“Museums are struggling to make the best use of their collections.”
Much like many of the artworks mounted to their crumbling walls, it appears that museums and their curators are pinned precariously to structures that are failing to inspire, to educate and to meaningfully engage visitors.
Taking recent developments in English museology policy, this essay quickly surveys a range of curatorial methods used internationally to address issues of irrelevance and stagnation. It concludes with a phenomenological account of an experimental curatorial model, one which nurtures dynamic encounters within the museum, fostering a space of exploration, engagement and enjoyment in doing so.
In weaving together recurring dynamics across these methods, this essay proposes that English museums, and their curators, need to embrace a gestural approach to the curation and management of their collections in order to remain world-class institutions meeting the needs of the twenty-first century.
Governmental context: evolution not revolution
“A country can only be strong, healthy and contented if it nourishes its heritage and cultivates a widespread appreciation of the arts.”
In 2016 the Department of Culture Media and Sport published a broad plan that detailed their aspirations for the creative cultural sector in the UK. Instead of a radical overhaul of current structures, ‘The Cultural White Paper’ aimed to be an evolutionary review: nurturing the UK’s creative cultural sector’s continued success through iterative reflection and organic development.
The plan held up museums (both national and regional) as flagship institutions for culture in the UK; drawing upon both socio-cultural and economic data to demonstrate their increasing impact. Despite the positive light cast however, the plan alluded to barriers compounding museums ability to fulfil their multi-faceted role. These include: dwindling public funding; requirements to deliver ever more multi-disciplinary outcomes, from education, to health; and the pressure to keep up with twenty-first century tastes in an ever-expanding entertainment industry.
In order to alleviate these barriers, ‘The Cultural White Paper’ proposed a review of English museums, with the aim of facilitating an evolution within the sector.
‘The Mendoza Review’ (The Review) was published in 2017. Focusing on England’s museum infrastructure, the review aimed to provide Government and its Arms Length Bodies, with a deeper understanding of the factors affecting museums and where support should be directed in order to achieve the long-term outcomes set out in ‘The Cultural White Paper.’ ‘The Review’ set out nine priorities, ranging from the challenges of decreasing public funding, to digital capacity, and cultural education. These priorities, in turn, led to the publication of an overarching ‘Museums Action Plan’ in 2018, that aimed to unite The Department for Culture Media and Sport and its Arms Length Bodies.
Action: towards a dynamic museum
“It is easier to say what [the museum] should not look like, it should not look like a business or office building, nor should it look like a place of light entertainment.”
‘The Review’ makes clear that the fundamental point of museums are the collections they hold. Museums are defined as spaces that bring people together; that improve health and social outcomes; that increase educational attainment; that provide space for scholarly research; and that allow visitors to contemplate their place in, and relationship to, the world. In other words, museums house more than just artefacts; they hold collections of affective objects, which through curatorial applications are capable of creating intuitive thinking spaces to borrow Aby Warburg’s term.
Far from entities capable of flexing to the sociocultural climate, ‘The Review’ highlights the static nature of museums, a lack of curatorial expertise, and limited funding as factors constraining the sector. Moreover, competition with the growing entertainment industry and changing consumer tastes, has led to museums, especially those with historical collections, failing to meaningfully engage with a twenty-first century viewership. These factors compound creating a vicious cycle whereby reducing visitor numbers (and diversity) equates to reducing income (private, public, and philanthropic), which equates to restricted programming and outreach, which equates to reducing visitors.
Recognising collections as fundamental to the success of the sector, ‘The Review’ called for England’s museums to adopt a dynamic approach to collections curation and management, using the rich histories they hold to tackle issues of irrelevance and stagnation through innovative storytelling, education and engagement.
Dynamic, permeable, radical: semiotic labels and curatorial interventions
“The museum only make sense as a pioneer.”
Alexander Dorner (c.1920)
The areas of concern highlighted by ‘The Review’ are not common to England, nor the twenty-first century: a lack of diversity and relevance; confusion over the educational role of museums; issues in governance and staff capacity; along with mounting concerns around funding, are effecting western-style museums globally. Similarly, international museums have sought to find solutions to these structural issues in dynamic applications of their collection.
In her 2013 essay, come book, ‘Radical Museology: or, What’s ‘Contemporary’ in Museums of Contemporary Art’ Claire Bishop provides three case studies for museums that have adopted dialogical approaches to the curation of their collection an wider programming; in doing so she highlights how they “reboot the future through the unexpected appearance of a relevant past.” In her account of the display strategies adopted by Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía (Spain), Bishop describes how the museum mobilises visitors to think in an active manner by juxtaposing works of art with wider visual cultures, in a self-critical yet playful manner. Bishop suggests that this curatorial methodology transforms the visitor’s encounter with the collection from a passive experience to an active engagement, one where imaginative connections can be drawn. This subjective reading allows the Reina Sofía to become a shared commons space: an emancipated space that Bishop likens to Jacques Rancière’s concept of the ignorant schoolmaster – that is, a space where there is no hierarchy in intelligence.
