The New Museum, Again

In late August, the International Council of Museums (ICOM) approved the long-debated change to its definition of a museum, rewriting for the first time in decades the institution’s core ethos. The same week, the UK government appointed a 23-year-old anti-wokeness campaigner as a trustee of the Victoria & Albert Museum.[1]Ben Quinn and Jamie Grierson, ‘Government Appoints Anti-“Woke” Activist as V&A Trustee’, The Guardian, 31 August 2022, Will it be possible for museums to heal the wounds inflicted on the institutions and their audiences by the past decade’s political, social, and economic upheavals? At what cost? As the museum renews its vows of upholding liberal and progressive values, it may be worthwhile to consider what shapes these institutions in their social and political missions.

ICOM’s new definition will significantly influence how many of the world’s art and heritage institutions see themselves and react to their challenges. The text includes words like ‘accessible’, ‘inclusive’, ‘ethical’, ‘diverse’, and ‘sustainable’ for the first time.[2]‘ICOM Approves a New Museum Definition’, International Council of Museums, 24 August 2022, These are some very of-the-moment adjectives that will be welcomed by progressives who want to charge the museum with addressing social pressures and dispense with the pretence of impartiality. As one of the ICOM committee chairs put it, even museums which have not thus far concerned themselves with diversity, will now “have to dedicate themselves to making the world a better place.”[3]Sarah Cascone, ‘After Years of Debate, Leading Experts Have Finally Decided What Defines an Ideal Museum. Did They Not Go Far Enough?’, Artnet News, 25 August 2022, … see more

This move will raise eyebrows among traditionalists for whom museums should reflect the world rather than shape it. They’ll hope that London’s Fan Museum does not develop ideas above its station in response to the new definition. But given that ICOM’s earlier, rejected drafts spoke of “social justice, global equality, and planetary well-being” and that some delegates suggested that ‘decolonisation’ and ‘repatriation’ be included too,[4]Ibid. we may have dodged a bullet. 

The relationship between ICOM’s frameworks and the governance of individual museums is complex. The UK’s museum accreditation framework, for example, relies on a bare-bones 1998 definition by the Museums Association that is by contrast strikingly devoid of prescriptive values.[5]‘What Is a Museum?’, Museums Association, accessed 30 August 2022, It is, however, not difficult to imagine that for some state funders of museums, and not only the socially conservative ones, the new definition’s intention of changing the ethos of their national institutions will be unsettling.

It would be tempting to think that ethics, inclusion, sustainability, and diversity are incontestable qualities detached from politics. In reality, they come in multiple flavours. Many institutions in the US, for example, responded to the killing of George Floyd with an unequivocal commitment to the ideals of diversity and equity as though their meanings were universal. However, the continued proliferation of Instagram posts[6]‘@changethemuseum’, n.d., denouncing various museum managers for serious breaches of the equalities legislation, let alone failing to reach the ideals named in their mission statements, suggests that agreement on the meaning of such fundamental terms is lacking. For the British Museum, for example, ‘ethics’ may involve modes of care for culturally sensitive collection objects such as the Parthenon marbles. For the Whitney, it could dictate principles for treating its staff fairly.[7]Caroline Goldstein, ‘The Whitney Museum Has Voluntarily Recognized Its Union Two Weeks After Workers Declared Their Intent to Organize’, Artnet News, 1 June 2021, In the rapidly changing institutional art scene in Poland, it could consist of defying political pressure from state funders.[8]Dorian Batycka, ‘Poland Just Replaced a Top Museum Director With a Drummer and Painter in a Move Critics Say Is Politically Motivated’, Artnet News, 3 December 2021,

That these definitions are unsettled should be reassuring because disagreement will breed diversity, another one of the new museum’s values. We also know the poor track record of unchecked groupthink: some critics of liberal institutions, for example, have pointed to the 19th century’s overreach of the Enlightenment’s principles as the root of today’s inequities.[9]Jamelle Bouie, ‘The Enlightenment’s Dark Side’, Slate, 5 June 2018, If, and this is only partly a joke, the blind belief in the self-evident correctness of universalism’s ethical codes has led to the violent epistemic dominance of Western thought, is it wise to assume that the progressive mindset of 2022 would be any better? Remembering that the museum as we know it is the product of the Enlightenment, it would be prudent to open the discussion to as wide an array of actors as possible.

Who, then, really has a say in what museums do and for whom? In an ideal world, museums would reflect the values of their societies in the present and project ideas of their futures. Even if we pretended that the museum’s relationship with the past and present was a matter of objective interpretation and scholarship, should we not acknowledge that future proposals are inherently political projects? What the museum stands for should then be shaped by processes of negotiation between professionals, civil society, politicians, and funders. 

