What does society demand from museums? Vortrag, Micheletti Award Conference and Award Ceremony - Quality in Museums, DASA Dortmund, April 2011. Gottfried Fliedl
I. Quality is not measurable, it is the product of contention
The qualities of a museum are not objectifiable features of the institution and its practices which can be measured against criteria that can be fixed once and for all.
Quality is defined in a social environment which encompasses the institution and organisation as well as the visitors and users, but also the social ambience, in other words the public, politics, cultural policy or the historical culture of a society and the museum's typological or media peculiarities.
And this is certainly not an exhaustive list. One of the significant features of the museum is that it has so many. It is a 'hybrid'. It consists of the oldest media of image and script and is able to integrate newer and the newest ones, such as film, video or the internet. And I am not only talking here about the media, about the architecture, about the collection, about the organisation and so on.
Quality is constituted between rigidified cultural practices, rapidly changing expectations, different demands and immanent institutional intentions and structures. It is made up of both individual actions and expectations, such as curatorial decisions or interests and expectations, on the one hand, and of social notions aimed at the museum on the other.
Attempts at a standardising intervention in quality are limited from the outset to measurable and countable aspects of the museum. But there are only a few of these, such as visitor numbers, budget figures or exhibition areas. At the same time this involves general characteristics of organisations, and precisely not that which constitutes what is special and unmistakable in a museum.
What is quality specifically as regards a museum is not fixed and cannot be fixed, it is fluid, moving, erratic. It is not essence and not a regulatable standard.
Quality is not a feature of museums but an expectation directed at it, an ongoing process in which expectations and the fulfilment of expectations are balanced out. Quality doesn't need measurement, but criticism. And quality arises through criticism, not through control.
In principle I see two possibilities for developing a museum criticism. By analogy, for example, with film or theatre criticism, from the area of tension within which expectations, interests, the medium and its history, its aesthetics and its technical conditions exist. And secondly from the history of the institution, from the logic of development which the museum has assumed. I may respond productively to this history, affirming it or rejecting it. But what is not possible in my view and also not desirable is to forget and ignore this history.
Quality can therefore now, today, become determinable from what we expect of the museum, what we need from the museum, but also from what the museum once was or what it has perhaps not become in many respects and still could become.
Quality is not a standard whose attainment can be monitored, but quality is for me the interplay of museum work and expectations and demands directed at the museum, something which can be debated and about which it is necessary to argue.
II. Quality is a discourse without closure
Taking two current examples with which I have been occupied in recent times I want to show that criteria for quality have to be negotiated in a social process of which it can hardly be said at any point that it is has come to an end.
Museums can establish their objectives, for example with help of a mission statement or a statute. But this will and should not obviate the need for them to occasionally review and modify these objectives. Or they are smart enough to incorporate the process aspect of their institutional identity in the mission statement itself. As the National Museum of Canberra has done, whose programmatic statement contains questions such as: "What does it mean to be an Australian?"
And now to my two examples. A few months ago the government of the city of Hamburg resolved to adopt a package of savings involving cuts in the cultural domain, including the closure of a former regional and urban district museum. A community movement emerged to protest the politically ordered closure of the Altona Museum. This community group recently submitted a petition with much more than 20,000 signatures to the newly elected senate of the city putting forward demands not only to the government but also to the museums. One of the demands was for the government's to be responsible in future only for the legal supervision of the city's historical museums and not the specialist supervision. This would make the museum politically more independent and autonomous in terms of specialist matters, but the community movement also articulated its interests in relation to the museum. It insists on its right to get involved.
This idea may make museum directors and curators feel very uncomfortable, but Hamburg's museum citizens are operating precisely within the framework which makes the notion of a modern museum so fascinating. They use the museum as social and cultural representation venue and one for self expression, as a place for negotiating historical and current questions, a place of knowledge and of the design and trying out of identities.
What I mean by this will probably become clearer if we look at my second example. About 15 years ago the Jewish Museum of the City of Vienna was founded, formerly the oldest Jewish Museum, founded at the end of the 19th century by the Jewish community in Vienna, but then destroyed during the Nazi period.
A new museum management appointed a few months ago ordered hastily and without discussion that the permanent exhibition be terminated, an exhibition which was renowned on account of refinement in terms of museology and historical theory.
Today the Jewish community is no longer the body that sponsors the museum and it has been replaced in this role by the City of Vienna, although it is represented in the supervisory board and invariably carries considerable weight.
After the permanent exhibition had been terminated, a dispute was ignited in which the professionalism of the management was vigorously questioned by prominent representatives of European Jewish museums. An extremely unusual case because normally such open criticism is not expressed within a group of museums linked to one another in their specialist interest. And this was of course a debate on the former, considerably above-average quality of a museum which included the hitherto still open question of the quality the subsequent permanent exhibition would enjoy.
But the dispute also centres on different notions of what a Jewish Museum could be at the beginning of the 21st century. The old permanent exhibition posed the question of the recallability of history irrevocably damaged and rendered precarious by the Holocaust, and turned this into an ingenious installation dealing directly with the subject. But now there are also currents within the Jewish communities which more strongly take as a theme today's changed living conditions and wish to liberate themselves from a fixation on the Holocaust. The new management appears to wish to follow this line.