Alina Cohen’s 2018 article echoes Bishops argument for a commons space of dialogue. In the article she suggests that presentist structural issues are hindering museums ability to grow, becoming inaccessible (both physically and emotionally) in the process. Quoting Caroline Goeser (Museum of Fine Arts, Houston), Cohen states that museums in the twenty-first century should focus their efforts on becoming welcoming spaces: curating their collections and displays in order to set up a plethora of entry and access points. By enabling subjective lines of enquiry to emerge in the space, visitors are able to generate their own alliances of attraction, in turn leading to a feeling of ownership and empowerment.
To further conceptualise this dialogical alternative, Cohen takes Laura Raicovich’s simple initiative at the Queens Museum (New York) as a case study to explore how curatorial strategies could support museums to become relevant to their communities. The Queens Museum, which represents an ethnically diverse society, re-wrote its wall texts, brochures, website, (and other textual intermediaries) and in doing so established itself as welcoming space, broadening its viewership by allowing more people to relate to the basic contextual information.
The focus on social relevance is highlighted by Bishop in her discussion on the Van AbbeMuseum (The Netherlands). Describing the VanAbbe’s experimental ‘Plug Ins’ programme – a recurring series of temporal exhibitions, where invited curators and artists curate a new exhibition using works of art held in VanAbbe’s historic collection – Bishop reiterates how these interchangeable methods of display can led to vivid readings and new ways to engage with the stories held in the museum. She suggests that these temporal interventions not only generate social connections, between visitors and the museum, but lead to new social value being created for visitors.
In relation to the diversification of visitors and making museums meaningful places for visitors, Holland Cotter outlines three projects undertaken by New York institutions, where the process of diversification is initiated through collection management. By comparing the Guggenheim’s UBS MAP Global Art Initiative, The Museum of Modern Art’s (MoMA) C-MAP project, as well as the Queens Museum’s partnership with civic arts organisation Creative Time, Cotter makes clear that museums in the twenty-first century, far from following one didact methodology, need to embrace the fluidity of contemporary life in order to sustain their social currency.
“There will be no single model, and there shouldn’t be. Art and life which are equally a museum’s business, are too complicated to be reflected in any one mirror.” Holland Cotter.
Across the different approaches surveyed here commonalities in methods emerge:
- Risk: pushing systemic and institutional boundaries by having the flexibility to allow subjective engagements to happen in the exhibition space.
- Dramaturgy: moving away from quasi-academic and/or capitalist modes of display and storytelling that aestheticize (neutralise through spectacle) artworks as corpses.
- Education: creating a space of equality and two-way knowledge transference.
- Commons: creating a shared space of openness, where neither one voice, nor discipline are favoured over any other.
- Artistic: the deep involvement of artists and creatives in the process of developing and delivering these fluid methods.
To enable these methods to evolve in the space the role of museums, their staff and curators becomes one that embraces fluidity. These experimental approaches; namely, inter-disciplinary openness, dialogical displays, and ‘alternative’ forms of education, echo numerous theoretical arguments made by acclaimed curators – such as Hans-Ulrich Obrist (in his new lexicon for curatorial practice), and Okwui Enwezor (in his description of exhibitions as filters connecting fragments in a dialectical field) – in their calls for progressive methods of curation.
Clearly, the evolution of museums is contingent upon an evolution in the curatorial methods applied. As facilitators of the commons museums, their staff and their collections need to work in a circulatory manner. Dynamic collections curation and management should reflect the risk, recursively, and remediation characteristics by Dr. Clémentine Deliss in her ongoing research into new models of visual thinking and concept-work.
The dynamics of the Metabolic Museum-University
“To articulate the complexity of the museum through its collections requires a restive curatorial methodology that tests out the effects of a clash between different positions, be they based on aesthetic, art critical, cultural, historical, or scientific propositions.”
Dr. Clémentine Deliss
Conceived and directed under the vision of Prof. Dr. Clémentine Deliss, the Metabolic Museum-University is a conceptual model for a new institution, a trans-institution, that clashes the functions of a university (a place of learning), with a museum (a repository, with numerous socio-cultural functions), and a body (a complex ecology of organs and energies, all contingent upon one another, and external nourishment also).