State involvement in state museums has been a concern for the museum world of late. In response to a wave of statue-toppling in 2020, the UK’s culture secretary demanded that state-supported institutions “approach issues of contested heritage consistently with the government’s position”.[10]Geraldine Kendall Adams, ‘Dowden Letter on Contested Heritage Stokes Fears of Government Interference’, Museums Association(blog), 2 October 2020, … see more To the profession, this was a clear breach of ethical principles and commentators denounced the minister as a philistine while reaffirming the ‘arm’s length’ principle of state control. It’s hard to imagine, however, that the decolonising zeal of a junior curator in one provincial museum or another wasn’t dampened. 

Attacks on the ‘autonomy’ of institutions such as Warsaw’s CCA Ujazdowski which had its director forcibly replaced by the Polish government have given rise to protests.[11]Dorian Batycka, ‘Crowds Gather to Protest Warsaw’s Leading Contemporary Art Museum, Which Just Mounted an Anti-“Cancel Culture” Art Show’, Artnet News, 27 August 2021, We won’t know what breaches of museum ethics the Polish government may be responsible for because the country’s art community has chosen to boycott, rather than critique the consequences and output of the institution. But is it not the prerogative of a government elected democratically on an anti-liberal platform to expect that this institution funded and founded by the state would reflect the government’s – and, therefore, society’s – values and aspirations, despite the art world’s opposition to them? 

Krzysztof M. Bednarski, La rivoluzione siamo noi, 1986, on display in Uncensored, Polish Independent Art of the 1980s at U-Jazdowski Centre for Contemporary Art. Photo: Adam Gut.

This is an old question and defenders of the principle of independence of institutions will point to the museum’s historically crucial role in opposing oppressive political regimes. But again, if we expect the independent museum to come out on the right side of history, why are European institutions full of looted artefacts? The truth is that the museum’s independence from the state is but a fiction. The state, rightly, holds some influence over state museums, whether through statute, direct control, or control of board appointments. For the museum curator, it may be prudent to expose these lines of allegiance. To pretend that they can be severed is naïve.

Scholars of the cultural industries have exerted much energy on understanding the role of museum management and boards in shaping the museum’s values. Often, the accounts are unflattering. For example, Nizan Shaked exposed numerous US museum trustees using their positions to collateralise their art collections at the expense of the state.[12]Nizan Shaked, Museums and Wealth: The Politics of Contemporary Art Collections (Bloomsbury Publishing, 2022), A spate of scandals, such as that involving accusations of racism and censorship, Tate, the artist Jade Monserrat, and the disgraced dealer Anthony d’Offay[13]Chaminda Jayanetti, ‘The Tate “Banned” a Black Artist After She Called Out an Art Dealer’s Sexual Abuse’, Vice, 18 March 2021, severely undermine the institutions’ authority. A former museum director summarised this crisis of governance ahead of the recent ICOM summit: “a person of moral courage is not likely to end up being a museum director”.[14]Tom Seymour, ‘Leading Museum Directors to Debate Whether Institutions Can Remain Objective in a Politically Volatile World’, The Art Newspaper – International art news and events, 19 August 2022, … see more If this assessment is correct, we should abandon the notion that institutional managerialism will deliver the significant change that museums are waiting for.

Museums are, however, always already changing with all the flair and flaws of institutions. There’s an uncanny asymmetry in the pace at which museums develop their ideas of their selves: it may be faster to build a new wing than to approve a loan. Some institutions have the resources to react to opportunities quickly while rendering any challenge to their internal workings futile. This is an important reality to recognise before taking the museum’s hubristic promise of bettering the world for granted: the museum’s unchanging permanence is not a bug but a feature.

Given this idiosyncratic nature of these institutions, the claim that “museums change lives”, as an industry body campaign promises, appears hard to either substantiate or disprove. But if those lives are of the museum’s audiences, shouldn’t they have a say? Making the museum responsive, never mind ‘accessible’ or ‘inclusive’, requires listening to audiences without prejudice. Easier said than done. If, following the advice of the quintessentially millennial critic duo The White Pube, curators asked their audiences “what would make you get out of bed, pay for a bus ride, and come all the way to see what’s on here?”, they might find that the answers involve neither art nor heritage. What if the Ipswich Transport Museum simply won’t ever be all that interesting for anyone other than TWP’s loathed “white, straight, cis, non-disabled, middle class” audiences?[15]The White Pube, Ideas for a New Art World (Rough Trade Editions, 2021),

This is not merely an ideological question because for many museums, attracting audiences is a struggle. Visitor numbers in UK museums and galleries have not yet recovered to pre-Covid levels.[16]Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport, ‘Monthly and Quarterly Visits to DCMS-Sponsored Museums and Galleries- April to June 2022 Data Tables’, June 2022, … see more Perversely, the forthcoming ‘winter of discontent’ and the ongoing disenfranchisement of the populace may present an opportunity for museums to ‘listen’ to the needs of their audiences much as they did in the aftermath of the 2008 crisis. Financial collapse, social unrest, and the politicisation and polarisation of voters all become cues for liberal institutions to offer ready-made symbolic solutions to tangible problems. Is this really ‘listening’, though?

