When asked about new ideas for museums it is always tempting to know everything better. But my plan for tonight was to avoid this trap. I thought it was more interesting to share a certain sense of insecurity with you, an insecurity that I feel when being confronted with museum-issues today.
There are many contradicting elements when experiencing museums today. On the one hand they are more popular than ever on the other hand one often finds oneself alone or together with just a few others when visiting museums devoted to contemporary art. But even if you are surrounded with people you realize that the people you are with – just like yourself – are just a tiny fraction of the much wider and much more diverse society of any given big city today.
But has it not been like that all the time? Was it not part of the thrill of being involved in contemporary art? A certain sense of minoritarian elitism was always part of the game and didn't it feel good? Yes it felt good, but it does not feel that good any longer. Why? The museum experience might not have changed but the world around it has changed. And in the process of these changes some museums seem to have affiliated with the wrong powers.
Another ambiguity: All these questions are still intensely local. On the one hand there is a global unification process, streamlining museums into experience-machines mainly concerned with getting as many people as possible through their doors and as much money as possible out of them at the end of their visit, but nevertheless all museums exist in very specific local environments. It still makes a difference whether the museum of your choice is a good old boring Municipal History Museum where your kids are being send for a free workshop or if you are excluded from the previews of those shiny contemporary art places popping up all over the globe.
So I need to focus and talk about Vienna because that is the place where I spent most of my time in the last thirty years. And I have spent a lot of time locally lately, because we are a family of four with two little kids. And being a family of four with two little kids not only makes you more local but also more social. And as a family of four with two little kids you realize that it makes a difference whether or not admission is free or whether or not the workshop costs a lot or just a little.
I have to admit that a lot of my growing awareness towards the obstacles and barriers which are part of the museum-system has to do with the fact that I started to realize how privileged we were as a family, given the fact that I enjoy free admission to most of the museums due to my ICOM membership and that my kids enjoy the same privilege in federal museums, because it was decided five years ago that everybody under the age of 19 should have free admission in federal museums. I take some pride of having had a tiny little share in the reform process leading up to the decision. Now let´s look at a few more of our privileges before we start to think about how to attract those „others“, that museum people seem to be obsessed with today.
Privilege: We enjoy direct access to the people working in museums. If we want – and we do that all the time – we can talk to them and we can discuss with them and most importantly: we can like them. We have a very direct and active relationship to the artworks by way of knowing the artists and the curators and many other people working around art. This is not to be underestimated as it creates a sense of active participation which can hardly be achieved by the notion of mediation. Active participation is a crucial value in today's cultural life.
Privilege: The museum shows what we are interested in. It shows art and we are interested in art. But what else should it show? I think we underestimate how the very notion of art has been shaped by the format of the museum as we know it and how art in general therefore logically has more appeal to the traditional – e.g.: bourgeois e.g.: educated e.g.: white e.g.: semi-aristocratic, e.g. upwardly ambitious – constituencies. Museum experience – at least in the traditional sense – is a permanently repeated circular argument: You get to see what others before you have defined as valuable and you are supposed to learn what is valuable by going to the museum in order to repeat this judgment. By integrating these values you interact closely with the very people that have defined the value in the first place and – now we come full circle – that is why you trust their judgment. Let me give you an example: There is a widely shared belief that art – if it addresses socially relevant issues – should be indirect, complex and somehow coded, so as to distinguish itself from other fields such as propaganda, politics or mass communication. But of course this demand is perfectly in sync with the traditional stakeholders of the museum-world. Powerful business, powerful politics and a lot of money is always just around the corner and of course it is easier to accommodate indirect, complex, or somewhat coded political work in a museum than the outright smash-in-your face-attacks of „desperate“ political activists.
So maybe if we think about all these „others“ we should extend our privileges and show what „they“ are interested in?
When we discussed these issues a few weeks back informally a museum director quoted a festival director who said that we should stop assuming that those „others“ only want to "see themselves" when visiting a museum. This argument was supposedly used against programs which try to attract specific communities by exhibiting "their" stories or their „culture“. But at the same time there was an exhibition on a major art gallery and the art scene surrounding it in 1980ies Vienna in the museum, that the person who quoted the mentioned assessment was directing. Of course I went there and one of the reasons to go there was to „see myself“, since I received my own introduction to Vienna´s art scene in the 1980ies. I think it is difficult to argue against „identitarian“ aspects of museum programming, as long as it is about those „others“, while at the same time constantly profiting from this kind of programming. But of course this kind of programming is not called "identitarian“ but "historically relevant" or "defining" or "locally specific", when it meets ones own special interest.
There is much talk about the museum as a public space nowadays and I admit that this is also my favorite idea, but it comes with all the uncertainties about what constitutes a public space in the 21st century? But – be it a physical place or a digital platform – one thing is for sure: a public space is a space of active communication and exchange. And it is a space which lends itself to a variety of activities, a space that is not dominated by one single use. I still use the „park“ – at least metaphorically – as my favorite comparison to what I think museums can be. Not only because the total yearly budget of the city of Vienna´s parks nearly exactly matches the total budget of all federal museums in Austria (app. 107 Million Euro), but also because not everybody uses them. There are people who never go to parks just as there are people who never go to museums. There might even be people who never go to parks nor to museums and live a happy life.
But the park is still a great idea and the park is not a museum of trees and bushes, even though many parks include botanical information. It is your own activity which defines the park and the pathways, the trees, the bushes, the kiosks and all the other objects do not stand in the way of your activity. So maybe we need to accept the fact that there are many different reasons to go to these great public spaces such as parks and museums and that we should abandon the idea of art-mediation being the one and only reason to open our doors.
Other favorites of mine are libraries and I have once written down what would change if museums were libraries. I repeat this little text here at the end of the presentation and I look forward to discussing it with you afterwards:
1. If museums were libraries, nobody would stop you on your way from the street to the artwork.
2. If museums were libraries, just looking would always be for free.
3. If museums were libraries, checking your coat and bags would be voluntary.
4. If museums were libraries, staff working in the exhibition-areas would know about the art on display.
5. If museums were libraries, staff would walk with your kid to the artwork in question.
6. If museums were libraries, there would be a nice place to sit in the corner.
7. If museums were libraries, your kids could use the computer.
8. If museums were libraries, you could loan some of the videos on display for € 0,75 / week.
9. If museums were libraries, they´d have a home-delivery service for senior citizens.
10. If museums were libraries, your kids would say »Can we go to the museum again?«