At the moment I am interested not so much in the factual questions, but in the mechanism of the debate, of the dispute, of the planning. After all what is involved here is more a number of notions of quality which are dependent on interests and projections, on experiences and knowledge of several groups.
III. The museum as a service provider – a change in paradigm without reflection
Perhaps in view of these two examples you will understand why I argue against a certain perception of quality that has become so popular in museum circles and among politicians.
I mean that notion of quality which is cultivated in the methodology and practice of quality control. Quality control seems to have become fashionable in Germany and Switzerland, but hardly at all in Austria as yet. I see at least four problems, two methodological and two connected with museum policy, discussion of which would be highly desirable.
First the two methodological questions: clearly there are very different levels on which one can talk about quality. A museum can be appreciated because of the quality of objects, e.g. its collection of paintings; but it can also be considered famous and significant as a lieu de mémoire of museum history, like for instance a tolerably preserved "cabinet of arts and wonders" of the 16th century; or again it may be currently very important as a social venue for a community, as a place where there is an engagement with high-conflict social or cultural questions. These are three completely different levels and the assignment of quality relates correspondingly to completely different aspects.
I don't see that and how it would be possible to do justice to the normative and qualifying process of quality determination. At the museum where I work I have learnt what the limits of benchmarking are. Apparently identical classes of figures turn out to be unsuitable for a comparison because they can signify very different things in relation to highly different museums.
I have already mentioned the second methodological problem, the extensive lack of quantifiable features specific to the museum which could be used to measure the museum.
Thirdly: control always assumes a subject of the control that pursues intentions and an object that is controlled. This is a hierarchical situation with unequal distribution of power. The questions therefore arise as to who desires such a control, with what intention and to what purpose, how transparently the control proceeds, how clear the criteria, methods and objectives are and who the acting individuals or bodies are – and what competence is assigned to them.
It seems clear to me that the desire for quality control has to do with the general socio-economic development. There is a hardly questioned imperative to achieve organisational and economic efficiency. "Thrift" prevails like a law of nature in public administration and also affects the museums. The museum where I work will this year lose 25% of its public funding and in the coming year its budget is to be cut further.
Quality control is a tool of precisely this state administration. And it is a tool which is used to execute exclusions: museums which do not meet the criteria can "justifiably" be closed down or their fund-worthiness will be questioned.
That is why in quality control criteria are central which serve the purpose of the state control intention described, such as visitor numbers, public payments, own funds, concern size etc., but never, normally not the educational or museological quality of museum work.
It becomes evident that the methods of quality control are not neutral. What is recorded is reinterpreted as the yardstick for success or failure. Figures which only make sense in terms of business management suddenly become the benchmark for the quality of a museum. What could only be an incentive to monitor and optimise organisation and operational sequences becomes the 'meaning of the museum'. Government policy and administration, the media, the general public and quite dramatically also the museums themselves now make profitability the measure of all things.
Here it is therefore no longer a matter of methodological questions. Rather it is a matter of a change in the social function of the museum.
What is becoming apparent is a perception of the museum as a service provider and of the visitor as a customer. This not only fails to correctly recognise the relationship between the museum on the one hand and the general public on the other. The museum would then only be a producer of commodities, such as catalogues, or of services, such as guided tours which are provided for a fee or occasionally free of charge, but overall so as to cover costs.
This is a fundamentally incorrect perception of the character of the public and the educational notion of the museum within the context of the idea of a welfare state society. The state then no longer has to see itself as a guarantor of the conveyance of education and knowledge, but only as a the guardian and regulator of operational rationality and thrift. It is possible to observe, for example, how state funds are no longer seen as essential maintenance in a socially meaningful function, but as subsidies. It is as though a museum is a commercial concern aimed at maximising profit.
I think that it is underestimated, also and precisely in museums themselves, what kind of rupture is taking place in the history and self-perception of the museum. This is a change of paradigm which completely disappears behind the fine adjustments of quality control, a change of paradigm which is caused – not only but also – by this rupture.
What is happening is nothing more nor less than the replacement of a social perception of the museum by a commercial one.
What really angers me is the impertinence of selling us service orientation as customer orientation, and wishing to hold this up as a kind of value added or progress in relation to previous development. Service orientation is justified and recommended as a way of meeting the interests of visitors more effectively.
As though the museum would not be conceivable in its own right without the response of a public, which also goes way beyond what we call visitors. This is not only not an evident case or progress, but on the contrary – what we see here is destruction. And namely destruction of that notion of a civil and democratic public not restricted to simply "being there" in consumerist fashion, but involving participation in public affairs and being a structural feature of the museum in modernity.
Approaching "customers" in the form of a service means instrumentalising them for the purpose of ratings, acclamation and revenues, seeing them merely as passive consumers of something offered. The notion of the public education museum assumes, however, the active and productive participation of citizens in their affairs, including in the cultural domain and in and through the museum.