At the beginning of a new era, the directors speak candidly about the challenges and untapped potential of art museums. What emerges from the twenty-eight dialogues is a composite portrait of a generation of museum leaders working to make institutions more open, inclusive, experiential, culturally polyphonic, technologically savvy, attuned to the needs of their communities, and engaged in the defining issues of our time. The conversations offer glimpses of how museums worldwide are undergoing an accelerated phase of reinvention.
We are very curious to learn about your new book, The Future of the Museum: 28 Dialogues, which has just been published by Hatje Cantz. Could you give us an overview of what to expect from this publication?
Over a period of several years, the Metropolitan Museum of Art organized a series of meetings of the Global Museums Leaders Colloquium, inviting groups of museum directors from all around the world to spend almost two weeks at the Met exploring common challenges in managing museums. In each of the four sessions of the GMLC, which I oversaw as its moderator, I was fascinated to learn about the dilemmas these museum leaders face, and notably how they have to balance so many different roles and priorities. In a way, the museum is a microcosm of the larger society. Everything is reflected in it, and everything has to be processed: art, culture, politics, science, ideology, sociology, economics, and so forth. It all comes together under the lens of a museum. Speaking about museums inevitably means speaking about larger things: our life, our times, our pasts, our futures. So this has been a fascination of mine for some time.
I have long wanted to publish a book based on speaking with a cross section of museum directors from around the world. Over the years we had explored this idea with my publisher, Hatje Cantz, a great German house where I have been involved in a number of books previously, where the wonderful Lena Kiessler oversees books of this kind. Two things prevented me from going forward with such a project. First, I could never find the time. I am quite active, as you are, in the art world, and we have all been running around the globe attending fairs, events, going nonstop—there was simply no time. The second obstacle was the lack of a clear starting point, an editorial frame, a particular direction or moment to focus on. And now, with all this sudden change in our lives due to Covid-19, both of these obstacles were removed. On one hand, I had time on my hands—we all did. And there was a whole new situation. Something new was clearly starting. There was a reason to talk, because we were all trying to make sense of the situation and asking ourselves, “What will the future bring?”
In the early phase of the pandemic—during Easter weekend, actually—I wrote an article that was published on Artnet News, about reopening museums and why they are so important in a time like this. It touched a nerve in the art world, where it was widely read and discussed. I was trying to make the case in the article about why museums are important right now. Not much later we co-wrote another article on the nuts-and-bolts of what it takes to reopen a museum with my old friend and consulting colleague Adrian Ellis. Around this time, I ended up talking with many museum directors and others active in the museum field who reached out with their own thoughts and responses. Some of them were in really tough situations. The article was used in board meetings. Directors invited me to talk with their teams, their trustees, and their members. I could feel this acute thirst for figuring out how to move forward.
This intense interest revived the conversations Lena Kiessler and I had long had about doing a book with museum directors. So this unique moment created an opportunity to do the book. The decision came about suddenly. We knew the book would have to be done quickly, to capture the ideas while the experience was fresh—not so much to memorialize the adaptations to Covid (although that can be gleaned from the dialogues), but to capture museum leaders’ thoughts about the future just as that future was starting to unfold, as it were. All the conversations took place in the summer 2020, which must be some kind of record.
How did you select the museum directors for your 28 dialogues?
There is no science to it. Initially we thought to interview 15 or 20 people. And while we were reflecting on who should be invited, I began to consider what is most relevant about the future of the museum. I wanted to convey that it will be a global future. This international range would clearly be one of the distinguishing features of what lies ahead for museums, perhaps the most defining difference. And in order to acknowledge this global diversity, it became clear that I would have to increase the number of dialogues. We ended up with 28 museum leaders in 14 countries on six continents. Obviously, that’s an arbitrary number. But it gave us range, and frankly, doing more would have risked repetition—plus, it was the maximum the publisher could do.
It was equally important to show that we are making some progress in terms of the gender mix of museum leadership—although, make no mistake, there is still a long way to go. Even so, half of the museum leaders in the book are women—just as it should be. And another criterion was to include younger leaders in the field—people who are going to shape the future of museums for years. This made for tough choices. There are, obviously, countless deeply experienced and influential figures in the field who have left a deep mark on museums and whom it would have been wonderful to include. You could easily fill another book.
