The Idea of the Global Museum

The global museum has been debated over a decade within the framework of critical museology and in the context of contemporary global art. The recent conference The Idea of the Global Museum (December 2-3, 2016), organized by the Hamburger Bahnhof Museum of Modern Art in Berlin as a part of its project Global Resonances and coordinated by the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, offered a retrospective look at a variety of museum practices that critically embrace the notion of the global.

Braco Dmitrievi? installs "Triptychos Post Historicus with Kandinsky" at Nationalgalerie, Berlin, 1976. Photo © Braco Dmitrievi? and courtesy of Hamburger Bahnhof Museum of Modern Art.

The discourse on the global museum has been part of a broader postcolonial investigation into the possibility of a global art history, related to the decentralization and pluralization of modernism(s). From the perspective of Western museology, the genealogy of the global museum reaches back to Institutional Critique and the practice of New Museology that exposed the museum as the tool of the political hegemony of bourgeois culture. The process of democratization and decentralization of the museum initiated by the adherents/practitioners of New Museology has been extended to include the critique of the museum’s ethnocentrism and Eurocentrism. The idea of the global museum, then, arrives as the culmination of these deconstructive steps: the institutionalization of the postcolonial stage of the critique of the modern museum.

However, the idea of the global museum also has a parallel genealogy that refers to the geopolitical inquiries into transnational art systems and infrastructures that facilitate and shape global contemporary art. A good example of this line of enquiry is the research project Global Art and the Museum initiated in 2006 at the ZKM in Karlsruhe. The so-called “shifting geographies” of contemporary art and its markets—i.e. the shift in focus from Western urban centers to other art communities—as well as migration and transculturalism became the project’s point of departure, resulting in exhibitions, conferences and publications focused on investigating the multiplicity and plurality of local art. An ethical dimension related to the postcolonial critique was met here with a critical response to the economic failures of globalization. In recent years, the idea of the global museum has been dispersed and transmitted geographically and politically towards various peripheries, affecting the practices and the vocabulary of the discourse itself. Global and local interconnections have been reconceptualized in terms of translocal interrelations, canons have been extended and pluralized from within.

Moving away from the narrative of the museum as a success story of globalization and focusing on the geopolitics of knowledge, the recent Berlin conference aimed at presenting a broad diversity of museum practices that would serve different local audiences. Over the two days of the conference, participants discussed the global museum’s possible program, cultural context, and targeted publics. Presented approaches included the notion of education as the production of counterknowledge that challenges traditional forms of knowledge. Speakers also (re)introduced the concept of the museum as a site of research or as a pedagogical institution grounded in performative, embodied knowledge. This formula of active engagement realized by a productive encounter with the museum’s collections, or by the participation in programs and events offered by the museum, opposes the passive process of reproducing and transmitting existing knowledge that we associate with the traditional museum.

The seemingly innocent notion of education, reframed by the discourse of critical pedagogy, served the goal of breaking away from the tradition of the museum as an institution steeped in a universal canon, imperialism, and colonialism. In his opening remarks, Luis Camnitzer postulated this direction by articulating a critique of the museum as a “bureau of standards” and as a place for the dissemination of cultural capital. The German-born Uruguayan artist, instead, proposed his vision of the museum as a “pedagogical institution” that aims to release creative energy to the viewer rather than imposing standardized value systems. Camnitzer’s statement served as the conceptual framework for the entire conference. His emphasis was on the productive relation between the audience, on the one hand, and works of contemporary art, on the other. In Camnitzer’s thinking, the museum, like any medium, serves the function of transmitting artistic messages to its public. His idea is indebted to the modernist principle of transparency: the museum as a site that enables smooth communication between the exhibited artist and his or her audience.

In a series of interventions from the margins of the art world, from Manila to Ljubljana to Lima, Camnitzer’s understanding of the museum was problematized. Speakers engaged the global museum as a site for performing history and as rooted in a geolocality that serves local audiences and that refuses to function as a tourist site. For instance, Patrick Flores, Curator at the Vargas Museum in Manila, proposed a postcolonial university museum as a kind of open source or research site. Natalia Mjaluf, Director of the Museo de Arte in Lima, addressed the global museum as a transnational institution that operates within a regional context and recreates regional narratives. She also problematized the tension between aesthetic and ethnographic discourses that challenge the categories within which museum workers have been trained to operate. Zdenka Badovinac, Director of Moderna galeriija in Ljubljana, presented her concept of the sustainable museum by recapitulating the open narrative of her exhibition Low Budget Utopias. She emphasised that the global museum is a phantasm, an operative fiction that can only be imagined. Badovinac also elaborated on the origin of the museum, emphasizing that the very idea of a museum is governed by the need to represent the world, to speak on behalf of the other. Her concept of the sustainable museum rejects such a possibility; it is rather, according to her, an attempt to communicate with the world. Badovinac advocated strategies of recycling and repetition, acknowledging the impossibility of totalizing visions (such as retrospectives), and commenting on the museum’s limitations. In a sustainable museum, she argued, history is to be defined as an on-going process of composition and decomposition.

