We live in a time of converging crises, economic, political and environmental, and, since earlier this year, a global public health crisis of historic proportions. COVID-19 has devastated economies, social norms and the modus operandi of cultural institutions around the world, but it’s also brought existing challenges into sharper focus, accelerated many of the questions and issues we were grappling with (too slowly) already, and imbued the present moment with a feeling of possibility but also of danger. We are at a crossroads. What path we choose could dictate the future, for good and for bad.
Asking the big questions
Over five days some 45 speakers from the cultural, political and academic sectors in 11 countries presented and debated the following themes: Museums and Futures, Museums and Power, Muse-ums and Entertainment, Museums and Architecture and Museums and Failure. They asked salient and urgent questions. Could museums overcome the current moment and survive in their present form? Could they become more representative and inclusive of different ethnicities, religions and social backgrounds? What should they do differently in terms of their real estate, infrastructure and organisational management to become more flexible, informal and responsive? Could they spark joy and learn from their failures? And, most importantly from the western context, can a museum ever truly be decolonised?
The Martin Roth Symposium on Museum Futures was stimulating, fascinating, and, remarkably, even uplifting at times. Given the huge economic, social, cultural and even psychological ramifica-tions of COVID-19, there was an urgency, an honesty and an uncertainty to some of the contribu-tions that was both moving and unusual for an event of this kind.
Diversity, decolonisation and representation
Though the debate was wide-ranging, there were several themes that were high on the agenda for the entire panel of experts. One was diversity, decolonisation and representation in the wake of the recent Black Lives Matter protests around the globe and the debate on the restitution of colonial ob-jects and artefacts. There was talk of where power resides in museums and museum struc-tures/organisations, and whether power could be shared. Though the speakers were mostly white, and many spoke from a western standpoint or perspective, there was a genuine attempt to be inclu-sive of different voices and experiences, and an attempt to speak of their institution and sector’s shortcomings openly.
As art history professor Andrew McLellan noted, for museums to change, diversity needs to happen at all levels. 'I think it has a lot to do with institutions recognising their own limitations and their own implicit biases against broader practices,' he said. 'It’s in the course of changing but there is the question of what we call the pipeline. Who are the students studying art history at university? What limitations do they face going into the field in the first place? Art history has long been an elite dis-cipline and that creates structural barriers to a broadening from the very base moving up into the larger system.' He also made the far-too-often glossed-over point that where you place work in your building often says a lot about your priorities in terms of social and racial justice. This cannot be understated.
Perhaps the most resonant point on decolonisation was made by Kavita Singh. In museums with staid and conservative education departments, one way to make them more vital and relevant would be to make them the launching pad for inter-disciplinary discussions she proposed and offer some-thing as simple as 'alternative' guided tours. What would it be like to be guided through a gallery of Hindu sculptures by a Dhalit (someone from the caste formerly known as 'untouchable') she asked. Or to be led through the British museum by an Iraqi refugee able to speak from their heart instead of a script? This is an attractive grassroots idea that would need no official seal of approval or big budget, but could be run by a voluntary organisation from the outside.
The death of the city centre, the rebirth of the suburb?
One of the most notable changes in the museum landscape provoked by COVID-19 agreed the speakers is how the local neighbourhoods, suburbs or small towns have fared far better in recent months than the glitzy city centres where the big museum exhibitions designed to pull in the crowds usually take place. 'The blockbuster may be dead,' opined Julia Grosse in her presentation, while architect and architecture critic Edwin Heathcote went even further: 'There’s no future for the huge shows, which cost a lot to mount and rely on even bigger numbers.' At the same time provincial museums, which are smaller and not geared to mass tourism, are probably going to flourish he said. This represents a huge re-engineering of the way many global cities now operate, where the city cen-tre houses retail, offices and entertainment. It is also a change that will see many city centre mega-museums and so-called art islands (where several major museums and cultural venues are grouped in one area) question what the way forward for them might be.
Perhaps surprisingly technology came up less than expected during the Symposium, though many speakers recognised the value of digital tools, especially over the past few months. The most eloquent person on the topic, interaction designer Raphaël de Courville, made the point that one should only use as much technology as one needs to fulfil one’s given aim. Fears around entertainment and the use of technology point to a fear of being replaced, of becoming obsolete, he said.
Eschewing permanence, embracing change
By the end of the week the audience was left in no doubt, however, that museums had to learn to embrace change or risk irrelevance. To survive they should become more flexible, less oriented to-wards permanence and preservation and less riddled by bureaucracy and ossified management struc-tures. Structural changes such as budgetary laws also needed attention from politicians and stake-holders. For example, employment contracts with residents from non-European countries that weren’t based on academic degrees. This seemingly minor point is actually hugely significant in terms of diversifying representation.
The museum of the future: flexible, community-focused and transparent
Ultimately one of the most achievable yet substantial outcomes of this Symposium was the notion that museums should slow down and become more responsive, more informal, more connected to context and less dependent on that cycle of ever-increasing visitor numbers and needing to provide ‘destination’ experiences. Museums should, in essence, serve their community. To do this they should eschew monumentality and detachment for a more fallible approach that keeps the public informed of their failings and is transparent about any internal efforts made to transform themselves and change. The expectation that museums are all-knowing places that tell the truth also had to be well and truly busted. As Inés de Castro said: 'I would like a museum that put out more questions than answers.' A museum that constantly questioned things, reflected on its priorities and processes and collaborated with local communities, would also be much less likely to fall prey to ideology, be that ideology political or commercial. This could only be a positive thing.
This article is a condensed version. The full conference report can be downloaded for free.
About Giovanna Dunmall
London-based Giovanna Dunmall is a journalist and author who writes about architecture, culture and design for international publications such as the Economist, Wallpaper, Metropolis, Azure, Detail, the Guardian and others. She is particularly interested in sustainable and social practices and initiatives, as well as the way cities are changing. In addition, she does editorial projects for architecture practices and cultural organisations, working on catalogues, websites and books.
About Martin Roth Symposium
The Martin Roth Symposium, named after one of the most notable museum directors, aims to honour his groundbraking achievements on behalf of the developement of cultural and social topics by perpetuating his ideas. The first Martin Roth Symposium was held in 2018 and dealt with the topic 'What can culture do?'.