What is the Museum of the Future?

The Messner Mountain Museum Corones, South Tyrol, Italy, designed by Zaha Hadid and opened in 2015. © Inexhibit, courtesy Zaha Hadid Architects.
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We know that museums the world over are incredibly popular, but how do we keep the visitors coming? In a globalized art economy, the question of what art should be exhibited and collected seems increasingly pertinent. As early as 1909, Theodor Volbehr, in his book The Future of German Museums, saw their function as “popular education centers in the broadest sense.” This ideology remains, to a degree, but as both art and audiences change, so too must museums. One commentator maintains that the museum has been transformed from “a restrained container to exuberant companion,” reflecting how they are as much about looking and learning as they are social and civic spaces. In recent years, especially during periods of expansion, adaptation, and transformation, they have variously been described as a “laboratory of ideas,” “a total work of art,” “temples of delight,” “a place for intoxication,” and even a “21st-century medina.” So what kind of museum do we want for our future?

Daniel Birnbaum, Director, Moderna Museet, Stockholm

There is only one rule: involve the best artists. The rest will follow. If the Moderna Museet is known for anything, it’s for not saying no to artists’ sometimes surprising proposals. In 1968 Andy Warhol covered the museum with his wallpaper. Just recently,Klara Lidén made us enter her show through the emergency exit and the catacombs. Carl Michael von Hausswolff filled the entire museum with sound and kept it open around the clock. For those of us who sometimes feel depressed by the fact that successful museums are run like global corporations, it’s relevant to remember that when new cultural formations appear they tend to use fragments of already-obsolete forms. Erwin Panofsky pointed this out: the future is constructed out of elements of the past – nothing appears ex nihilo. The future of exhibition-making and of the museum itself will deploy devices we once knew but have perhaps forgotten about. At the moment I look at Öyvind Fahlström’s hallucinatory institutional theories. Others to watch:Adrián Villar RojasTrisha DonnellyPhilippe ParrenoSimon Denny … Follow the artists.

Olafur Eliasson, artist

The museum of the future is generous. Instead of categorizing and packaging artworks and experiences for express consumption, it endorses the potential of uncertainty. It nurtures the transformative possibilities inherent in the contact between artwork, audience, museum, and society.

The museum shows confidence in its users and creates conditions that allow visitors to see their own resources for perceiving art and the world. It does not simply collect the shapes of the world in the form of artworks and objects – it shapes the world. It is a reality-producing machine. It engages in public discourse and policy-making.

A polyphony of voices, actions, and possible encounters, the museum of the future is a power that can change the world.

Thomas Hirschhorn, artist

Eight conditions for the museum of the future:

  1. The aim is the deployment or redeployment of public space or that within the institution. Therefore, a clear mission is needed: to be a space to get in contact with art, philosophy, and poetry, not for commercial activities, glamor, fashion, or any exclusivity.
  2. The goal is to create the conditions for an event – and to encourage the transformation of this event.
  3. Open all days, day and night, 24/24.
  4. Free access for everyone.
  5. Only the presence and the production of the artist, the philosopher, the poet, can create the conditions for presence and production of the visitors.
  6. No program or schedule is needed. Every event will happen unexpectedly.
  7. No more ‘guards’, no more ‘security persons’.
  8. This museum must be a home, a shelter: no more fancy, narcissistic, and useless museum architecture.

Stephen Witherford, Witherford Watson Mann Architects

The museum of the future will shift from typically being one in which a building embodies authority (the ‘Temple’ model) and broadcasts information to us, to one that has a more direct and casual relationship to its urban environment and engages people in a reflexive way. The focus will be on engaging the public in experiences and exchanges around ideas and issues through direct encounters with objects. Audiences can contribute to the interpretation of these ideas and issues if skilfully engaged. Ownership of things has become less appealing or important. The internet enables sharing and allows us to pursue, collect, and communicate information in an extremely free and open manner. Museums will learn to share what they have with us differently. Engaging audiences differently will entail greater excellence in what’s put forward, the way it’s communicated and affordability of access to this. The physical experience of the museum will need to be more open, welcoming, and conducive to sharing thoughts and ideas, with more human interaction: knowledgeable assistants replacing guards. The digital experience will need to be consistent with this.

