The last two decades have seen the publication of many books based on the concept of “new museology”, a term originally coined in Peter Vergo’s anthology The New Museology from 1989. New museology can comprise many things; it does not lay down one specific discourse. The literature on new museology follows a general societal development that has had and continues to have very direct consequences for museums across the world: cutbacks in public funding of culture – which includes museums – and stricter political demands as regards financial sustainability, the numbers of visitors attracted, and the popular success of events (favouring blockbusters). Scandinavia has not entirely escaped this development, even if it has set in somewhat later here than on e.g. the Anglo-Saxon museum scene.
Claire Bishop’s rather short book Radical Museology or, What’s ’Contemporary’ in Museums of Contemporary Art? is an atypical contribution for this type of literature, for it does not seek to articulate an ideal vision for the new, popular paradigm concerning the presentation and dissemination of art; rather, it champions the museums’ function as institutions that preserve cultural heritage and can also offer a critical and reflecting voice within wider discussions of societal issues.
Taking her point of departure in other theorists (such as Alexander Alberro, Alexander Dumbadze, and Suzanne Hudson) Bishop views the year 1989 as ushering in a new era. It marks a turning point that is, from a Western point of view, synonymous with the fall of Communism and the emergence of global markets. The global social changes have also entailed very direct and tangible changes to the museum institution. According to Bishop, the late 1990s onwards have seen the rise of a range of new museums dedicated to contemporary art in which “increased scale and a proximity to big business” have characterised the museum’s movement away from being a “patrician institution of elite culture” to become “a populist temple of leisure and entertainment”. Bishop points to a number of examples of museums that have adapted themselves to this development and now exist and operate in accordance with the global market conditions where private investors, foundations, and collectors not only help fund, but also shape and define the museums. She also describes how these new institutions are framed by “starchitecture” (museums built by star architects) and become receptacles used to present great (especially male) artists – and the works exhibited tend to be big on volume, too.
However, Bishop’s intention is not to delve deeply into a pessimistic critique lamenting the current state of affairs, even if such a critique is inherent within the book’s argumentation. Rather, she wishes to point to three museums– Van Abbemuseum in Eindhoven, Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía in Madrid, and Museum of Contemporary Art Metelkova (MSUM) in Ljubljana – which, again according to Bishop, seem to be successfully evading the dominant trends within the museum industry. At the same time these institutions carry out significant and important work with contemporary art and “the contemporary”. Bishop even goes as far as to say that museums with historical collections have become the most fertile and fruitful test centres for “non-presentist, multi-temporal contemporaneity”. A position that has hitherto mainly been attributed to the biennials.
By “non-presentist” Bishop means that works (from any period) possess a kind of historical relativity, which means that they can always also be understood by taking a direct, unmediated approach to them. In this context she mentions Reina Sofía, whose educational programme – entitled “Radical Education” – takes its point of departure in the Brazilian artist Lygia Clark’s concept of the “relational object” and Jacques Ranciere’s idea of the “ignorant schoolteacher” who would, in theory, place the spectator and the institution quite on a par with each other, making their approaches to the work of equal value. Here the text takes a turn towards focusing on the concept of artwork and history, creating another line of thinking that runs parallel to the main line of the argument, but still touches upon the perception of institution audiences.
This relativistic perception of history, which is never quite clearly defined in the book, forms the starting point of a review of the three museums as model examples of how to work with art and the contemporary. All three institutions are quite uncompromising in the way they present and mediate art. They do not curry favour with sponsors or private collectors, nor do they pander to politicians or seek widespread popularity. They work with art, with the contents of art, and the narratives generated when artworks meet and merge. One example would be the van Abbemuseum’s series Play van Abbe (2009-2011), which constituted a kind of revisit to the collection on the basis of the collecting activities of previous directors, allowing the museum to demonstrate and highlight the ideologically based perceptions of art that have held sway through the ages.
The three museums singled out by Bishop all employ discursive exhibition practices that incorporate history, political realities, etc., in their exhibitions; works and other objects (the three institutions all use products from visual culture as well as art) engage in mutual meaning-making while relating to a wider context. This is evident at Reina Sofía, which began collecting archives in order to transform the museum into what was described as an “archive of the commons”. The archival is also a pivotal point for MSUM, which presented an exhibition series entitled The Present and the Presence consisting of a series of repetitions that demonstrated historical and ideological perceptions of art. MSUM has also established a number of archives that contain documentation associated with performances, testimonials from local artists, and more.
Bishop’s focus on the three institutions as examples of alternative museum models is – in an age where a general trend towards privatisation within the public sector has a growing impact on semi-public and public museums – both meaningful and relevant. The literature on new museology emerging over the last 20 years is mainly concerned with how museums can improve their presentation/communication/education/learning activities to attract more visitors and transform themselves into socially relevant and/or successful income-based enterprises. At the three institutions showcased in this book the main emphasis seems to be on how one can create content-based exhibitions that work with art, visual culture, and historical awareness in a meaningful, socially relevant manner. Bishop points out that in recent years all three institutions have, despite good intentions to the contrary, faced cuts in public support; for example, the van Abbemuseum has been the target of local criticism focusing on the insufficient number of visitors attracted, which meant that it actually faced even bigger cuts than eventually occurred. It seems as if these institutions are operating up against political and economic realities, which makes them something of an “endangered species” (she also mentions how museums are being closed down in several Balkan states due to an unwillingness to spend money on culture in times of economic crisis and austerity), and the future seems uncertain for this kind of museum.
