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Mikkel Bogh blogger | 4.jul.2017

What is the role of the museum in a world on fire?

“What is the role of the museum in a world on fire?” was first published as a feature article in the Danish newspaper Berlingske on 21 June 2017.

In January 2017, immediately following the introduction of president Trump’s controversial Muslim Travel Ban, an executive order that denies entry to the USA for citizens from a number of Middle Eastern Countries, MoMA in New York replaced a number of their works by Matisse and Picasso with works by artists from the countries affected by the ban.

Several other museums followed their example, from New York to Seattle. Emphatically distancing themselves from a new political agenda that goes against the grain of the institutions’ ethical rules and global outlook, these museums have taken a firm stand on a matter that divides opinion – presumably among the museum’s visitors, too.

This example is merely one among many. These days, value-based and clearly biased statements increasingly find their way onto museum walls, exhibitions become (self) critical examinations, and museum directors post declarations of sympathy, political views and opinions on blogs and social media, thereby signalling that they head cultural heritage institutions that are actively engaged in present-day society and eager to discuss its issues.

In recent years it has become clear that the role played by museums in society is undergoing a change. Major museums that were previously regarded as institutions devoted to conserving our shared cultural heritage – and, hence, as politically neutral – are now increasingly acting as social commentators that address current issues, thereby inviting visitors to reflect on the matters and take a stand.

The question is whether these museums go too far. Are they more eager to gain attention and legitimacy than they are to contribute to the understanding of complex issues that cannot be reduced to brief political statements? Being publicly funded institutions, are they abusing the mandate and platform they have been given by the state and the citizens?

Compromising credibility
Many probably mainly associate museums with collections of works and artefacts for which they are responsible. The museum acts as a bulwark against oblivion, making our shared cultural heritage available to the general public – and to posterity.

To the extent that sufficient resources are available, museums also conduct research into their own collections. They continually add new knowledge about the genesis, history and impact of the various artefacts, often presented in the form of exhibitions, guided tours and events aimed at interested audiences. These firmly established museum responsibilities remain very much in force and are undergoing steady development – at the actual museum spaces and on various digital platforms.

However, several museums – including state-funded museums – have begun to expand their concept of what it means to be a social institution that holds responsibility for our shared cultural heritage. Simply being a community institution, as museums are, entails an obligation to shape and evolve our democratic culture and debate. However, this involves more than simply presenting one’s collection in an enlightened, serious and interesting manner; it also involves setting agendas, prompting discussions, presenting points of view, raising difficult questions, and challenging widespread readings and perceptions of the objects’ significance and value in the past and in our present day. When acting as an agent in society, the museum becomes a participant and partner in discussions, at times even an activist. But is this all to the good?

A museum runs the risk of compromising its credibility if it sends out heavy-handed and simplified political messages. A definite, clear-cut position can easily become firmly entrenched. We have no need of more entrenched positions in present-day debates. Museums can do and should do something that other agents in society cannot do in the same manner, allowing them to reach further than most.

Of course certain situations may require a museum to show civil disobedience and voice a definite political point of view, even if it causes fierce discussions on social media or enrages politicians. Even so, when museums wish to speak, create meaningful contexts, act proactively and set the agenda of public discussions, they will and should mainly do so by arranging, combining and presenting art and artefacts.

This is not a new thing in itself. Museums apply frameworks for interpretation in many ways – when they buy art, decide what to put on display and what to place in storage, when they describe the works in wall texts and catalogues, thereby giving them voice – and all this has a crucial impact on what we see and how we perceive and understand what we see.

Museums are institutions of knowledge
Museums have always – often without recognising this fact – manipulated their presentations and acted on the basis of specific opinions and values. Museums have never been apolitical, neutral institutions. Quite the contrary: since their emergence in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries they have aimed to educate and cultivate citizens in specific ways, to celebrate nations and their heroes, to display landscapes imbued with value, emotion and meaning, and to point out masterpieces, geniuses and artistic and cultural epochs of particular importance. None of these activities are neutral, even if they may have been presented as such by the museum authorities.

Today, these mechanisms are more frequently revealed to audiences, inviting them to contemplate the issues involved. When The Royal Danish Arsenal Museum presents an exhibition on The Distant War in Afghanistan, when the Royal Danish Library shows the exhibition Blind Spots and SMK presents What Lies Unspoken on the same subject, addressing Denmark’s colonial past in the Caribbean as seen through written, pictorial and artistic testaments, they all engage in presenting the results of their research – but these things are also open-ended questions and contributions to current discussions on subjects that such cultural institutions can help make visible, retain and add greater nuance to.

Museums are probably ill suited to comment on topical issues in the here and now. Museums move at a different speed. So too do the objects in them – and this in turn affects how they are perceived by audiences.

Museums are institutions of knowledge. They conduct research into their collections and make new insights and experiences available through exhibitions and other presentation activities. The art housed in art museums – whether historical or contemporary – is in itself full of meanings and narratives on which the museum can offer new perspectives. The works do not offer up everything they contain all at once. Their potential is unfolded over time. Even though our art and artefacts can and should prompt lively discussions, and even though the museum is neither a temple nor a mausoleum, but part of the public space, it is nevertheless a space for a different kind of dialogue, a different kind of reflection than the ones found in other media.

Art in museums, which sometimes carries several centuries’ worth of history, can be regarded as a link between the specific historical circumstances that produced them and our own present day. Always displaced from us in time, yet immediately present; aloof, yet open to our explorations; right before us in the here and now.

The museum space possesses a mixture of slowness and directness, of postponement and instant experience. This prompts reflection and allows sensory and intellectual experiences to mingle and challenge each other. The museum space also has a special openness: it allows the users’ voices, the stories of the works and objects told on their own terms, and the explanations offered by research to be heard simultaneously. Specific opinions and positions may be involved here, including the museum’s own beliefs and values, but none of these utterances must be allowed to drown out the others – the conversation must flow freely, openly and inquisitively.

Many museums feel called to engage in activism and social issues. And an increasing number do so – fortunately. But if they are to act in an extrovert, proactive manner and make their presence strongly felt in the here and now without neglecting the necessary slowness of museums, and without drowning out the indirect speech of art and artefacts, they must do so in a sensitive manner while fully understanding the complex dual role of museums: On the one hand, museums form an unobtrusive framework around an endless conservation between an unknown number of voices. On the other hand, museums curate – they select, challenge, ask questions, tell stories, offer new perspectives and carry out analyses. It is a difficult balancing act. Both aspects require courage. And both are inescapable necessities for any museum that wants to be relevant, engaging and of our time.

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