Boundary-fluid Museums & the Future

I think it’s fairly safe to say that 2016 is going to give historians plenty to talk about, for decades and possibly centuries to come. That is, of course, as long as we manage not to annihilate ourselves in the meantime. There is no reason to believe that this instability (to put it mildly) will stop as the clock strikes midnight on New Year’s Eve, but I will breathe a grateful sigh of relief when 2017 arrives. Predicting the future has always been a high stakes gamble, raised even higher when the world is in such a state of upheaval, but that doesn’t stop us from wanting to know or trying to find out. And while global politics seems to spin further out of control, there is still the business of daily life to be getting on with, including planning for the future of museums and how we get there.

The American Alliance of Museums (AAM) established the Center for the Future of Museums (CFM) in 2008 to ‘help museums shape a better tomorrow by exploring cultural, political and economic challenges’. The CFM annual publication, TrendsWatch, is available free to download from their website. It offers an inspiring and thought-provoking analysis of contemporary issues and innovations, reflecting on social context as well as how these trends could apply to museum programming and practice. TrendsWatch 2016 is the fifth edition and includes chapters on: Labor 3.0; the Spectrum of Ability; Virtual Reality & Augmented Reality; The Struggle over Representation & Identity; and Happiness. These themes are also relevant to the European context, although may manifest themselves in different ways. Unfortunately, we also have the impact of Brexit to consider, and the accompanying socio-political climate that enabled it.

Museums of today have come a long way from their origins in 17th century cabinets of curiosities. These private collections reflected the tastes and interests of wealthy individuals and were accessible only to friends and acquaintances. Things took an interesting turn when the masses were allowed to see these objects too. The British Museum, founded in 1753, was the first national public museum in the world, created from the collection of Sir Hans Sloane, who stated in his will that it was to be a gift for the nation. The Louvre Museum was formed when the royal collection and palace were transferred to the French State in 1793 as a result of the Revolution. The story of museums from here seems to be one of an ever-increasing emphasis on people.

Nineteenth century museums had an overtly educational and improving purpose. The National Gallery (London) was founded in 1824 with the House of Common’s acquisition of John Julius Angerstein’s painting collection, intended to be the core of a new national collection, “for the enjoyment and education of all”. British scientist, James Smithson, left his estate to the US to found “an institution for the increase and diffusion of knowledge”; the Smithsonian Institute (Washington DC) was formed in 1846, and is now the world’s largest museum and research complex. Henry Cole, first director of the South Kensington Museum (now known as the V&A), wanted his museum to be “a schoolroom for everyone”. It was the first museum to use gas lighting, allowing for evening opening hours so that working people could visit, and admission was free to the public three days a week.

Skipping ahead to the 21st century, the contemporary emphasis on audience-centric museums feels like the latest step along this path. The public today expect a cafe, a shop, family-friendly activities and events, plenty of seating, a warm welcome and high-quality visitor experience. The nature of museum collections has also shifted dramatically, especially over the past century. Once home to private bequests made public, they now explore an enormous range of subject matter. A few examples:

Museums that are personal passion projectsMuseum of Broken Relationships (Zagreb); House on the Rock (Wisconsin) which is startling even in photographs; and the Museum of Innocence (Istanbul) which is both a novel by Orhan Pamuk and a museum he’s set up.

Museums that celebrate/explore hidden historiesFoundling Museum (London); Bunjilaka Aboriginal Heritage Centre (Melbourne); Museum of disABILITY History (New York); and the National Women’s History Museum (Washington DC) which doesn’t have a building and is currently raising funds.

Museums that address traumatic historical eventsWar Remnants Museum (Ho Chi Minh City); Museum of Checkpoint Charlie (Berlin); and the Museum of Memory and Human Rights (Santiago de Chile).

Museums of social history and daily lifeSt Fagan’s National History Museum (Cardiff); Tenement Museum (New York); and the celebrated Museu da Maré (Rio) which was one of the first community museums in Rio and is currently under threat of eviction.

Museums of sportNational Football Museum (Manchester); the Olympic Museum (Lausanne); and the National Horseracing Museum (Newmarket).

Art Museums in private ownership with audience engagement programmes Saatchi Gallery (London); Jupiter Artland (near Edinburgh); and Compton Verney (near Stratford-upon-Avon)

There are also examples of ‘museums without walls’, to borrow Andre Malraux’s phrase (which sounds far more poetic in the original French – musée imaginaire). There has recently been a spate of itinerant museums: the Museum of Water, by artist Amy Sharrocks, is “a collection of publicly donated water and accompanying stories”; the Empathy Museum was founded by writer Roman Krznaric and led by artist and curator Clare Patey. Its first exhibit in 2015 was a shoe shop, where visitors were invited to literally walk a mile in someone else’s shoes.

What if museums in the 21st century continue to shape-shift and undergo a revolution equivalent to that of art in the 20th century? Imagine your bog-standard, turn-of-the-century gallery-goer, who has a clear understanding that art is ‘oil on canvas in a gilt frame’. Now drop that same person into Martin Creed’s ‘Work No. 227: the lights going on and off’ (2000). Without any of the cultural frames of reference needed to engage with Creed’s artwork, it would be totally baffling. Drop him home again in 1900, and none of his mates would believe him. What if we picked up a contemporary museum-goer and dropped her into the museum of 2116 – what would her experience be? And would we laugh in her face when she was dropped back and told us about it? To continue the analogy, we haven’t replaced the ‘oil on canvas’ variety with the conceptual variety – both kinds of art co-exist. Perhaps museum formats will do the same; the traditional ‘buildings filled with stuff’ will continue, and a plethora of alternatives will also be available, making the word ‘museum’ almost impossible to define.

So can we get down to the basic building blocks of what is essential to a museum experience? British director Peter Brook transformed theatre with his 1968 book, The Empty Space. He argued that all theatre needs is two people, one to carry out an action and the other to watch. What could the museum equivalent be: one person to curate an object and the other to look at it? Two people discussing an idea? Two people having a conversation on the street? Only time will tell.

Header Image: Emil Mayer [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

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