Finally, rounding off the logic behind the selections, I wanted to ask people who would be comfortable talking to me. Many of these professional relationships and personal friendships stretch back 10 or 20 years, sometimes longer. I think this made a difference in terms of candor and tone. Don’t forget, in this era of Zoom, my interlocutors were literally inviting me into their homes, and at a very challenging time.
Could you tell us more about these “dialogues”? How do they function?
I have to clarify what I mean by dialogues. I was not interested in publishing raw transcripts. This book is already more than 320 pages. It would have been a 700-page book had I had published the whole transcripts. A recording is not a dialogue, which I think of as a more polished text. So we established what Hans Ulrich Obrist, one of the respondents in the book, would call “the rules of the game.”
We recorded the conversations on Zoom. Some of these ran on for several hours. With some indispensable help, we would create a full and faithful transcription of the original free-flowing conversation. The longest transcript was twelve thousand words. As a next step, I would edit the text down to a standard length—the equivalent of a feature-length magazine article, or 2,500 to 3,000 words, to sharpen clarity and focus, and more importantly, so everyone would get roughly the same space in the book, regardless of where they come from or how large of an institution they run. Meanwhile, each conversation was unique, not just because of the institution and its location, but because each one took up a particular topic important to museums today, such as technology or equity or contemporaneity or de-Westernization or the museum as a business.
After we had created the first edited transcript, I would send it back to the director, and he or she would go over it again. There were several ping-pong rounds of editing, usually. Finally we would arrive at the version everybody thought was ready to print, after a final copy edit. The bottom line is that these texts were co-creations that sometimes evolved far beyond the original recording. They are the results of editorial collaborations.
What have you learned from the multiple voices of leading museum directors and professionals worldwide? What has surprised you?
I was surprised to find a fairly cohesive sense of a generational point of view emerging on these pages, to a degree that maybe I didn’t appreciate or anticipate previously. As I mentioned, the book happened quickly, almost unexpectedly. The impulse was, “Let’s find some interesting people and talk to them, right now.” I did not have a pre-existing hypothesis that I intended to prove. But as we went through the conversations, parallels emerged that made me see, as I hope the reader will see, that there is a more or less common generational perspective on what might be the next stage for museums, a perspective that can already be apprehended in how these museum leaders are advancing institutions. I was capturing a moment in the evolution of the museum, in real time—that was my biggest surprise.
Even before Covid there was an ongoing debate in the field about what a museum is. Last year, ICOM (the International Council of Museums) released a revised definition of the museum. It has not been accepted yet; in fact, it has been rather controversial, because it added, to a remarkable and even excessive degree in the eyes of some, a dimension of community service and social engagement to the remit of the museum. But agree or not, this new definition was, in fact, mirroring the emergence of a more community-minded, more socially engaged direction for museums. Institutions of art are pivoting beyond the more classic, institutional academic-and-custodian role, particularly in regions where museums were new.
Today’s generation of leaders sees the museum as being dedicated to more than the collection, custodianship, study, and presentation of objects. They see it as a social place, deeply responsible to the community, which they define democratically and inclusively—a museum for everybody. They seek to offer a platform for dialogue and rich communal life. This is not an either-or issue for them, by the way—some kind of an abandonment of the objects that have long stood at the heart of the museum enterprise—but rather an additional set of priorities that are being layered on, bringing fresh energy, reach, empathy, and embeddedness to institutions.
When you put all these museum directors together and start to read their responses as a group, that picture emerges quite vividly. I was impressed by how many innovations were being advanced in “new” geographies for museums, in incredible institutions in Africa, Asia, Latin America, and the Pacific region. In many situations, the expanded functions of the museum are especially important because the museum is something new. They are not adapting legacy institutions but designing entirely fresh organizations from whole cloth. We see museums innovating and searching, being socially responsible and deeply engaged, offering examples for institutions all around the world.
