The Question:
Is the museum only an empty shell?

Blockbuster shows, growing visitor numbers, spectacular new buildings like the Guggenheim and the Louvre in Abu Dhabi: museums are experiencing a boom worldwide. Although it has become part of mass culture, the museum as an institution is in a crisis. Fundamental tasks such as management and mediation of collections hardly receive any public funding nowadays. And the Western art canon is becoming more and more questionable due to a globalized art landscape. Is the traditional museum a thing of the past? What viable opportunities exist for the future?

Richard Armstrong
Director, The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum
and Foundation, New York
Photo: Courtesy Richard Armstrong.

Richard Armstrong

Never an “empty shell,” just now museums are in fact overflowing. They are curious reflections of the people who populate them: they are social constructs. In America they demonstrate the cultural ambitions of civic leaders of towns and cities, as well as the particular interests of local private collectors. Both these factors change by era.

People use museums differently than in the past, but works of art endure. We are living through a hyperactive moment: more art, more collectors, more museums.

Chris Dercon
Director, Tate Modern, London
Photo: Klaus Haag. Courtesy Chris Dercon.

Chris Dercon

Our western museums of art have always been places in a constant state of disruption and transformation. Therefore, the many expansion-programs of the past and present, do not only reflect spatial concerns, but define the very character of art-museums. The museum will always be a work in progress and in a state of permanent change. And the museum is gradually becoming much more than a continuously expanding container for art, it is becoming a unique platform for human encounters. The museum of art does not see any longer its ever growing audiences as a hindrance. It embraces the public as never seen before. The museum will become a new type of public space, one for social play and innovation, facilitating new forms of art, creativity and thinking, where people will look and interact with art as well with each other.

Learning will become an artistic activity by itself. The museums will become a place for mental and even bodily exercise, exploring performance as public sphere. The audience will be invited to become a contributor and a participant to the art on view. The displays of art from across the world, regardless of geography, will allow new connections to be made, so we understand better our own place in the world. In order to achieve this in a more permeable way, we have to ensure that the museum is not just on “one site,” but also “on line,” increasing its digital capacities and dialogues. As art is one of the most dynamic and engaged forms of human behaviour, the museum has to develop completely new types of exhibitions. We live in a globalized, cultural nation, thus the task of selecting, editing, interpreting, commenting and displaying - adding knowledge, subjectivity and empathy to the choices of objects—will be the most valuable activity for the majority of cultural users. Artistic research and discourse will become as important as artistic praxis. As such, the museum will become less a restrained container, and an exuberant companion instead. When people step into the museum, they don't want to step out of their life. They want to get closer to it. The future museum will be not empty, but full with new ideas, activities and people.

Julia Grosse
Editor-in-Chief, Contemporary And (C&), Berlin
Photo: Courtesy Julia Grosse.

Julia Grosse

From the perspective of the Western art industry, this is surely an important discussion. In many African cities, however, the issue of whether museums are becoming cultural Disneylands, built by Zaha Hadid and co., is not as relevant.

For one thing, in many cities there are no shells to show large-scale exhibitions. Of course, exhibitions such as Rise and Fall of Apartheid travel from Munich to Museum Africa in Johannesburg. And the former CEO of Puma, Jochen Zeitz, realized “Africa’s first mega-museum” in Cape Town. But that is the exception rather than the rule, and many national exhibition venues don’t have enough money to finance purchases for their or collection or restoration work.

There is a big art scene in Africa that certainly does not dream only of “finally” exhibiting in Europe. An artists’ group from Dakar just penned a manifesto calling on collectors from Senegal to help build an exhibition infrastructure by making their treasures accessible to the public.

Ramin Salsali
Collector, Salsali Private Museum, Dubai
Photo: Courtesy Ramin Salsali.

Ramin Salsali

Considering the rapid changes of values and paradigm shifts in society in recent years the role of public cultural institutions, in particular the museums, has been subjected to an ongoing process of assessment. Hard facts, such as financial restrictions and decreasing funding, have accelerated the process of reinventing the role of the museum. A brutal example is the increasing value of land in the central districts of cities, which could lead to reconsideration of the function of museum buildings. A museum could take on additional functions, such as hotel or top restaurant. The concept of living in the museum or having a residence in a museum complex is a project of the SALSALI PRIVATE MUSEUM as part of a study of optimum urban development.