Nora Razian, Head of Programs and Exhibitions at the Sursock Museum in Beirut, discussed working with very limited resources in a museum that plays a crucial cultural role within the Lebanese capital’s counterpublic sphere. In her presentation, deceptively entitled Let’s Talk About the Weather, she introduced an exhibition realized within the framework of the public program Art and Ecology in a Time of Crisis, demonstrating how global issues such as climate change can gain urgent political significance in local contexts. The aim of the show was to explore the problem of global warming from a regional perspective by focusing on its cultural consequences. The project aimed to provide a counternarrative to the state approved version of history, thus enabling a deeper understanding of the local political and economic situation. However, in this case, the emancipatory pedagogical element was contained not only in the method—a series of productive encounters with art works, workshops, walks, lectures—but also in the knowledge transmitted to the audience.

In those talks that engaged the museum within the context of the multicultural Western city, the global museum was exposed as an institution that answers to the historical consequences of colonialism and globalization. In this constellation, the global museum performs its function on two planes: by producing counterknowledge and by constituting and accommodating counterpublics. In his lecture Going Global, Staying Cool, Jelle Bouwhuis, Curator at Amsterdam’s Stedelijk Museum, discussed defining the global museum as a forum for the articulation of social conflicts and as a place that defuses the danger of a single narrative. He referred to recent long-term projects such as Project 1975 and Global Collaboration that aimed to rethink and restructure the Stedelijk’s Eurocentric modern and contemporary art collections through a collaborative approach and an exchange with institutional and individual partners from outside the Western world. This collaborative research and mutual process of learning was devised as a means to escape the essentializing of “other” cultures. Still, this approach left traditional power structures untouched because it was still in the center by which art from “other” places was made visible.

Bouwhuis pointed to another instance of the global: the migrant artists and audiences that negotiate their space within the public sphere of Western society on a daily basis. Bouwhuis proposed a vision of the global museum as a place that accommodates ongoing discussions and provides the infrastructure for the articulation of voices that are otherwise not heard; in other words, the museum as a platform that serves heterogenic local communities and aims at providing a possibility for exchange between them.

Another proposal came from researcher and curator Clementine Deliss, who ran the Weltkulturen Museum in Frankfurt (2002–2009) and organized the research laboratory Future Academy. In her remarks, Deliss emphasized the importance of physical architectural arrangements for the production of counterknowledge as it relates to museum collections. She advocated a paradigm of complete openness for the collections and proposed an exhibition format akin to a laboratory or a meeting place where the exchange and aggregation of counterknowledge can be performed. Interestingly, at the end of Deliss’s passionate talk, an audience member speaking “on behalf of his culture” raised the issue of restitution, the return of museum objects to the cultures from which they were taken. However, Wendy Shaw, Professor for the Art History of Islamic Cultures at Berlin’s Free University who chaired the panel on Museum Structures, argued that although there is always a violent history embedded in such objects, they may serve society better if they remain inside the Western museum rather than by “disappearing” into their cultures of origin. The exchange revealed the current limits of the museum’s global decentralization as well as the new, more subtle face of ethnocentrism. We should be mindful then that the (only) place for the “aggregation of counterknowledge” as postulated by Deliss is the Western museum and its power.

Shaw also questioned, in an unequivocal way, the ideology of globalism and positioned it within the context of the contemporary resurgence of populism and right-wing ideologies. In her opening remarks, she talked about two possibilities for collective identities: globalist and isolationist, relating these categories to a discussion of the audience for the global museum. While the globalists are affirmative towards globalization, the isolationists are those on the museum’s outside, the ones who do not feel represented by it. How to reach out to this latter group? This was a precisely the problem discussed by the last panel, The Museum’s Public, that tried to formulate some conclusions about how to get away from the patronizing strategy of representing one’s audience, and how to seriously engage the public’s heterogeneity. This last panel included Ahmet Ögüt, Paul Goodwin, and Nora Razian, and was chaired by Nora Sternfeld, Professor for Curating and Art Mediation at Aalto University. The panelists dismissed the notion of the global, arguing that globalism is nothing but an ideology of the privileged transnational neoliberal subject, facilitated by the infrastructure of networks. Sternfield proposed to talk, instead, about “negotiating with reality,” by which she meant that we should discuss singular, particular, and personal experiences and the way they can be facilitated by the museum rather than general categories such as “the public.”

At the end of the conference, one audience member proclaimed that we do not need museums anymore. Yet the conference proved otherwise; it was the notion of the “global” that in many presentations was rendered dispensable, whereas the “ideal” museum was revealed to be an important part of the infrastructure of counterknowledges, a place for the active co-production of knowledge, not for its passive reception. As Bouwhuis argued, “pursuing the global” led many modern museums into an “ideological deadlock;” the only way forward, according to Bouwhuis, is to look closely at the museum’s local situation and revitalize its local social role. Both on the margins and at the center, the ideal global museum would be strictly translocal: while museums respond, communicate, and educate a local public, the problems the museum engages are nevertheless transnational and global. The museums located in Western urban centers still need the courage to open themselves up as sites for the polysemic articulation of local voices, and learn from them. It is on the margins that the exploration of the different possibilities and ideas for a critical model of the global museum takes on the most diversified shape.