In July, the artist Harry Meadley staged Free-for-All an intervention at Touchstones Rochdale in which local residents could exhibit their artworks and art projects in their local museum for a week, no holds barred.[17]‘Free-For-All Artwork Open Call’, your trust, 2022, While Meadly spoke of the democratising nature of his imitative and his hope that it may bring permanent reforms to the museum, his gesture depends on collapsing the distinction between the museum and outside. A free-for-all doesn’t mean that the museum is for everyone, it means that everyone can be an artist and therefore make claims on the museum’s wall space. This is hardly the first meaning of ‘inclusion’ or ‘accessibility’.

The role of artists in shaping museums, however, should not be overlooked and more than it should go unchecked. The curator Karen Archey explored the history of Institutional Critique which began with artists resisting the museum’s contribution to commodity fetishism in the 1960s.[18]Karen Archey, After Institutions(Floating Opera Press, 2022) When the AIDS crisis hit in the 1980s, artists started to make a different kind of demand on the institution, exposing its supposed lack of ‘care’. Today, Archey proposes, Institutional Critique takes the shape of organised action through boycotts and pickets, such as those co-organised against MoMa by Decolonize This Place.[19]Hakim Bishara, ‘Artist Coalition Announces 10-Week “Strike” Against MoMA’, Hyperallergic, 23 March 2021, These processes are usually more concerned with the labour conditions of museum staff and the blatant corruption of boards and management than with collections or audiences.

However, utopian thinking about the museum as a space of care goes on.[20]Nuala Morse, Museum as a Space for Social Care (S.l.: Routledge, 2022) There is some confusing overlap between the tenets of ‘social practice’ and those of Institutional Critique. In the 1990s, Zoe Leonard made sculptural installations out of decaying fruit to speak about the state’s failures in the AIDS crisis. In 2013, Zachary Gough installed a temporary mobile dental clinic in the courtyard of a Portland museum.[21]Zachary Gough, ‘Dentistry at the Museum’, 2013, Only one of these interventions is artistically and institutionally sustainable. 

Zoe Leonard, Strange Fruit, 1992-1997. Courtesy of Philadelphia Museum of Art

Artists and museum managers may want to pay attention to the consequences of the care agenda on other institutions. In May, the University of Bristol was found negligent in a tragic case of suicide by the student Natasha Abrahart. The court ruled that the university had no ‘duty of care’ but that it was obliged to ensure that the deceased student was not discriminated against on grounds of her disability.[22]Abrahart -v- University of Bristol, No. G10YX983 (County Court at Bristol 20 May 2022) What will send shivers down the spines of institutional administrators everywhere is that neither the university nor Abrahart herself knew of the mental health disability which eventually contributed to her death but that this, in the court’s view, had no bearing on the lines of responsibility. The ‘caring university’ has bitten more than it can chew. Won’t this also be the case for the ‘inclusive’ caring museum?

The final consideration concerns the private sector. In principle, privately established museums and collections can gain accreditations or join ICOM, but nothing stops an antique shop from calling itself a museum and charging for entry without. An astonishing 280 private museums have opened around the world in the past twenty years, and their influence on their private counterparts, as Georgina Adam accounts in her recent book, can be significant.[23]Georgina Adam, The Rise and Rise of the Private Art Museum, 2021 Even greater are the as yet unchecked influences of platforms such as Google Arts and Culture which continue to receive unquestioning collaboration from museums and states.[24]Office of the Spokesperson, ‘U.S. Department of State Teams Up with Google Arts & Culture, Expands Access to Cultural Heritage Sites to Global Audiences’, United States Department of State (blog), 18 April 2022, … see more Might Google’s version of the US Cultural Heritage Center overshadow the physical holdings and interpretation attempts of the cost-inefficient legacy institution, leaving Google with even more power to influence society’s vision of itself?

The institution’s values will likely remain the domain of contestation. Some of this debate will be civil, some fierce because the various stakeholders will have vastly different ideas of what the museum is for and for whom. But given that the UK has over 1700 accredited museums,[25]Arts Council England, ‘Accredited Museums in the UK, Channel Islands and Isle of Man | Arts Council England’, 21 July 2022, it could be the museums themselves need to be diverse and not only their model audiences.

Main image: Mark Neal/Pexels.