Boris Charmatz, dancer

The future of the museum is about building an art space that would rethink what a public space could be: a public space via, and for, dance. When Tate Modern opened it was very clear that it was not just another museum. It had something else – you could call it the Turbine Hall – that was trying to shape the museum of the future. As a dancer, I felt immediately interested in what this transformative potential could be. We could see clearly that there was a play between what is a public space and what is an art space. So with Tate Modern, what kind of permeability do we organize between our bodies? How can movement help us to rethink this public environment? What can we share, but also how can we express and be confronted with others in the public space beyond the neutral, clean gallery? Our Tate Modern project Musée de la danse explored some of these questions.

Stefan Benchoam, Director, Nuevo Museo de Arte Contemporáneo, Guatemala

Although some of the larger institutions aim to champion their brand with grand museum outposts, colonizing various parts of the world, I strongly believe in an alternative future for museums where smaller, context-specific institutions will thrive. These are more agile and quicker to adapt in a world in constant flux. They utilize culture to address urgent local issues, creating solid and tangible ties with their audiences.

Jeremy Deller, artist

Art and objects can’t be streamed (yet), so museums will always be the place to go to see things in 3D and watch other people looking at them. Our curiosity to look at objects and people to make sense of ourselves is still satisfied by museums and their spaces, and, if anything, the museum of the future will do this more.

Sabyasachi Mukherjee, Director General, Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya, Mumbai (formerly the Prince of Wales Museum of Western India)

The museum of the future will be a community space where one can see his or her identity in the sense of cultural continuity. It has to reformulate its set of objectives, keeping in mind the demographic, social, political, economic, and cultural changes taking place in contemporary society, and restructure them according to the needs of society. The starting point is the present, from where the museum explores the past and imagines the future guided by the needs and expectations of its potential visitors, wider community, and stakeholders. It must value as ‘heritage’ not just objects or collections, but, first and foremost, individuals and the human elements they embody, such as stories, ideas, emotions, values, desires, fears, and hopes.

Jack Persekian, founder and Director, Palestinian Museum, Ramallah

Museums hold the traces and expressions of a society’s culture. Collectively, they work to preserve a diverse global culture. But they are not simply warehouses: the narratives, objects, and images deposited there are the foundations on which futures are envisioned and shaped. The future of the museum, therefore, is that of the society it serves and the world it aspires to create.

Lars Nittve, Executive Director, M+ , Hong Kong

The museum of the future not only knows it can’t predict the future, it embraces that fact. It’s prepared, through its vision, organizational culture and physical framework (which might be a building, but not necessarily), perpetually to change, adapt, and rethink absolutely everything. It’s not for the institution to dictate the direction of art and visual culture, nor how audiences should behave. Rather, the museum of the future (like the museum of the present) must be a seasoned dancer. On the one hand, it should follow the lead of the cultural practitioners and audiences who are the reasons for its existence. At the same time, good dancers are never passive. They are active, responsive, and quick on their toes, ready for the unexpected.

Dayanita Singh, artist

To me, the museum of the future is small and portable. It’s organic and allows for change and growth continuously. It is a SUITCASE MUSEUM, on wheels. It has ambassadors who transport it on flights and trains. The suitcases are the display as well as the storage units, and must include a reserve collection. They may be affiliated to larger institutions such as Tate, and take facsimiles from their collections, or they are stand-alone like my Museum Bhavan. One could say they are pop-up museums that may be on show for an evening or an entire year. They have a PDF as a catalogue which can be printed on demand. The ambassadors seek new venues for them in the places they travel to and patrons to make an event for their opening. The museums of the future will need to reach a wider cross-section of people and not depend on those visiting them. So, the suitcase museum. Business class lets you carry five extra bags. So the maximum number of suitcases in my museum would be seven.

Andrea Fraser, artist

There is no single museum of the future. The field of museums, even those dedicated to art, has long been fragmented by focus, sector, governance, size, and a host of other attributes. This fragmentation has increased with the boom of the past half century. The field is held together, in part, by competition for the resources available within it – competition dominated by a handful of mega-museums that appear to be endlessly and insatiably expansionist, and which seemingly aim to incorporate all museum models, functions, programmes and audiences. However, the future of museums, in the sense of any real transformation of their present, will not be realized by these mega-institutions, but by their withdrawal from competition within the sector. Only this can enable the emergence of a new museum model.