There can be no doubt that it requires a great deal of idealism and political nous for a cultural institution to maintain a non-populist position. Nor can there be any doubt that such practices give rise to well-reflected and meaning-making exhibitions that infuse discourses within certain parts of the art scene. Bishop also writes about the spectator’s interaction with such exhibitions, presenting a similarly idealised perception of a spectator capable of deciphering the art on the premises established by the exhibition. But even though Ranciere writes about the ignorant teacher and about how everyone is capable of understanding, such understanding is rare for most spectators visiting a contemporary art museum. Here, a sense of alienation is frequently the first sensation to strike less-than-seasoned visitors.
Indeed, the role of the spectator seems to be the greatest problem in terms of defining a museum institution that is not entirely subject to ideals defined by the experience economy. Some museums are places of research rather than experience venues. The three museums highlighted by Bishop are interesting as places where curatorial research is carried out – within their own collections and otherwise – and they should be recognised as such. However, the issue of the spectators’ approach to such exhibitions is not unproblematic. The exhibitions are created for a particular segment capable of reading and decoding meaning from the works and contexts, and perhaps it would be more appropriate to provide arguments in favour of this segment’s presence in visitor statistics rather than to claim that these are exhibitions for everyone.
Bishop concludes by commenting on how the neo-liberal trends of our present day (which have by now become general trends of society) make culture subordinate to economic value and denigrate not only museums, but also humanist values in general. This issue also crops up in the ongoing societal debate in Denmark, where we recently saw how the recommendations issued by the government’s productivity commission included cutting back on Humanities subjects at Danish universities because the graduates end up not earning enough money, meaning that they are not sufficiently productive. Presumably most graduates from Humanities/Arts working within the cultural sector would reject this claim.
Bishop’s book is about three museums that practise what she calls “radical museology”. But perhaps it should rather be regarded as piece of social critique, as a book that invites discussion by reflecting on contemporary practices that go against the hegemony of our times. She even goes so far as to call these museums’ practices “anti-hegemonic” without, however, reflecting on how they might in fact be establishing a different hegemony in themselves. Nevertheless Bishop’s book offers a necessary contribution to the ongoing discussion about museums, cultural values, and their meaning and significance in society today.
“Museums are a collective expression of what we consider important in culture, and offer a space to reflect and debate our values; without reflection, there can be no considered movement forward,” says Bishop, presenting her take on why museums are important to society. The observation is a highly relevant one, and any humanist will probably claim that reflection on the current state of things generates and shapes continued development. Whether the three museums singled out here carry out reflections that are sufficiently relevant in relation to wider societal discussions is another question. The exhibitions staged at the three venues can be viewed as academic exercises that spring from theories on art and culture and from a particular kind of consensus found on the art scene. Bishop offers a brief critique of the van Abbemuseum’s inability to enter into a dialogue with the local community. Her aside may reflect a general problem within present-day critical art and theory and the forms they take; the agents on this scene tend to primarily engage each other within a relatively narrow academic field instead of entering into a dialogue with local communities, with the realm of politics, or with other professions and segments of the population.
When compared to the prevalent trends evident in museum institutions today the three museums certainly represent a radical museology different from the affirmative ideals presented in much literature about new museology and practiced in museums across the world. However, it is also possible to view these positions as part of a new museology that focuses on the research aspect involved in curating exhibitions; an aspect that is crucially important if museums are to continue to define themselves as research institutions. And indeed, is that not what these three museums practice: research-based curating based on their own collections?
The book does not constitute a significant contribution to new museology literature. It is too short, and it is problematic that it does not inscribe itself contextually within this literary genre. More than anything it strikes the reader as a minor contribution that may serve to promote the three institutions to a particular, critical group of users who point – with a certain degree of self-aggrandizement – to their own radicality. In that sense the book is in fact a rather utopian publication, keeping itself aloof from certain realities and offering only brief asides to address challenges that any museum director must take very seriously – specifically the lack of local commitment and poor visitor statistics – and giving nothing but praise for the highly academic activities that take place at the three museums. Nevertheless Radical Museology or, What’s ’Contemporary’ in Museums of Contemporary Art? is a significant counterpoint to the frequently affirming consensus within new museology literature about contemporary museums; in such literature you will often look in vain for critical reflection on the values inherent in and promoted by new museology – and such reflection is also necessary to take our museums onwards into the future.
What one might really want to see would be a Critical Museology rather than a Radical Museology – a more comprehensive volume that addressed the eternal issue of how to combine and merge art historical and art theoretical research with more popular forms of communication/education activities that will be relevant to a larger demographic. For the real strength here resides in the critically reflected museum practice – which does not really resemble an activist strategy, but rather a reflected academic practice. Such a contribution would offer a more relevant discussion of new museology and contemporary museum practice.