What does society demand from museums? Vortrag, Micheletti Award Conference and Award Ceremony - Quality in Museums, DASA Dortmund, April 2011. Gottfried Fliedl
IV. The museum in modernity: the right to enjoy cultural heritage and the socialising force of cultural heritage
I have appealed several times to something that I call the notion of the modern-day museum and I just said that the activities of Hamburg's museum fans take place within the framework of this notion and can appeal to it.
In the historiography of museums emphasis is normally placed on the continuity of a development of collecting and exhibiting from the early modern age to the present. But together with many other researchers I see a crucial break in the development between about 1770 and 1810. In this period there developed the notion of the museum as the location of a common, state-sponsored and state-protected stock of cultural assets. In other words the notion of a heritage which is preserved, studied and enjoyed and for which a special architectural and social location is created to do this: the museum.
Since the foundation of the British Museum in 1753, and quite definitely since the foundation of the Louvre, that legal notion of the common ownership of collections has therefore been a central structural feature of the museum. As a complement to the legal notion of common ownership there emerges at the same time the social notion of the museum as a place of collective identity. Of patrimoine, in France, beni culturali, in Italy or heritage in England.
In order to highlight the incomparable cultural dynamism of this dual notion of material and spiritual ownership, of ownership and identity, I would ask you to consider briefly the notorious, but for our purposes unbeatably illustrative brand name of an Italian criminal organisation: "Cosa Nostra".
The idea of common ownership of cultural goods, of an asset which in a certain way helps create community and which represents the community, emerges in a special historical situation. The religious and old politico-social means of endowing life with meaning imploded and had to be replaced by new ones, and one of these legitimising and meaning-endowing entities was (national) history. The ancient unifying bond of community, religious faith and belief in a king, the guardian of this religious idea, had to be replaced. This changed the relationship to cultural heritage. One began to collect, to preserve and to cultivate. In the France of the revolution they began to nationalise the royal possessions, to annex aristocratic collections, to secularise churches and monasteries. There arose an enormous store which could then be used to feed the museums founded by the revolution.
With the founding of a number of great museums something like a common object is created, collections of culturally and historically significant items around which the community can form and collect – literally and symbolically. Perhaps you consider this reference to the idea of cultural heritage in the age of bourgeois revolution and enlightenment to be empty theory. But follow me back to a certain date in the year 1793 and just see what happened on this day in Paris.
We write the 10th August 1793, the anniversary of the storming of the Tuileries, the event that is regarded as the definitive end of the monarchy in France, the day from which Louis XVI became a prisoner and accused.
On this day three events are being consciously planned and synchronised which make it in the eyes of today's historiography the day on which the people of France declared themselves to be a national and democratic society.
It is the day of a festival, a document and a place.
The festival is La fête de l'Unité, the Festival of Unity. We should imagine it as a kind of procession culminating in a ceremony which took place on the ruins of the Bastille. The deputies from all the départements in France drank from a cup water flowing from the breasts of an Egyptionesque statue of Wisdom.
The document is the Constitution, the first democratic-republican constitution of France. It is solemnly declared on this day.
The place is the Louvre, since the middle ages the palace of the King and the structural and symbolic insignia of an absolutist power. On this day the royal palace becomes a public museum.
All three events together constitute the French Nation on the basis of a democratic, judicial and symbolic act.
Like the other events the opening of the museum in the Louvre was also – and I quote Andrew McClellan, the historian of the history of the museum in the age of revolution - “tied to the birth of a new nation. The investiture of the Louvre with the power of a revolutionary sign radically transformed the ideal museum public. To the extent that the Louvre embodied the Republican principles of Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity, all citizens were encouraged to participate in the experience of communal ownership, and clearly many did.” What is being talked about here is not the experience of art, not collection and exhibition, but the socialising function of the museum.
The importance of Clellan's formulation and the level of aspirations established with the museum in the Louvre only becomes clear if one returns to the Constitution declared at the same time. The right to universal education is rooted in this, as is the state's obligation to enforce this right: "Education is the need of all. Society must exert all its powers to further the progress of general reason and to make education accessible to all citizens", are the words of article 22 of the Constitution. This state guarantee forms the core of the welfare state perception of politics, in other words also of cultural policy and museum policy. But: The participation of all is not the goal, it is one of the essential conditions for attaining the goal. And this is, literally in clause 1 of the Constitution "…. general happiness".
From our understanding of a welfare and social state, the awareness of the perspective of our community as can be found in the first constitutions of the United States and France and the associated declarations of the human rights has largely been lost.
Education is not only the acquisition of knowledge or experience of art, but active participation in public affairs, a civilizing process through which the individual and the community, citizens and the state generate themselves so to speak. And participation is not mere access to cultural institutions and definitely not customer status with a service provider. Participation means a public actively producing itself and becoming actively involved in public affairs.
The notion of the museum in modernity is thus inseparably linked with the notion of democracy. But for reasons of time I am unable to pursue this line of thought any further.
How aridly and pathetically the talk of a service provider, of the museum customer and of his needs seems, and even more so the stubborn self-misconception of the museums themselves and of the museum policy that goes no further than seeing the museums' public nature in making them accessible to the general public.
But going way beyond this, what lies embedded in the concept of the museum in modernity is the self-justification and self-reflection of society as being more democratic, although the museum is one of the many places where that sphere of the civil public can develop in which 'common affairs' can be negotiated freely and without constraint and ideally also without consideration of any social barriers. The public realm is that in which the welfare state concept can first be realised and it is an essential condition of democratic socialisation – including in the cultural sphere. Museums are, like other institutions, highly precious vessels in which this public produces itself, develops and emerges. This public is necessarily discursive, analytical and critical, since only in this way can the permanent negotiation take place with which the citizen can identify with the community and the latter can 'form' itself – in a process without closure.