Joanna Mytkowska, Director, Warsaw Museum of Modern Art

I’ve run the Warsaw Museum of Modern Art for eight years. It was established by the Polish government as a great modernisation project. Our team has strived to widen that mission by adding strong emancipatory traits to whatever we do. For us, the future is the building planned for 2020 on Defilad Square, right at the heart of Warsaw, that will transform the center of the city into a friendly public space. At least that has been the future – distant, yet bright – for most of my tenure. Recently, however, museums are being encircled by a new line of social divisions. The contemporary art system is increasingly leaning towards the realm of the privileged one per-cent, whose aspirations cannot be shared by 99 per-cent of the public. The biggest museum boom has been in China and the oil-rich Middle-Eastern countries, which aren’t necessarily renowned for social emancipation. The future of the museum seems to rely on retrieving a direct link to the roots of artistic creation – and to a wide audience and its vision of the world. What needs to be found is a new sense of the word “public.”

Beatrix Ruf, Director, Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam

A museum, especially today, has a specific place in society, because it enables reflection through experience. It enables the encounter of objects produced by artists and creative thinkers as heritage and cultural identity – and as objects to question and shift our conventions. Museums are useful in this, otherwise they have to be greatly and intentionally useless. This also means they should not be judged primarily on economic and commercial success, efficiency, and functionality. Of course, they also want to reach an audience that is as broad as possible, inside their walls and beyond the physical museum. We need to create a place where people want to come and actually get experience. That means we have to be brave to be different.

Paulina Olowska, artist

The museums of the future will be shelters of humanity. They will function like mountain huts, offering respite from the hardships of daily walking. Last year I met a group of artists and we went trekking in the Gorce Mountains in southern Poland. We felt free and light-hearted. At some point, we lost our trail. Dusk fell. After a few hours we reached a mountain hut. We got a cup of tea and sat by the fire, drying our wet socks. Everything seemed friendly and inspiring. Nature was right outside the window. We were talking about deep observation, sketching, musing. A young scholar joined us and told us about his discoveries. We were thinking about next day, our planned route through the mountains.

What does this have to do with the museum of the future? I sense it is a vision of a coming community that may be focused around museums’ shelters: communities based on spirituality rather than materiality, contemplative rather than pragmatic, seeking direct experience rather than mediated ideas.

The museums of the future will be an elaboration on the post-Romantic, Wagnerian concept of the Gesamtkunstwerk, universalizing and synthesizing various forms of spiritual activity in places resembling today’s mountain huts.

Budi Tek, founder, Yuz Foundation, Jarkarta

The museum of the future is a platform for education, because art can take people to a higher form of being. I collect contemporary art, but my organization, Yuz Foundation, Museum and Collection, is driven by educational and cultural priorities, where I want to enhance public appreciation of art. I am fortunate in that I’m able to acquire and display some of the best of both Chinese and Western contemporary art, especially large installation pieces that call for public engagement and which benefit from educational interpretation and academic knowledge. The audience needs to understand that art is a sensory and spiritual experience that is more important than the object itself. The values that drive me are that art is lasting, art is patient, and that it is a gift of faith, hope, and love. The museum that I am making for the future, today, has that message at its heart.

Chris Dercon, Director, Tate Modern, London

Our Western museums of art have always been a work in progress: places in a constant state of disruption and transformation. Therefore, the many expansion programs of the past and present don’t only reflect spatial concerns, but define the very character of art institutions. And the museum is gradually becoming much more than a continuously expanding container for art – it’s becoming a unique platform for human encounters.

The museum no longer sees its ever-growing audiences as a hindrance. It embraces the public as never before. It 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 at and interact with art as well as with each other. Learning will become an artistic activity in itself.

The museum will become a place for mental and even bodily exercise, exploring performance as public sphere. The audience will be invited to become a contributor to and a participant of the art on view. The displays of art from across the globe, 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 isn’t just on one site, but also online, increasing its digital capacities and dialogues.

As art is one of the most dynamic and engaged forms of human behavior, the museum has to develop completely new types of exhibitions. We live in a globalized, curatorial nation, thus the task of selecting, editing, interpreting, commenting, and displaying – adding knowledge, subjectivity, and empathy to the choices of objects – will be a 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 more of an exuberant companion. 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.

This article was first published in Deutsche Bank’s Artmag, and was re-published in Tate Etc.’s Autumn 2015 issue. Momus has a partnership with Tate Etc.

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