As a project based on concept-work, the Metabolic Museum-University does not have fixed aims per se, instead, it aspires to “identify metaphors, images, and environments that give greater visibility to urgent questions affecting our common lives.” Dr. Deliss describes these forms of communication as visual adjacencies: discursive ruses that, through conceptual, comedic, and communal experiments, exacerbate the visual frictions felt between different works of art, works and visitors, and between visitors themselves.  At the core of these adjacencies is the celebration of subjectivity: curatorial stimuli are used as timorous connective tissues that nurture non-standard engagements with the work on display.
This curatorial concept reflects that approach to exhibition-making described by Irit Rogoff in her essay ‘An Embodied Criticality:’ that is, as a method that moves away from didact narration, and illustration to an approach that enables an unbound exploration of the exhibition space, with a plurality of meanings conjured through the visual adjacencies injected.
The Metabolic Museum-University Ljubljana, 2019
For a week between July 26 and August 2, 2019 the Metabolic Museum-University (Ljubljana 2019) squatted in a number of cultural venues across Ljubljana (Slovenia); including: the National Gallery of Slovenia, the Contemporary Art Museum, the Natural History Museum, the Centre for Slovenian Culture, as well as in venues that formed the 33rd Biennial of Graphic Arts (curated by Slavs and Tatars, with support from The International Centre of Graphic Arts).
Over this ‘Organ Week’ the Metabolic Museum-University’s faculty (an interdisciplinary contingent of artists, scientists, historians, independent thinkers and students) delivered a discursive programme of events, lectures, artistic and dynamic activities; injecting an “emancipatory oxygen” into each cultural institution; and in doing so transforming these spaces “from a site of controlled consumption into a co-working space.”
The importance of temporality (the idea of squatting in the exhibition space) is something to stress here: being contained within a fixed architectural structure, or fixed within an institution, risks the aestheticization of the experience. A static (read stagnant) intervention, therefore, restricts the generative capacity of museums and their collections, limiting their potential to become welcoming spaces for subjective exploration.
By paring the theoretical with the highly tactile through a process of concept-work, The Metabolic Museum-University created non-gated, non-professionalised, non-commercial, spaces across Ljubljana. By squatting in these sites of controlled consumption, The Metabolic Museum–University established an openness, one where visitors were welcomed as fellow students, and thus emancipated from the standardised architectonical narratives and of presuppositions of a cultural narrative imposed by static institutional curating.
Against a backdrop of displacement, how could a dynamic situation like The Metabolic Museum-University unfold in an English museum? What are the factors that need to be established? And what are the structural frames that need to be dematerialised to enable a space of metabolization?
Conclusion: Learning from the Metabolic Museum-University
“You don’t try to cure a museum with a museum. Instead, you remediate it by introducing an outside interlocutor.”
Dr. Clémentine Deliss
It appears that dynamic museums are producers of an unfolding experience, not merely repositories of goods, or tellers of commodified stories. The continued vitality of England’s museums, therefore, depends on their ability to generate discursive commons spaces that create meaningful encounters; be this in an educational, social-outcome, or purely enjoyable sense. To quote Alexander Dorner “The new type of art institute cannot merely be an art museum as it has been until now […] the new type will be more like a power station, a producer of new energy.”
The Metabolic Museum-University (Ljubljana 2019) supplied this new energy through a process of transvesting: actively changing how visitors view, act, and engage with both the museum as a space, and the collection it holds in order to make it – the museum – transform. In a method similar to those outlined by Bishop, Cohen, Cotter and Vesters, it is by injecting a polyphony of cross-disciplinary stimuli into the space of display that The Metabolic Museum-University was able to dissolve the often coloured walls that segregate the institutional front and backstage. This dramaturgical re-imagining, to apply Erving Goffman’s concept, is not an entropic one, instead, this process of concept-work fundamentally messes up the performed heteronormative, often colonial, structure (both the physical and the systemic structure) of the museum, and in doing so creates a constellation of unfolding experiences. The method adopted by the Metabolic Museum-University: its flexibility, its inter-disciplinary openness, and the visual polyphony it injected, not only enlivened the otherwise dead space of the display but actualised a new concept of mobile museums.
If English museums are to remain relevant, and to avoid presentist stagnation, it is vital that their fundamental purpose – that is, the curatorial application and management of their collection – is carried out in a gestural manner: actively changing how visitors engage and act by providing a commons space; one that inspires, that educates, and that allows visitors to establish their own place in, and in relation to, the diversity of art and cultural heritage held in collections across the country.
