The future of the museum

That we broke their statues,
that we drove them out of their temples,
doesn’t mean the gods are dead at all.

– IONIEN, Constantin Cavafy

I grew up in museums and love them, and so one of the hardest parts of the last year of Limbo and Lockdown has been missing out on the experience of standing in front of a favorite painting or sculpture and notice something new; or sitting alone, reading and thinking, in a museum café; or meet friends to watch, discuss and contemplate together in a privileged setting. It has been a difficult time for museums and for those who love museums – and difficult to see them reopen into a brave new world for which many are unprepared. Things have changed; things had change, and museums must change too.

This is one of those situations where museums will have to find a solution,
or someone will find out for them.
– Alice Proctor, art historian

A book of challenges and possibilities
After long, anxious months of waiting, the Greek museums finally reopened their doors on May 14, 2021. Despite the masks and other restrictions, I had the impression that Christmas morning, New Year’s Eve and Easter do not. made one as I stood in line in front of the National Archaeological Museum holding a new book: The future of the museum through András Szantó, with 28 dialogues with some of the world’s most visionary museum directors, compiled deep in confinement, as museums face their destiny and future in ways they’ve never really had to deal with before. It was the “dark night of the soul” of museums, and Szántó’s book gathered, organized and distilled these interlocking dialogues into a lively conversation about what museums are doing and need to do to evolve and shape the type of society we want to become. After making a short visit to my oldest and dearest marble “friends” in their galleries, and feeling more alive and hopeful than in the months, I went down to one of the cafes. most intimate and interesting in Athens, facing a small courtyard filled with olive trees. trees, grasses and flowers, open to the blue sky above and surrounded by sculptures recovered from a 2,400-year-old shipwreck. A cat was napping on a nearby bench, and with a cup of coffee, a plate of cookies, and a sprig of rosemary on the table, I settled down to read and think about museums.

OLD MUSES: Athena with the Nine Muses, Jacques Stella (1596-1657) Louvre Museum

House of Muses
First of all, the word “museum” comes from the Greek “mouse“(” House of the Muses “and place of contemplation or” reverie “). Father of Zeus, raised by Apollo, supervised by Athena and good friends of Dionysus, the Nine muses: Clio, Euterpe, Thalia, Melpomeni, Terpsichore, Erato, Polymnia, Ourania and Calliope were a living and inspiring group. However, in the face of revolutions in the arts and technology – and the need to focus on social justice, the environment and other challenges and possibilities – new muses should be added, and the “house of muses” could be added. also need to be shaken.

Difficult times for museums
One of the largest museums in the world – the British Museum in London – illustrates the challenges faced by European museums once founded to showcase the trophies and glory of empire. The British Museum is doing an old thing very well, but now it is called to do a new thing. In many cases, such as in choosing his sponsors and refusing to engage in dialogue with aggrieved source nations and communities, he does not rise to the challenge, does not lead but resists. This refusal to recognize the great issues of our time in a courageous and generous manner has opened the Museum to a storm of criticism and is gradually eroding its trust and reputation with the public.

An eloquent resignation
The resignation of famous Egyptian author Ahdaf Soueif from the museum’s board of directors in 2019 to protest the museum’s partnership with oil giant British Petroleum amid a climate crisis and its continued refusal to engage with source countries at during the repatriation of looted objects. In her letter bomb in The London Book Review, Soueif eloquently explains her reasons for resigning and the agony of working with one of the great British institutions at a time when it is called upon – but refuses – to show moral and social leadership:

“[The British Museum] is in a unique position to lead a conversation about the South to North relationship, common ground and human heritage and the links of history. Its task should be to help us all imagine a better world, and – along the way – to demonstrate the usefulness of museums… The British Museum is not a good thing in itself. It is only good insofar as its influence in the world is good.

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Ahdaf Soueif, acclaimed Egyptian author and former administrator of the British Museum

A climate of crisis
Other museum administrators and professionals across the UK began to follow suit as the government sought to impose its views and quell dissent in state-funded institutions (despite its avowed policy of ‘” independence “). A number of museums have also compounded the problem by turning a deaf ear to calls for change outside their doors. TO Science museum, for example, a flood of high profile resignations has occurred over the past year during its ongoing partnership with fossil fuel companies Shell and Adani.

