In his new book The Future of the Museum: 28 Dialogues, published in November and available worldwide in January, the writer, researcher, and arts consultant András Szántó interviews the world’s leading museum directors and curators about the trials they faced in 2020 and how they see art institutions evolving in the years to come. Here are excerpts from seven of those 28 conversations.
Brooklyn Museum, New York
Is there a narrative of museums that you see evolving?
More people are visiting museums than ever. It’s a must-do activity, especially when people travel. While it’s easy to be annoyed with overcrowding in some museums, overall it’s great that more people are being exposed to art and history. But what excites me Community 66 is that museums are being pushed to change. Historically, museums, including the Brooklyn Museum, have upheld white patriarchal narratives, but at long last more and more institutions are starting to show and collect more women and BIPOC artists. Just as important, BIPOC people are shaping the narratives of our exhibitions and programs. As a result, the stories we tell are becoming more thoughtful, truthful, inclusive, and exciting. Our field has only taken baby steps, but I am hopeful that fundamental change is happening. It’s essential—including for the survival of our field.
Where are the break points in this narrative—the unresolved issues that still need to be tackled?
Institutions like the Brooklyn Museum were founded on the belief that the sharing of world cultures would lead to greater understanding and empathy, and thereby advance civilization. I believe in this ideal. And I believe in the historic role of the museum as a place where we come together to experience great art, learn about our past and the dignity of other cultures. But museums have also played a role in supporting narratives that have led to the pain and suffering of others. We are monuments to a fraught past. We have left out the histories and narratives of so many. We have upheld sexist, classist, racist, colonial, and many other unethical and inequitable practices. So it should not be a surprise that we are facing a major shake-up. As the Ford Foundation’s president, Darren Walker, recently told me, “museums are in a crisis because America is in a crisis.” Museums shape narratives that matter, so it’s no surprise young people are passionate about pushing for change. It’s time now to do better—a lot better. That means looking at ourselves honestly and fixing a whole lot about the way we work as we make authentic commitments toward equity, inclusion, access, and anti-racism.
UCCA Center for Contemporary Art, Beijing
China will play an important role in the next century of the museum, just as Europe and North America did in the last century—that’s just a matter of economics and global power. How will the future be different because of China’s greater role in it?
I obviously cannot speak for China. But what we see at UCCA is a kind of hyper-refined, accelerated version of a lot of trends that museums are reckoning with all over the world, specifically in regard to user demographics and digital convergence. China has completely redefined e-commerce. You have digital-shopping hosts who can convene tens of millions of people and get them to buy something, through livecasting. For all the restrictions and censorship, people’s digital lives here are all-consuming. This manifests in this insatiable desire to document one’s existence and declare it to those around, using whatever channel or network is in vogue at any given moment. So for example, this idea of the museum as photo backdrop arrived here early. We spend a lot of time thinking about how to turn this inexorable urge into something productive, even educational. At the very least, we need to think about how, in a place where “traditional media” are even less influential than elsewhere, this kind of transmission by individual accounts and users can create excitement and understanding around our program.
Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art Africa, Cape Town
Let’s talk about museums in Africa. It’s easy to focus on the challenges. But what are the opportunities?
I am interested in what African museums—nascent as they are—might tell us about the future of the museum in general. I hope—I wish—that new forms of the museum will come from the African continent. Our context requires us to think outside of the established boxes in the museum field. I strongly believe that the limited resources that we struggle with—because we just don’t have the same cultural-support environment that you have in other contexts—demand that we don’t necessarily have to apply the same distinctions that exist elsewhere. As an example, two weeks ago I had an Instagram Live conversation with a colleague, Daudi Karungi, whom I have admired for a long time. He epitomizes what our context demands from us in the future. He founded a commercial gallery, because he needed to build an environment around his practice in his hometown of Kampala, Uganda. After a few years, he launched the Kampala Biennial, to offer a platform to present and discuss art in a noncommercial way. Then he started an art journal—yet another platform, which for me is just another kind of curatorial and exhibition space. And then he started a residency program to support up-and-coming artists. He combined essential formats of the ecosystems of the art industry under one umbrella. Anywhere else, people would scream, “How could you have a biennial, an art fair, a gallery, a journal, and art education all together?” But here in Africa it is possible, and might well be what we need to do. I really believe that in the future we will have to tear down all these walls. We have to always come back to the question: “What are we doing? Why are we in this field?” I am here in the service of artists and art. Wherever that service is delivered is fine with me.
Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
Let’s hop in our time machine. How do you imagine tomorrow’s museums to be different?
Bringing more and more objects to one place will become less relevant, versus how you translate the knowledge, understanding, and complexities of these objects to a wider audience. I do think the physical experience of the museum will continue to be powerful and strong. But museums will expand significantly in ways that are not just physical, but also digital and intellectual in regard to their engagement in various areas of the world.