A few weeks ago, I had a conversation with Lorenzo Balbi, MAMbo’s director, and we discussed the role of museums at the current time we are living in, their central role in the community’s daily life. As a strategy, he turned the museum into a residency space for young artists, offering a new opportunity to those who were struggling because of lockdown measures….
Well, that’s one of the countless innovations Covid has catalyzed. My book is not really about Covid, but it was certainly an interesting time to survey the field, because it has been a moment of business-not-as-usual. The pandemic crisis opened up more space for innovation. Beautiful and meaningful things have happened. Institutions were willing to go out on a limb, doing projects that were not always shiny and perfect, but were deeply meaningful.
For example, at the Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden, directed by Marion Ackerman, they did a very generous, poetic gesture: They organized a letter-writing campaign, with colleagues in the museum writing postcards to elderly people. Similarly, the Garage Museum in Moscow was providing meals to people in the neighborhood and to nurses and doctors in nearby hospitals. The Brooklyn Museum (which happens to be just across the street from where I live) had a food program, providing nourishment to those who needed it. These were some of the immediate responses. And they underscored the museum’s role as a community resource.
But to your point, I think, here as elsewhere, Covid-19 accelerated changes that were, as often as not, already underway. I’m not even talking about the tsunami of digital content, although, certainly, this moment was a turning point in digital engagement and its central importance in the museum. We saw young digital managers being elevated to positions of authority all of a sudden. We saw online engagement moving to the center of institutions where it had still been playing a fairly peripheral role. And these measures are not temporary. They have been designed to outlast the pandemic, and I think they will.
Even so, as important as that digital shift has been, I think the most profound impact of this moment is to force institutions to ask—and respond to—the questions, Who are we really for? Who are we for when this is all over? Who are we for when we have fewer resources? Who are we for if we have fewer staff? It’s not as if museums had been blind to these questions before the pandemic. But we were all barreling ahead on a speeding train, and it was hard to slow down to ponder these deep questions and follow them methodically to their conclusion.
I was already speaking to directors when George Floyd was killed in Minneapolis under the knee of a policeman, sparking a worldwide wave of protests. Suddenly, on top of everything, museums confronted a reckoning around social injustice of all kinds, including the colonial legacies of many collecting institutions. When we look back on 2020 as a pivotal moment, probably what we will pinpoint as the most lasting changes for museums, certainly in the United States, will be the ones linked to this reckoning. The directors I was speaking to were deeply invested in discussions around how museums can rebuild the public trust. They spoke with unvarnished honesty about how far museums need to go to truly address systemic inequity and injustice and become a necessary mechanism in the social debate around them. The summer of 2020 was a time of anguished discussion and self-diagnosis about strategies, hiring practices, collections; about how institutions frame their messages (intentionally or not), and what kind of stories they tell. It was a remarkable moment to speak with these directors.
How would you answer the question regarding the new role of museums today?
I would say, Read the book! [laughing] If I had to distill it now, I can mention two overarching points. One is that the museum of the future, in many different ways, is an institution that will have to integrate itself more thoroughly and consistently into society. It will have to be an institution that has a less hierarchical relationship to society. Many directors pointed to the example of the library. When you visit a library, you don’t walk up a set of steep stairs, to a temple on the hill. A library sits at street level; it’s part of life. A narrowing of the gap between museums and everyday life is one of the aspirations that the field has embraced more than ever, and especially now. Many institutions are moving forcefully in this direction already. The ones that will flourish in the future will integrate more and more seamlessly into their communities, however defined, both in person and online, leveling with their audiences as much as possible.
The other key conclusion, which I think is reassuring, is that museums in the future will come in more shapes and sizes. In the introductory essay, I tried to boil down the conversations, and one of the insights, I think, to emerge from them is that if in the 20th century gave us a liberating sense of pluralism of art and all that it can be, maybe now we may be starting to see that same liberating pluralism in the museum form. The institutions of art have remained relatively homogeneous, following well-established and widely copied European and Northern American models. But as they grow roots in different regions and embrace their cultures and communities, it stands to reason they will take on more diverse forms.
