ifa: How did your institution cope during the crisis and how has it managed since then? How has the current situation changed the work of your museum and its conception of itself?
Mirjana Dabović Pejović: Since our activities usually start at the end of March/beginning of April, COVID-19 disrupted all of of our planned exhibitions and accompanying activities for this season. The near entirety of our program had to be postponed until 2021. Our institution, together with many others here in Montenegro, had to adapt to the 'new reality' and limit our activities to caring for the collection. Instead of working on new programs, we had to shift our focus to digital promotion of a limited number of activities, such as virtual tours of existing exhibitions or of the museum's permanent display.
ifa: How do you address your public in this new context? What kind of public do you expect and what do you expect from your public?
Dabović Pejović: All of our communication has been moved onto social networks, where we continue to present ongoing activities. We have also continued to donate our publications to schools and libraries, and to promote our work in various magazines. We hope that the audience that has followed our work up until now is still with us in this difficult period, and will continue to be with us in the future.
ifa: What do you consider to be the primary social responsibilities of your museum?
Dabović Pejović: In today's society, it has become urgent and necessary for museums to redefine their missions, goals, functions, and strategies to meet complex expectations. Today, more than ever before, museums are agents of change and development: to mirror events in society and become instruments of progress by calling attention to certain actions and encouraging wider societal development. They must become institutions that promote concepts of equality and democracy through their activities and establish close connections throughout the local community in order to reach every societal group.
In order to retain their relevance and become respected partners in societal development, museums should make maximum use of their resources and their potential to become more responsive to the dynamics of modern demands and urban change. As institutions possessing critical resources in society, they can encourage, promote and foster the best of the cultural and democratic ideals of the nation.
Through various activities, our museum is trying to give voice to the citizenry in matters of governance by creating avenues for free discussion and dialogue. Besides organizing exhibitions that represent key figures of Montenegrin art scene, we often organize and host projects dealing with social topics in order to envisage current global problems and focus the public's attention on important issues. Through our programs and activities, we try to build awareness among different target groups including teachers, young people, children, students, women, and older citizens. We use different forms of discussion to explore the impact of arts and culture, the development of culture, and the preservation of heritage, in order to promote and better understand our patrimony and work towards general emancipation.
ifa: How should museums convey and reflect stories, images and narrative patterns?
Dabović Pejović: The collections of the Art Museum have been structured to trace the history of Yugoslav art. The permanent display is conceived with a focus on the main movements and key figures of both the Yugoslav and Montenegrin art scenes. The presentation includes several concepts of representing.
Yugoslav art from the end of the 19th century and through the first half of the 20th century is introduced through a chronological overview of international art movements and their impact on the regional scene. The beginnings of modernism in Montenegrin art and later contemporary art are introduced through several generations of artists who travelled abroad for education or training, and evolved personal styles that merged international influences, individual sensibility, and local tradition. Through these displays, it is possible to chart the changes in artistic concepts and phases that also depend on the directions of individual artists and their personal experiences in big European centers.
A second level of communication/presentation is based on creating separate memorial rooms for the most significant figures in the Montenegrin art scene. These key artists are presented with works from various periods. A third segment is the display of a private legacy donated to the National Museum, which compliments the other presentations.
The gallery space is open for various accompanying activities, all structured to better explain the display for different visitor groups. Lectures, public guides, workshops for schoolchildren, and open classes for students are among the different programs implemented by our curators in collaboration with teachers and professors from various schools, art schools, and academies.
ifa: What concepts do you pursue with regard to access to, participation in, and interpretation of your holdings?
Dabović Pejović: Art Museum constitutes different units, with a permanent collection situated across our central building and two gallery spaces – Contemporary Art Gallery (founded in 2012) and Studio Dado gallery (founded in 2002). Together, it represents a combination of a national and contemporary art museum.
