Change on the Marble Stairs of Museum Portals

Text and image by Corinna Heumann

Times of change seem evident in the attempts to reinvent European identities to define the current position in the world. During the past 250 years, celebrated expressions of  European claims to cultural superiority were not only in politics, economics and the military, but also the temples for the worship of the respective regional cultural perceptions. Their managers were also subject to the competition for the ‚sunny spot‘. As a result, they not only collected their own artifacts, but catalogued everything that was ‘discovered’ globally. Fortunately, the Eurocentric perspectives of the old continent are a thing of the past. Nevertheless, massive transformation processes have to be mastered.

Who are we?

At the beginning of the 21st century the cultural heritage of Europe and the positioning of the ‘old continent’ in the multipolar world is receiving a lot of attention. Inventories are made. Museum collections are closely scrutinized. Prestigious objects are redefined and reorganized in terms of their cultural relevance or disappear into storage for an indefinite period of time. Provenance research is the imperative of the hour. As a consequence, these inventories can lead to a loss of significance and financial losses as well.
Criticism of the European claim to universality and autonomy of art has entered the mainstream. The symbolic power of artworks is now also explained transparently in terms of their purpose. Some objects are then transferred back to their original religious context. The new self-image of many cultures world wide is leading to a reorientation in all parts of world society. Previously accepted values and moral concepts are being called into question not only in our country, but also in the countries of origin of renoun art objects (e.g. Benin Bronzes). The world is in the process of regrouping. Museums are sometimes leading the way with respected international exhibitions. Responsible action instead of polarization is called for (cf. documenta fifteen).

Diversity and diversification

Previously predominantly linear patterns of interpretation of our cultural and individual past are multiplying into a multiverse of diverse explanations. Globalization challenges not only traditional cultural certainties, but also progressive ones. Habits of seeing and horizons of expectation are constantly changing. Definitions of aesthetic and representational criteria are constantly being expanded or even replaced by new concepts of cultural criticism.
Ever since the first museums and collections appeared on the European stage in the late 18th century, people have held fast to the quest for objectivity and universal validity, despite all the upheavals, raids, and iconoclasms. Lists of criteria for the best and most beautiful of a culture were drawn up. Then as now, the world was to be comprehended with the mind, represented, and ideally made more peaceful and just. The encyclopedists, Diderot, d’Alembert and colleagues wrote down the knowledge of their time in order to make it accessible to all people as a basis for progressive thought and action. New firm structures of knowledge management emerged outside clerical institutions. The foundation stone of virtual pillar halls of the utopia of a form of existence perceived as morally superior was laid. These collections could be expanded indefinitely. Through regular new acquisitions, they continue to fascinate their audience to this day. Nevertheless, today this system seems mysteriously limited to us.

Linking knowledge with emotion

The knowledge of our time is growing exponentially in many directions. New forms of education and participation are emerging from interdisciplinarity and transculturality. Awareness of the interconnectedness of historical and individual circumstances is increasing, as is the question of their emotional integration. New technologies can calculate and simulate human emotions. Despite their widespread acceptance – they make our lives more comfortable, after all – unease, if not fear, is growing in parts of the population. There is a demand to take this cultural dynamic into account: museums as historical showcase, educational powerhouse, multimedia experience space with a tendency to overkill, party zone in a noble setting or yet a space of contemplation, reflection and quiet learning?

Museums as a mirror of society

The marketing of the past begins in the present. Dominating knowledge is broken open, redefined and adapted. More differentiated perspectives and their presentation can give old collections and individual objects outstanding significance. Formerly narrowly defined linear concepts of art and culture allow historical objects to shine in new splendor through reinterpretation. Surprising theses and viewpoints often cause a significant increase in the number of visitors.
Museums belong in the center of social life as production sites of identification and historical contexts. This concept, by the way, is not new in the Western enlightened world. It has always been the task of museums to connect and reconcile a multitude of different life worlds. In contrast to royal exclusive art clubs, banal ‚bling-bling‘, reactionary architecture and pompous blockbuster exhibitions, most people have always esteemed art and culture as a high resource and part of their everyday life. They usually spare no effort in pursuing it, admiring and encouraging outstanding talent from among themselves.

Ivory tower or building the tower

Museum authorities today have an obligation to go beyond preserving collections or keeping an eye on visitor numbers to proactively engage future generations from all segments of society. Controversial actions by activists could be carried by them into the future with a transparent, lively and peaceful culture of debate, kind of based on Joseph Beuys’ idea of social sculpture. Provided they seriously engage with the realities, experiences and utopias of young people’s lives. Their forms of expression and experiments make our future.
The progressive cultural industry already offers a multitude of individual and social development and advancement opportunities. Not only design objects, but legendary clubs, hotels and amusement parks are designed by artists. Sprayers are no longer only responsible for the production of exhibition objects, but are a natural part of project development teams for entire city districts.

Only people create meaning and value

Only the audience makes museums come alive. They are places of identification, openness and also reassurance. There, people exchange ideas and topics and work on them in an inclusive, critical and cosmopolitan way. Zeitgeist, craftsmanship, new technologies form a polyphonic body of sound in a local and global context. Not only objects are shown and discussed, but also conservation work processes, for example by opening restoration workshops. Machine learning is used to reconstruct destroyed or forgotten art, craft techniques, and regional ways of life via worldwide archival databases. Artists create spaces for free reflection and dialogue at all levels of society. It remains attractive to better understand the world by way of selected objects.
The contemporary museum is not a sarcophagus, but a living place of networking and reconciliation, of inspiration and stimulation. As a kind of purposeless ‘laboratory’, a museum invites visitors to ‘think for themselves’ and ‘create for themselves’. The original humanistic ideal of education is evolving into a thrilling future!

Remarks: The picture was taken at Centre Pompidou, Malaga. This text was inspired by a workshop on the new conception of the Bonn City Museum and a symposion on the future of museums at the Wallraff Richartz Museum in Cologne as well as by pleasurably stimulating and thought-provoking museum visits to the Koninklijk Museum voor Schone Kunsten, Antwerpen, the Rijksmuseum and the Stedelijk in Amsterdam, the Biennale and Palazzo Ducale (Anselm Kiefer) in Venice, the Deutsches Museum, Munich, the Jewish Museums in Munich and Berlin as well as at Humboldt Forum, especially at the ‚Susanna’ exhibit at the Wallraf-Richartz Museum, Cologne and at many more smaller and larger collections all over the world.

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