In the major cities of China private museums are an essential part of real estate development projects, and franchise concepts such as the Guggenheim and Louvre in Abu Dhabi provide further examples of innovative solutions. A recent report from the Center for the Future of Museums looked ahead to 2034 and found a long list of challenges, including soaring energy prices and lack of public funding. From the collapse of quality arts media to the atrophy of expert-based cultural consensus, museums are losing the traditional pillars of their authority.

The majority of cultural institutions have failed to adjust to the radical social, cultural, and technological changes that have taken place during the last few decades. Another interesting contemplation is the role of the museum in a mega-city such as Mexico City or Tokyo, each with over 25 million inhabitants, versus its position on the national scale for the entire country. A mega-city is like a country within a country, with an increasing disconnection from the process of national developments and its own particular demands and path of evolution. Considering this, what would be the position of a museum in a mega-city? The increasing number of private museums in mega- and medium-sized cities, with their specific niche programs and low overhead costs, has added to the list of challenges for traditional museums.

To try to respond to the whole spectrum of social changes present in our immediate world is obviously unrealistic, but by reinventing the position of the museum through taking on more versatile roles, museums will certainly remain as part of the cultural infrastructure of each country, otherwise their empty shell could become a reality.

Bernd M. Scherer
Director, Haus der Kulturen der Welt, Berlin
Photo: Peter Adamik.

Bernd M. Scherer

The task of the museum used to be to define the canon. Museums should continue to embrace this task in the future. The institutional criticism of the last twenty years has challenged the museum, which was mired in bureacracy and clung to an old canon that in no way reflects the diverse new global developments in art. Instead, it contributed and to some extent continues to contribute, in conjunction with the market, to stabilizing economic inequalities and aesthetic distortions. However, the justified attacks of institutional criticism must not prompt museums to give up the canon idea. We urgently need a new canon that reflects current global developments and contributes to a reevaluation of non-European modern art. Of course, this canon is a construct. Yet it is needed to provide a frame of reference for judgments and evaluations. As opposed to an event culture in consumer society that is blunting the senses and reason, museums need to take responsibility for artistic positions again.

Bisi Silva
Curator & Artistic director
Centre for Contemporary Art, Lagos, Nigeria
Photo: Natalie Slow

Bisi Silva

That postcolonial governments across Africa have neglected the development of cultural infrastructure is evident. Nonetheless, new, dynamic and at times radical initiatives by artists and cultural producers have sprouted in this vacuum. And these platforms are engaging social and political issues as well as increasing audiences in a way that few of the mega-museums around the world can do. A recent initiative is The Molue Mobile Museum of Contemporary Art (MMMoCA) launched on May 2, 2014. The project is a remodelled iconic Yellow Lagos commercial commuter bus which as the initiator, artist Emeka Udemba, states as the first museum of contemporary art in Nigeria, “hopes to serve society by providing a forum for unprecedented variety of critical contemporary art experience.” The first project by the artist is to travel in the bus to this year’s Dakar Biennale in Senegal and to share art and ideas with people as he crosses West Africa. Whilst traditional museums have their role, initiatives such as MMMoCA present alternative possibilities and realities.

Jochen Volz
Head of Programs, Serpentine Galleries, London
Photo: Courtesy Jochen Volz.

Jochen Volz

The question should be perhaps, to what extent does a museum need a shell? Is it to preserve the art, to protect, to isolate, to elevate, to focus, to highlight? Gilbert & George famously proclaimed “Art for All” in 1970, in their Magazine Sculpture, commissioned by The Sunday Times. Ever since then, all art institutions have tried in different ways to weaken or even wreck their walls, expose their foundations and open their roofs, physically and symbolically.

It is the challenging dilemma for all museums to conserve heritage, promote cultural knowledge, foster new creative and critical thought whilst, at the same time, making it accessible to all. I have been privileged to work at Inhotim in Brazil for the past ten years, an institution showcasing a contemporary art collection that includes some of the most outstanding artists of our times, and all presented in an open garden rather than an enclosed museum. Inhotim is just one example of the ways in which the experience of art continues to be reinvented. Shell or no shell, as long as a museum is a space for experiencing the unknown and thinking the unthinkable, then it will not be empty.