The museum community in Paris woke up in shock on February 20, 1909. On the front page of Le Figaro Saturday edition, the Italian poet Filippo Tommaso Godoy Marinetti launched the art form of Futurism. It was a loud and bombastic manifesto that went viral and inaugurated the textual affirmative procedure of the various avant-garde modernist movements.
“We will destroy the museums, libraries, academies of every kind. Museums: cemeteries!”, wrote the avant-la-lettre-punk Marinetti. This declaration of war to museums, stating that a roaring motor car which seems to run on machine-gun fire is more beautiful than the Victory of Samothrace, was an initial landmark on the problematic relationship between museums and us since the first steps of modernism. But certainly not the last. Some of them became juicy intellectual stuff such as Paul Valery’s text Le problème des musées (the museum as a dwelling for “dead visions”). Others, not that much, mostly exercises of criticism that nevertheless touches on the very same painful spot: the imagery of museums as a dusty place unaligned with our contemporary life.
In 2013, for instance, the museum blogosphere worldwide engaged in a discussion about the opinion article from CNN Travel’s senior producer James Durston straightforwardly entitled Why I hate museums that somehow resonates both the lugubrious imagery forged by the futurists and Valery’s “waxen solitudes”. Museums are described by Durston as
“graveyards for stuff. Tombs for inanimate things. Their cavernous rooms and deep corridors reverberate with the soft, dead sounds of tourists shuffling and employees yawning. They’re like libraries, without the party atmosphere. Occasionally a shrill voice bounces down from a distant hallway: ‘No photos!’ and I swivel to see something, anything, that might be interesting. But it’s not.”
There are a thousand stories about this love and hate relationship, mediated mainly by issues of power, control and authority of museums over objects and the decision of who is worthy enough to be portrayed on the galleries walls. But I find the futurist manifesto the most interesting of all. For the declared incompatibility of museums with the tech-oriented society of early modernism and how it took over a century to turn this discomfort into the new forms of technological experience and pleasure that we see in museums today: from The Gallery One project at the Cleveland Museum of Art to the Kraftwerk’s week-long retrospective at the MoMA.
Especially when we consider that the futurist ideals of beauty of speed and living in the absolute concept became a portable utopia in our contemporary society, instantly available within the reach of our fingers. Did you see that coming?
It’s all about control
In the beginning it was a radical idea and could not go wrong. The roots of the museum as a social institution, according to Dr. Victoria Dickenson in Re-forming the Museum, Root and Branch, lie deep in the Enlightenment enterprise for the creation of new knowledge and its dissemination, founded on a very particular and innovative idea that the world might be better known through its productions. And through organizing them and offering public access, new understanding would be generated. As a result, by the mid-19th century, the crowds of London were also clamouring for easier access to the displays of the British Museum.
Dr. Dickenson says that the original form of the museum, founded on an ideal of inclusivity both in its material collections and its public access, was switched over to an exclusionary role that became the most trenchant criticism of this kind of institution — an issue still under discussion today by several practitioner/thinkers/activists like Nina Simon, Executive Director at The Museum of Art & History at the McPherson Center.
Part of it can be attributed to the roles that national museums took on to evoke the wonders, power and glory of european empires embodied in objects conquered through the establishment, exploitation, maintenance, acquisition, and expansion of colonies:
“Not only were overseas collecting practices an inherent part of colonialism. At home, by researching and displaying the overseas collections, museums also offered a public justification for expansion and imperial rule, while developing a framework for intellectual understanding of self and others that became entangled with exclusive rules concerning citizenship entitlements. Moreover, together with world exhibitions, national museums came to embody competitive statements within the unstable continental European power relationships”.
By that time, museum leaders assumed the institutional thrones that control the objects and the stories behind them. And that worked until the 20th century brought the new creations and possibilities of the modern world’s promises, as described by Marshall Berman’s bestseller All That Is Solid Melts Into Air:
“To be modern is to find ourselves in an environment that promises us…transformation of ourselves and the world—and, at the same time, that threatens to destroy everything we have, everything we know, everything we are”.
Museums in this environment really must have been something to fight against and not just by futurists. Gertrude Stein once famously said “You can be a Museum or you can be Modern, but you can’t be both”. It took quite some time before modernists were accepted in museums, as the Impressionists before them or the Abstract Expressionists after. It is instructive to note that the exhibition that marked the dawn of Modernism in America — “The International Exhibition of Modern Art” show of 1913 — happened at the 69th Regiment Armory in New York, not in an art museum.
From the the audience’s point of view a behavioural shift also occurred. From the loud crowds of common people examining the pictures in the 1840’s to a very disciplined experience where you should dress properly, not talk or run or touch, keeping your distance and trying to absorb as much information as possible.
No wonder we developed along the decades not only a safe distance from museums but also the fetishes of both aggression (museum heist movies can almost be considered a genre) and transgression — best represented by the poetic/anti-authority scene in the Louvre created by Jean-Luc Godard in the movie Bande à part (released just four years before 1968’s Paris revolts), where characters Franz, Arthur and Odile race through the museum.
