was part of an awakening that saw the fortunes of “the West” now firmly tethered to “the rest”. The proliferating craze for contemporary art was a catalyst, promising membership in a club that seemingly transcended regional boundaries. This was the age of satellite thinking: the projection of Western museum know-how to distant shores. It ushered in a raft of big shiny buildings, along with chatter about institutional brands. But it still wasn’t really a two-way ­conversation. What were intended as sturdy bridges to other cultures were viewed by some as emblems of homogenisation. Critics from James Elkins and Hans Belting to Kwame Anthony Appiah have published a drumbeat of reappraisals about art’s internationalisation since the end of the Cold War.

Chapter Three. Recently, we appear to be heading into a new phase, one more mature and wiser to the lessons of the past. The buzzwords of the day are reciprocity, humility and sensitivity. Initiatives are unfolding closer to the ground—less glamorous and more research-based. Museums are making room for multiple interpretations and opening up their prized internal functions. They’re inviting foreign-born ­curators to mount exhibitions from the perspective of previously marginalised viewpoints, broadening the scope of their collecting mandates and seeking the input of overseas colleagues and local community representatives alike in how to connect with the world on a more equal footing (see sidebar, p10).

Putting this slower, deeper, more considerate engagement into practice, however, is not easy. Museums are used to broadcasting their own authority, not absorbing different points of view. Nonetheless, the search is on for more balanced and collaborative models. It’s the difference between an organ transplant and genetic surgery. Call it Global Engagement 3.0.

This latest shift forms the backdrop for an Art Basel Conversation that I will moderate this morning with four veterans of cross-cultural dialogue: Patrick Charpenel, the director of the Fundación Jumex, Mexico City; Chris Dercon, the director of Tate Modern, ­London; Chus Martinez, the chief curator at El Museo del Barrio, New York; and Alexandra Munroe, the curator of Asian art at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York. Full disclosure: I have skin in the game, too, as the ­moderator of a new international initiative at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Global Museum Leaders Colloquium.

Embracing the world

For museums, especially large ones, embracing the world has become a priority. Part of it is math: more and more visitors, and a lion’s share of the digital audience, now hail from abroad. Prominent institutions are turning into hubs of global culture. In large polyglot capital cities, both international and local visitors come from a stunning variety of backgrounds. What does a “national” or a “metropolitan” museum mean, anyway, in the midst of such ­kaleidoscopic diversity?

The questions turn stickier once you get to the substance of exhibitions work. Curators are tasked with unspooling art-­historical narratives that are still freighted with Eurocentric overtones. In the contemporary sphere, where consensus about artists is unsettled and commercial interests can muddy the waters, the need for more inclusive and polyphonic interpretation, supported by sound scholarship, is all the more urgent. New voices are needed to de-centre the discourse and loosen the conventions of visual display.

“We are starting to come up with humble, thus realistic, ideas to establish a dialogue, which is very important,” says Chris Dercon. “But we really have to think together about this new globalism and start to establish a worldwide network of knowledge—otherwise it won’t mean anything.”

Art institutions in less prosperous parts of the world likewise grapple with the contradictions of globalisation. The arrival of visiting delegations of Western collectors and museums amounts to a welcome infusion of interest and validation. But it can stir up fragile local cultural ecologies. As Jumex’s Patrick Charpenel stated in Art in America: “We tune into Western culture and at the same time we’ve accepted its rules. But there is a sense of marginality, mainly in relation to Europe.” For Charpenel, the challenge is managing a “global and local dialectic” that aligns both with local needs and the international economy.

Of course, there is no magic-­bullet solution to global engagement. “Each museum has its own context and curatorial identity, defined by its collection, history, and location,” says the Guggenheim’s Alexandra Munroe. “The approaches will and should be different for encyclopaedic museums, for region-specific ­institutions or museums within Asia, the Middle East, and elsewhere, and for Modern art museums in the West exploring a new internationalism.”

Changing routines

To feel their way toward a new relationship with the world, ­museums have to address three related questions.

How to engage new audiences? Exhibiting institutions often find it hard enough to reach out to communities in their own backyards. How then can they make themselves accessible to overseas audiences? Multilingual websites and gallery didactics are only a start. Will museums rethink cafeteria menus? Hire more culturally sensitive staff? As for giving the global audience a voice in the programming direction of museums, that sort of inclusivity is elusive even on the domestic front.

How to restructure internal operations? As with digital technology, museums are tackling the new environment with collections, curatorial departments and administrative units that were designed for yesteryear. Jobs and positions do not reflect the diversity and fluidity of contemporary life. The roles of researcher, curator and director are ripe for adjustment. New functions may appear. How about a chief global officer?

How to learn from others?

Collaboration lies at the heart of Global Engagement 3.0. But forging alliances between large, rich museums and their often under-resourced international counterparts can be tricky. New intermediaries and connection points are required. Museums could also do well to reach beyond the limits of their expertise. “The visual-art sector needs to listen to colleagues in other ­disciplines: literature, art and crafts, fashion,” Dercon says. “We need to reorganise.”

In the end, what’s at stake in this current era of globalisation is who gets to tell the story of art. In our shrinking, flatter world, the answer to that dilemma has turned complicated in ways that are at once liberating and perplexing. Today’s generation of curators and museum directors have the privilege and the tough slog ahead to navigate through this maze. Along the way, they may reframe our fundamental assumptions about museums.

As Martinez puts it: “Every time we invoke the possibility of new working models, we too often think of something emerging from scratch. However, a radical new proposal may lie in thinking differently about institutions that already exist.”

Conversation: Public/Private—Museums Go Global, today at 10am in the Hall C auditorium

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