Sarah sec, a well-known author on the history of science, led the exodus of the Museum’s Board of Trustees and was soon followed by Jo Foster, director of the Research institute in schools as good as University College London Professors Hannah Fry and Chris Rapley, who had also served as museum director from 2007 to 2010 and was currently the senior climatologist on the museum’s board of trustees.

Bill McGuire, professor Skilled geophysical and climatic hazards to University College London, said it “is beyond belief that this iconic British institution has freely chosen to partner with Shell to sponsor its flagship climate exhibition at such a crucial time. I can only conclude that they just don’t care and have no interest in playing a responsible role in tackling the climate emergency.

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Museum of World Cultures, Gothenburg, Sweden

The future is here
Some institutions, however, to do understand what this moment demands and act with agility, boldness and imagination to set an example for their communities, and the public is responding. See photos of children dancing in front of interactive exhibits at Manhattan Children’s Museum or take charge of their own experience at Museum of World Cultures in Gothenburg, Sweden is a hopeful sight and reminds me of one of Athens’ many hidden gems – the Museum of folk instruments in Plaka, in front of the old octagonal water clock of the city, “The Tower of the Winds”.

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Dance at the Manhattan Children’s Museum (Photo: Elumenati)

It was here that I first saw people – adult human beings – wearing headphones and dancing in front of the museum’s exhibits. Black-and-white photographs show shepherds, artisans and musicians making and playing the instruments on display, while period recordings carry the music through the years and into the ears of enchanted modern visitors. In the walled grassy courtyard outside, where concerts were held regularly before the pandemic, ancient turtles happily graze under towering palm trees. Joy is in the air and admission is always free.

Where do we look for ideas?
In a way, the new museums have a clear advantage over the old Imperial behemoths. These majestic vessels of culture and conquest carry the bulk of their cargo of several million stored items and must unload some of the ballast and troubles of the past to make room for new passengers and destinations. More wall space and infrastructure won’t help. Preparing or creating museums for the future involves extensions in time, space and imagination through technologies such as AR and VR and more to come. It is a question of giving certain objects on loan or as a gift to forge partnerships and new audiences. Responsible and intelligent museums render inequitably acquired artifacts and display identical replicas in their place – and use these examples to inspire new interest, dialogue and learning. They open their doors and let in light, air and new ideas. And at the heart of this business is a sense of justice and generosity.

Glimpses of such innovative thinking can be found in András Szántó’s book, in the new Lucas Museum of Narrative Art in Los Angeles, in preparation for the Museum of the future in Dubai and in the without infrastructure Universal art museum, a museum that exists entirely in virtual reality, with unlimited space and almost endless possibilities. Admission is chargeable and you must provide your own cat and coffee, but you can explore the art world in your bathrobe and slippers, and there’s no line.

New metrics and new muses
We are not talking about turning museums into amusement parks. “Amusement” is also not linked to the word “Muse” but comes from a Latin word which means to look stupidly at something. When the director of the Louvre visited the British Museum for a conference in 2016, he shocked the public by saying that nearly 70% of his visitors had no idea what they were watching.

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New muses. (Photo courtesy of Misha Voguel)

Perhaps we need a different set of metrics to assess whether or not a museum is successful in engaging and inspiring its guests. Instead of seeing how many horses we can collect in the corral, why not count how many people are smiling, dancing, reading or drawing? Perhaps we also need to reconsider where we look for inspiration. Maybe we don’t need to draw inspiration from the old Muses, but from new ones.

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NEXT WEEK: In his last column of the year, Don Morgan Nielsen outlines a “radically generous” solution to this dispute and pauses temporarily in this long conversation on the fate of the Parthenon sculptures.


In this year of the bicentenary of the birth of the modern Greek state, both pandemic and festive, Greek city weather is proud to present readers with a weekly column by Don Morgan Nielsen to discuss developments in the context of history, politics and culture regarding the 200-year-old effort to bring the Parthenon sculptures back to Athens.

Classical, Olympian and strategic advisor, Don Morgan Nielsen is currently working with a growing international team to support Greece’s efforts to repatriate and reunify the Parthenon sculptures.

The selected image: Copyright Nick Bourdaniotis | Photograph by Bourdo

Click here to read ALL EDITIONS of the Parthenon Report by Don Morgan Nielsen

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