V. The museum in modernity: a civilizing ritual
When Carol Duncan and Sabine Offe speak of the civilizing role of the museum, in essence what they mean is this social process. In order to move from these ideas to a criticism of the museum and back to the question of the "good museum" a few explanatory remarks are needed.
"The myth of the Enlightenment" Sabine Offe writes " is based on the notion of the knowability, presentability and shapability of the world and its controllability through human reason. The museum as a place of education displayed the hopes and illusions involved in the narrowing of the western civilisation process and long-term changes in standards of human behaviour and sensitivity. Potentially all museums were thought of as places were the public could form a picture of the world by looking at objects from nature and art and from the ordering of history in terms of artefacts whose past significance seemed to be trend-setting for the tasks of the contemporary present and future."
In this understanding he museum is not exclusively conceived of retrospectively and merely as an archive, not as a place for the guarded and protected slumber of things , as a wide-spread curatorial role model would suggest, nor is it exclusively an agency of knowledge that didactically imparts lessons.
The museum is a place of self-description and self-interpretation in an individual and social respect. The ritual of the museum served to introduce civil norms, which were appropriated by public ritual performance, rendered visible as being generally binding and practised. They served to dramatise the "self-description" and "self-interpretation" of civil society and its members, to present a civilisation which they were supposed to create at the same time.
"But", and I quote Sabine Offe once more, "that's not all, that is not the end of the museum's function. What is ignored here is the ambivalent relationship intrinsic to these rituals towards the living everyday reality. They have a latent function which is not taken up by the "civilising" function. As such they represent a wish-fulfilment of civil society which is reflected not in how it is, but in how it should be and would like to be. But 'civilising' rituals in the museum create – like all rituals – counter-images which refer not only to social values and norms, but also to quite different real social experiences. They take up a theme which is concealed in a distorted form. They not only testify explicitly to the ideal picture but implicitly also to the nightmare images of civilisation. For museums, all museums, represent not only what there is to see, but also what has to be removed from the public discourse and perception or what remains concealed, a history of social violence." (End of quote) My experience is that museums do not perceive their own reverse side, or not sufficiently. But to the extent that something is suppressed, remains masked, it acts all the more strongly on the practice of the institution as something not seen through. Museums seem to tend to celebrate culture and history in a triumphant and affirmative way, instead of penetrating them analytically.
From this I conclude the need for museum work to become self-reflective, critical towards its own actions, towards the methods of presentation, the mediation, the collecting, in short the entire repertoire of activities which constitute the institution of the museum.
Here a potential for self-reflective practice opens up for the museum, one through which it could enlighten itself and its public about itself and could render what is distorted, concealed and suppressed visible, legible and speakable.
Museums would have to take a big step, jump over their own shadow and question their manipulative and hegemonial function. After all museums are also, as Carol Duncan has described, "sites that publicly represent beliefs about the order of the world, its past and present, and the individual's place within it. [...] To control a museum means precisely to control the representation of a community and its highest values and truths."
VI. Museums need reflectivity
An example: the heart of the permanent exhibition in the Jewish Museum in Vienna was an installation of holograms showing fragments of earlier Jewish life. They were arranged around an urban space, and whoever entered this space experienced how the things, street views, portraits, ritual objects, buildings, industrial products emerged and disappeared in front of his eyes, an effect of holograms as the observer moved forward and back, bent down or turned around in front of the holograms.
The curator responsible for this part of the exhibition, Felicitas Heimann-Jelinek, explained the installation like this: "The medium of the transmission hologram deals with (the) disappearance, with the fact that history withdraws from us. Furthermore it questions the absolute starting point of the historical object just as it does the concept of a 'true' historical reconstruction. No exhibition can make clear what Austrian-Jewish history actually was to its full extent."
'Disappearance', the ephemeral nature of the 'images' of a hologram also does not admit a phantasmatic expectation directed at the museum: that it could through the permanent securing, fixing of things also secure and preserve memory and historical truth permanently.
The installation thus reflects the memory of the museum destroyed in the Nazi period, a memory violently broken off. The museum conveys to us – with purely visual means – that we cannot without further ado take possession of a history, not even in a museum.
The work of an exhibition, as I indicate here in outline, lies not only in its documentary function, not only in the imparting of knowledge, but primarily in expounding the problems of the historical experience in a museum context.
This involves a very high quality I believe; to do something like this is demanding, challenging, and it demands of the visitor not that he consume, but that he challenge himself, that he wish to know something, not that he remain a spectator, but that he behave actively towards himself and his history. Achieving this is certainly not only a function of museums concerned with Jewish culture and history.
There is evidence that the debates on museum quality are concerned too narrowly with an almost exclusively business management approach, heading towards a narrowing of the museum concept to an organisation where economic profitability is demanded and the social objectives are extremely unclear. The rich and complex options which such a uniquely hybrid cultural institution as the museum possess are misunderstood and pared down to the ideal of satisfying consumerist needs.
Against this I propose a museum concept this can be derived both from the history of the institution and from current social demands.
In my view quality is not a feature that can be established and fixed once and for all, but rather the articulation of demands directed at the museum and the monitoring of their fulfilment.
The quality of museums must be a matter of discussion and dispute, in a process which may hardly come to a standstill and in a discourse which must be conducted actively and energetically, not solely by the museums themselves, but primarily by them.
High quality museums exist where museum criticism exists, in the museums themselves, within the museum community and the museum association and in the communities which carry the museums financially and socially and which need really the museums.
Good museums arise not through control, but through criticism.
High quality museums exist where social groups demand something of the museum and museums are smart enough to respond.