Another example is shown in John Hughes’ classic Ferris Bueller’s Day Off where the protagonists (also three: Ferris, Cameron and Sloane) chooses the Art Institute of Chicago as part of their day off, but curiously enter the museum with a grade school field trip. Then, the characters are seen posing, watching, pondering and even kissing in front of the art. It’s a scene that puts us in check as they makes us wonder wouldn’t it be nice if museums could be happy places such as this?
And that brings us to the initial point of this love and hate relationship debate, considering that most people have never stepped into a museum and have no plans to do so next weekend (in Brazil, for instance, almost 70% of the population — how about in your community?). What role can traditional institutions such as museums expect to play in contemporary society? Can they still rely on the intrinsic value of their collections? How can we make peace with those who hate museums and propose a new deal?
What a difference a day makes
I believe that Bande à part and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off opened the doors of perception to a do-it-yourself experience in museums now enhanced by a variety of technologies. Every exhibition selfie, for instance, is somehow a tribute to this very idea. So is the value of the objects shifting from the power of ownership to the power of sharing. Collective curation, community engagement and even museum citizenship are also correlated manifestations. See, for instance, the Rijksmuseum rebooting itself as a public museum sharing its collections with the worldwide public, allowing individuals to link, co-create and interact with art and history.
With the sophistication and popularization of 3D printing, even the barrier of the uniqueness of the object can be replaced for amazing relationship building experiments. Picture this Van Gogh exhibition in Kibera, the biggest slum in Africa, based on 3D identical reproductions of fine art paintings made by the Van Gogh Museum. You can as well close your eyes and imagine all the blind people that may have heard about Van Gogh finally touching the Sunflowers and really understanding it for the first time.
The tech drive that excited futurists for the museum destruction in the early 20th century is the same one that will save these institutions today from the slow death. In a TEDx talk, MIT research scientist Andrew McAfee positioned himself as a “huge digital optimist, supremely confident that the digital technologies that we’re developing now are going to take us into a utopian future, not a dystopian future. The best days are really ahead”.
I have the same vision regarding museums. From the past 10 years, technology is slowly transforming these institutions and opening a wide field of possibilities. Not this is just the beginning of a radical change but also this probably have reached only the major league or the 1% of the 55,000 museological institutions around the globe. A quick look beyond the museums that we follow and study will show that there’s a lot of work yet to be done.
The ironic note, of course, is to visit the Italian Futurism in a comprehensive exhibition at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York where it can be appreciated, commented and shared through high speed internet. Standing on the world’s summit we launch once again our insolent challenge to the stars!
Notes and links
Notes and links here at the bottom to keep the text clean.
Futurist Manifesto: Futurists are full of contradictions and strong characters that includes Filippo Tommaso Godoy Marinetti, Giacomo Balla and Luigi Russolo. Take a look at the manifesto text and the Figaro reproduction. If you’re in New York, check Italian Futurism, 1909–1944: Reconstructing the Universe exhibition at Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum.
The Victory of Samothrace aka Nike of Samothrace: This is a masterpiece from the Louvre collection that was carefully chosen by the Futurists in their manifesto. It is also a good exemple in the discussion of colonialism and national museums collections. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Winged_Victory_of_Samothrace
Le problème des musées: This text from the poet and writer Paul Valéry (1871-1945) was originally published in 1931. The museum is, to Valéry, a dwelling for “dead visions”, although being at the same time the most auspicious place, as noticed by Theodor Adorno in his essay “The Valéry-Proust Museum”, for a critical perception of art in “our catastrophical reality”. Brush up your french: http://classiques.uqac.ca/classiques/Valery_paul/probleme_des_musees/valery_probleme-musees.pdf . Funny note is that there is now a Paul Válery Museum at the french town of Sète by the Mediterranean Sea: http://museepaulvalery-sete.fr
PhotoCLEC project on Museums and the Colonial Past: http://photoclec.dmu.ac.uk/content/museums-and-colonialism
All That Is Solid Melts into Air: The Experience of Modernity: This is an essential book by written by Marshall Berman and published in New York in 1982 mixing Goethe’s with Communist Manifesto.
Why I hate museums: http://www.cnn.com/2013/08/22/travel/opinion-why-i-hate-museums
Re-forming the Museum, Root and Branch: Published online as a free chapter from the book The Radical Museum: democracy, dialogue & debate at http://www.museum-id.com/idea-detail.asp?id=154
The Gallery One project: http://www.clevelandart.org/gallery-one
Kraftwerk — Retrospective 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8: http://www.moma.org/visit/calendar/exhibitions/1257
Nina Simon’s Museum 2.0: Well, you know this blog, don’t you? http://museumtwo.blogspot.com.br
Are droids taking our jobs?: Andrew McAfee 2012 TEDx talk at https://www.ted.com/talks/andrew_mcafee_are_droids_taking_our_jobs