A question I have enjoyed asking in these conversations is which habits do museums need to unlearn to stay relevant?
One tendency—we share this with academia—is that we always first want to know everything before we put something forward. Sometimes, it is more interesting for the public to know what we don’t know, rather than to know what we know.
Pérez Art Museum Miami
Let’s go to the crystal ball. What will be different in museums in the future?
Our job will be to pick up some of the energy of more socially inclined organizations. We are not trying to co-opt what they do, but we need to be their collaborators in meaningful ways. What does it look like to collaborate with the Boys & Girls Clubs, or with houses for the homeless? We have to own the space that we have been talking about for a long time—being community-centered and having a part in people’s lives that is potentially more meaningful than just entertainment. There’s too much hate in the world, and museums should level the field and provide spaces of love—not agreement, but just open hearts. How does that remit change the curatorial agenda? You gotta let go. We have to allow for real life to enter into the conversation. It is not just an international art conversation we have to learn. You see it with educational departments over the past twenty years, and the sort of agency they have been given. Now that agency needs to extend further into the public. I don’t just mean crowdsourcing. I mean real, meaningful collaboration.
Australian Centre for the Moving Image, Sydney
Immersive experience is nothing new, culturally speaking. We have long had cathedrals and palaces. Large-scale installations have long been made by artists. Yet in recent decades, art has been primarily exhibited in the so-called white cube, in an antiseptic, cerebral, anonymous setting. Lately, there is more public fascination with immersive experience. What is bringing forward this desire?
People are thrilled to be transported in that way. But immersion can also become relentless. We have spaces with extraordinary moving-image works, but next to them we will have a room full of costumes, for example. The cabinet of curiosities has been an inspiration for our permanent exhibition. We designed a twenty-meter-long cabinet, full of objects from across the various kinds of media that we explore. I think what people love is the theatricality of immersion. We made a show, Wonderland, in 2018, based on the screen adaptations of Alice in Wonderland. Since 1903 there have been more than forty-five—film, TV, music videos, etc. We created a very theatrical, immersive exhibition that was the opposite of the white cube. You arrived in a hall of mirrors. You had to open different doors. There were things you had to climb over. A map with a little chip triggered magical animations. We were simultaneously telling a story about special effects in cinema. We had a white room that, with projection mapping, magically turned into a fully immersive Mad Hatter’s tea party, bringing the process of CGI to life. The exhibition was designed by a theater designer, and our curators worked with an advisory group that comprised all sorts of different arts backgrounds, a multidisciplinary think tank. We were inspired by the Victoria & Albert Museum’s David Bowie Is exhibition, which we presented in 2015, and by Teatro de los Sentidos (Theater of the Senses), an experimental theater company in Barcelona. We wanted to support the telling of the story with the tools of theatrical design and with digital technology.
You spend a lot of time with artists and content producers and technologists. Where do you see moving-image going?
It is important not to get hung up on the technology itself, but to focus on how you can support artists to experiment with the technology as a canvas for their ideas. The technology is going to constantly change. Depending on whom you ask, VR is over, and AR will be the dominant mixed-reality platform. I don’t know. I do know that commissioning artists in both of those spaces will lead to exciting shifts in their practice, but also exciting shifts in how the platform can be deployed. The way artists use their Immersive Experiences 272 creativity in one particular medium doesn’t lock them into that technology. As a museum, we can raise money to give artists proper funding to experiment. Nine times out of ten, they do something very interesting.
Mori Art Museum, Tokyo
Where do you see programming and exhibitions evolving? Can museums tell stories in new ways?
Because of social distancing and limitations on the number of visitors, the live experience of the museum might become more precious, potentially with higher ticket prices. The museum might become a place where you detach yourself even more from everyday life: a place for contemplating, for meditation, to quietly think about your own existence. At the same time, the physical museum space itself may not be the only place for experience. The museum can pop up in different places, including the digital realm and somewhere beyond the museum walls. It can be a concept, an idea, which doesn’t have to be attached to a specific site. We have to rethink the categorization between museums, festivals, biennials, and the digital world.
The future is many things—technology, economics, demographics, architecture. How can a museum engage with all these fields meaningfully?
I would choose the word “doubt.” New technologies often have utopian ideas about the future. Economics and demographics tend to be numerical and holistic. But one role of the museum is to have a meaningful discussion with these fields and challenge them. Artists always offer a critical view, reflecting emotional and intuitive value and individual stories. They can reveal things that people are not looking at, things that are uncomfortable. Art shines a light on people and places that don’t get enough light. Bringing those parts of society and the world into the discourse with technology, economics, and so on would be very meaningful to achieving a better equilibrium in the future.
Excerpted with permission from The Future of the Museum: 28 Dialogues by András Szántó, published by Hatje Cantz, distributed in the US by Artbook – D.A.P. and worldwide by Thames & Hudson.
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