You can already look at the diversity of institutions in local situations in Africa, Asia, Latin America, and you start discovering a wider range of practices, with different curatorial stances and varied solutions to such tasks as audience engagement, marketing, and mediation. You encounter institutions that don’t want to look like the fancy glass-and-marble boxes that we see everywhere else. The museum of the future is likely to be more organically linked to its particular cultural, social, geographic, and climate context—and that will be a great thing. Museums will diverge not only in what they look like, but in what they do, whom they are trying to reach, what stories they tell, and so on. I think that outlook is extremely exciting.
In Italy during the lockdown, everything was closed except for churches, where people could gather and pray. At the moment the situation is the same—theater, cinemas, museums are closed while churches are open. For me, I go to museums not only for cultural purpose but also to find again myself or meditate, so it’s shocking to see this closure of museums. I’m curious to know what do you think about this?
I could not agree with you more. One conclusion from this experience we just had is that the society and public decision makers did not consider museums as essential as the museum field believes them to be—or as many people like you believe them to be. If they felt museums were truly essential, then museums would be open—with strict regulations, of course, but they would be open, like churches and airports and hardware stores. Scientifically speaking, it is nonsensical that a large home-supplies store or a hairdresser is safer than a museum. Sadly, some museums are quite empty even in the best of times. And you never touch the objects.
I think this is a wake-up call. One reason why we were not able to prove our point about indispensability is that there is a perception gap between museums’ efforts to bring value to people’s lives and what the rest of society, including our politicians, actually sees. We are not delivering benefits on the right scale. We are not proving our importance convincingly enough for them to see it otherwise. Just recently, the US Supreme Court just ruled, controversially, that churches cannot be restricted in attendance in New York State under pandemic rules. Lawyers for religious groups argued that “spacious churches” were safer than many “secular businesses that can open without restrictions, such as pet stores and broker’s offices and banks and bodegas.” An hourlong mass, their brief noted, is “shorter than many trips to a supermarket or big-box store, not to mention a 9-to-5 job.”
When we do the full diagnosis after the epidemic, we will have to ask, “How could it be that in this crisis, when churches were open, when shops were open, those in positions of power decided museums should stay closed?” This would be a great starting question for a symposium about the future. We need an honest debate about this. Museums have a long way to go to advocate and prove their relevance—and, frankly, to live up to their own rhetoric about the role they play in people’s lives.
There is a famous anecdote from World War II, when Germany was bombing London on a daily basis, and the National Gallery despite all this kept its doors open. They would rotate a single artwork, so people could come in and commune with art. Art had to be provided to those to whom it could provide solace. It was a reminder of better times, perhaps; an opportunity for reflection and coming to terms with the difficulties of the moment. Now, people might say, “But we did the same thing. We did it with digital.” But it’s not the same. It was sad to see these huge magisterial spaces, with their giant entry halls and galleries, plenty of room for distancing, standing empty, when they could have been made accessible at least on a limited basis. People like you would have found that to be a sort of sanctuary, an oasis, in a time of hardship.
This is where the book began. In the stillness of those weeks in March and April, when everything stopped. And what we understand more clearly today is that the closures were not so much about public-safety standards, not just about what the science says, but about public perceptions of the museum. That is the challenge that the museum field now has to address.
The Future of the Museum: 28 Dialogues, published by Hatje Cantz, is available at booksellers in Europe and in bookstores worldwide in January 2021, distributed by D.A.P. and Thames & Hudson. It includes conversations with Marion Ackermann, Cecilia Alemani, Anton Belov, Meriem Berrada, Daniel Birnbaum, Thomas P. Campbell, Tania Coen-Uzzielli, Rhana Devenport, María Mercedes González, Max Hollein, Sandra Jackson-Dumont, Mami Kataoka, Brian Kennedy, Koyo Kouoh, Sonia Lawson, Adam Levine, Victoria Noorthoorn, Hans Ulrich Obrist, Anne Pasternak, Adriano Pedrosa, Suhanya Raffel, Axel Rüger, Katrina Sedgwick, Franklin Sirmans, Eugene Tan, Philip Tinari, Marc-Olivier Wahler, and Marie-Cécile Zinsou.