 Mendoza, N. 2017: page 44
 In their joint letter, published in the Times (2019) cited in Art Fund (2019), the National Museums Directors Council (NMDC) and the Museums Association (MA) articulated concerns around the physical structures of museums across the UK: highlighting that a decade of funding reductions, when paired with increased visitor numbers, has resulted in decreasing structural investment. This “means that loans and touring exhibitions are becoming more difficult to secure because insurers are concerned about the protection of exhibits” (Times, 2019, cited in Art Fund, 2019). NMDC and MA felt this lack of distribution, and the limited opportunities to celebrate the collections held in museums across the UK was having a negative impact on the UK’s cultural influence at large, and on individual museum’s ability to inspire and intrigue.
 quoted in Vaizey, E. 2016: page 5.
 These concerns were expressed in both The Mendoza Review (Mendoza N, 2017) and in the NMDC and MA’s joint letter (Art Fund, 2019).
 Mendoza, N. 2017
 DCMS. 2018
 quoted in Pepi, M. 2014
 Mendoza, N. 2017: page 10
 Warburg’s concept of a thinking space and its application in exhibition design (curating) as a way to unlock socio-political agency was articulated in Christel Vesters’ 2016 paper ‘A Thought Never Unfolds in One Straight Line’ (Vesters, C. 2016).
 Cotter, H. 2015.
 Mendoza, N. 2017: page 5, 44.
 quoted in Birnbaum, D and Obrist, H. 2010.
 Bishop, C. 2013: page 9, 61
 Bishop, C. 2013: page 61. Stress my own
 Bishop uses the Reina Sofía’s curation of Pablo Picasso’s ‘Guernica’ (1937) as a case study. Installed in a gallery opposite Jean-Paul Dreyfas’ ‘Espagne’ (1936) – a documentary style film conveying civilian traumas of the Spanish civil war – the juxtaposition exacerbates each works socio-political friction. Bishop, C. 2013: page 41.
 Bishop, C. 2013: page 43.
 Cohen, A. 2018
 ‘Alliances of attraction’ and ‘montages of knowledge’ are terms again borrowed from Aby Warburg. These concepts developed from his interdisciplinary library of 60,000 books which he arranged and rearranged according to his changing thinking and concerns (Vesters, C, 2016).
 Bishop, C. 2013: page 34.
 Cotter, H. 2015
 Cotter, H. 2015
 Groys, B. 2014
 Farquharson, A. 2003
 Okwui Enwezor’s approach to the curation of ‘All the World’s Futures’ the 56th International Art Exhibition of la Biennale di Venezia (the 2015 Venice Biennale) (Vesters C, 2016).
 Veneri, D. 2019
 The term concept-work denotes a process of actualizing theory (or theories) through an open process of doing – exploring theoretical approaches free from the confines of the perceived ideal.
 Deliss, C. 2019: page 150.
 Metabolic Museum-University Ljubljana, 2019
 These visual frictions are akin to those provoked by the Reina Sofía in their evocative juxtaposition of Pablo Picasso’s ‘Guernica’ (1937) and Jean-Paul Dreyfas’ ‘Espagne’ (1936). Bishop, C. 2013: page 41.
 Metabolic Museum-University Ljubljana, 2019
 Christel Vesters takes Irit Rogoff’s definition of ‘the curatorial’ to articulate the possibilities created when art-objects, and exhibitions are freed from “an ‘old model’ [of curating] based on an unveiling, unravelling, and laying bare of hidden meanings.” The ‘curatorial’ instead implies a dialogical space of discovery (one akin to the commons outlined by Bishop) where meanings are established as you manoeuvre through the exhibition space (Vesters C, 2016).
 This approach (the sharing of knowledge) creates an exchange, and thus a debt and hierarchy between the museums and visitor.
 Metabolic Museum-University Ljubljana, 2019
 Bishop, Cotter and Vesters all speak about the importance of temporality in the surveyed texts.
 A critical examination of learning and engagement strategies developed by English museums highlights a number of systemic issues that need to be addressed if institutions are to become more dynamic entities. Tate Modern’s Exchange space is an example of this systemic toxicity. In an attempt to bring in new (often diverse or ‘marginal’) communities, Tate Exchange is set up as a welcoming site. Described on their website as “A place for all to play, create, reflect and question what art can mean to our everyday,” Tate Exchange’s fundamental floor is in its architectural planning. Removed from the Art on display, in Tate Modern’s formal galleries; away from the spectacular events, and lates programme, the freedom for ‘new’ audiences to play and question life is moved into the bare space on the fifth-floor. The personal experience, and subjective values that are essential to dynamic museums are in other words segregated from the official art on display; exacerbating the distance between viewer and institution – the reverse intention of the dynamic museum.
 Veneri, D. 2019
 Birnbaum, D and Obrist, H. 2010
 Goffman, G. 1956
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