The parliamentary building (constructed in 1910) that is adapted to host our National Museum and the permanent collections of Art and History Museum still requires some additional technical interventions in order to improve access, while the newly-built galleries are fully accessible. In order to meet visitor special needs, the museum also organizes several projects adapted for people who have difficulties in perceiving regular art displays. In the future, there are also plans to have some of our most significant artworks transformed into tactile works so that they can be experienced by the visually-impaired.
In terms of the presentation of our collections, our permanent display is unique in affirming 19th and 20th century artistic origins in the formerly-united Yugoslav cultural region. We find this important with regards to the formation of the Montenegrin art scene – first as part of that complex system and later as an independent scene. During the 20th century, many artists lived and trained in other countries where they actively participated in local cultural life. Some key exhibitions of several Montenegrin artists were seminal moments in 20th century art movements.
In 2006, after the renewal of Montenegrin independence, our international promotion has been intensified. We have organized exhibitions of outstanding Montenegrin artists through artworks in our collections, as well as exhibitions of up-and-coming practitioners. Our art scene has gained presence and recognition beyond our local audience and, with increasing investment and long-term strategy, can become more and more integrated in wider global movements.
ifa: Do you see your museum as a place of political discourse?
Dabović Pejović: Yes, in today's rapidly-evolving society, the museum has to be an active place for social and political discussion, and also a space to overcome stereotypes that still exist regarding marginalized groups, people with disabilities, as well as the role of women in art and society. Over the last decade, all these topics have been intensively discussed and developed through various exhibitions and public talks with artists and theorists – not only from Montenegro but also from neighbouring countries and further afield.
ifa: How can museums work internationally, post-nationally and responsibly today?
Dabović Pejović: Although much larger institutions with much bigger budgets are struggling with various problems, for relatively small museums like the National Museum of Montenegro (although the biggest in the country), it is necessary to become part of the wider regional and international network in order to become more visible.
We have been intensifying our activities in this direction since 2000, developing partnerships with other institutions that have similar orientations, building our audience beyond the national framework, and making use of our two modern gallery spaces to enable local audiences (especially young people and students) to get further acquainted with the wider regional and international art scene.
Founded in the era of Yugoslavia, the concept of a united cultural space and scene is integral to the origins of our museum, and still very much present today. Our permanent collection is practically the only one in the region that still offers an overview of the 20th century Yugoslav art scene. The artworks that we have in our collections are to be viewed as part of shared cultural values. Montenegrin artists who were born in the 1950s, who were later to become founders and professors at the Faculty of Fine Arts in Cetinje, were educated in other Yugoslav centers such as Belgrade, Sarajevo, and Ljubljana, where they were actively participating in cultural life. No matter the dramatic developments during the 1990s, communication between newly-formed countries and scenes (and institutions) continued to develop over the next decade, further shaped by artists and art professionals from younger generations.
ifa: Museums nowadays perform many functions. How would you define what the museum is or should be today?
Dabović Pejović: The traditional role of museums is to collect objects and materials of cultural, religious and historical importance, preserve them, research them, and present them to the public for the purpose of education and enjoyment. But today it is much more. No matter the changes museums (big or small) have made, the insecure circumstances of our globalized world compel us to reassess the social role and function of the modern museum. Global threats necessitate socially-responsible actions and strategies focused on the local community.
As a leading cultural institution, Art Museum is continually improving our capacities and expanding our presence and impact on both national and international levels. Much has been achieved, and the museum will continue to work on greater inclusivity, an active visitor experience, and participative societal function. The development of cultural policies and programs will have to be based on a combination of our own funds, local resources, and collaborations. By supporting independent artists and the NGO sector, we can move towards greater solidarity, sustainability, and better cultural policies.
Mirjana Dabović Pejović is Head of the Art Museum of Montenegro at the National Museum of Montenegro, Cetinje.
Under the title 'MuseumsNow', ifa asked actors from international museums about their current experiences, challenges and visions – also against the background of the COVID-19 pandemic. The interviews and reports provide an insight into current museum practices and civil society actions of museums worldwide.