It’s social work or bust for museums’ artless curators

by Max Lunn

The Whitworth Art Gallery, Manchester

Museums are back. Last year, however, saw three huge shocks shake the museum world: Covid, the ensuing meltdown in museum finances, and a confrontation with the historical legacies of racial injustice. On the surface, little has changed. The Grandpa Rockstar of the art world, David Hockney, still has his adoring troop of fans who are convinced his iPad drawings are the ultimate panacea to the world’s ills. “Spring cannot be cancelled” they chant, surging into the Royal Academy for their latest fix of pixelated hawthorn. Elsewhere, the V&A serves up six impossible things before breakfast with their booked-out Alice and Wonderland exhibit and the Tate invited people to digitally queue for the desktop bunfight that is securing a spot in one of Kusama’s Infinity Mirrors.

Museums have never been so popular as destinations, but the mood has changed. Throughout the pandemic they have been left with huge funding gaps. The V&A reports the “devastating” impact and now claims to be £10m a year short, whilst the Whitworth in Manchester says its exhibition budget has been slashed by 75%. This is directly reflected in the significant number of redundancies that have taken place: by April this year the UK Museums Association had recorded 4,089 redundancies due to financial pressures.

Before the pandemic museums were already under pressure to exhibit greater levels of transparency and apply higher ethical standards towards their funding. This was a demand necessitated by a generation of socially conscious viewers, rightly averse to BP and others’ culture washing. Although many have weened themselves off Big Oil’s funding, various prestigious museums will find it much harder to erase the stain from one very prominent surname, repeatedly carved in marble: Sackler.

Alongside these issues, there are various other questions about whether the conventional economic model of museums is sustainable. Their revenues are built around putting on expensive, blockbuster exhibitions to guarantee a global audience and therefore a premium return on investment. It’s normal for museums to bid against each other to host these globetrotting shows, such is their popularity.

In today’s cash-strapped environment, many museum directors are reporting The Whitworth Art Gallery, Manchester a move away from reliance on the blockbuster model. Alistair Hudson of the Whitworth describes their new path as “a holistic approach”. Rather than focussing on special exhibitions that maximise visitor numbers, he argues that “a more rounded programme makes for a much more dynamic institution.” A now relevant 2019 report from the LSE: The Art World’s Response to the Challenge of Inequality discussed not just the economic problems of blockbusters, but also the cultural ones. It found that blockbusters “limit chances for minority artists” therefore reducing scope to encounter them.

To add to their woes, museums are often reliant on public funding. This means it’s impossible to separate cultural issues and funding issues, as Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden demonstrated when he threatened to withdraw funds from museums “motivated by activism or politics”. Speaking in the wake of the removal of the Edward Colston statue in Bristol, he warned that “the Government does not support the removal of statues,” following reports the British Museum had moved the statue of its slave-owner founder Hans Sloane to a less prominent position. The Tory “keep up and recontextualise with a plaque” argument is looking ever flimsier.

Much of the colonial restitution debate – restoked by BLM – has crystallised around the Benin Bronzes, which seem to encapsulate the very worst of museum history. Two recent books, Barnaby Phillips’ Loot: Britain and the Benin Bronzes and Dan Hicks’ The Brutish Museums tease out the history and possible future of these objects. Barnaby Phillips captivatingly tells the story of the 1897 looting, which was part of a punitive expedition to Benin (now Nigeria), in retaliation for the killing of seven British officials and traders. Not only were several hundred bronzes taken – most ending up in the British Museum – but British soldiers also exiled the King and annexed the territory. Dan Hicks also pulls no punches in his polemic, arguing repatriation is necessary but too limited. Significantly, he is the curator of the Pitt Rivers in Oxford: a collection which itself houses over 300 Benin artefacts.

Over in Germany, the Humboldt Forum’s recent grand opening was overshadowed by the Nigerian ambassador’s request to Chancellor Angela Merkel to return more looted Benin Bronzes. Despite the museum’s architectural splendour and years of development, it’s difficult not to see it as already obsolete. Perhaps unsurprisingly therefore, Hartmut Dorgerloh, the director of the Humboldt Forum, recently announced the museum would fully restitute Benin objects. He claimed that the museum would only exhibit replicas of the bronzes or “leave symbolic empty spaces”. Leaving empty spaces in a brand-new museum feels contrived: a shallow acknowledgment of a problem which brings into question the whole institution. This decision in Germany follows Macron’s restitution bill in 2019 to return objects to Benin and Senegal. The tide has turned, then, but Britain remains steadfast.

Humboldt Forum, Berlin
© SHF / Foto: Cordia Schlegelmilch

Another recently published book, András Szántó’s The Future of the Museum: 28 Dialogues, focuses on new possibilities. The interviewees were generally younger directors, with many advancing the idea of the museum as “a [D]emocratic space to learn, debate and advance social change” (Anne Pasternak, Brooklyn Museum).

No mention of “art”, then. The recent 2021 Turner Prize shortlist advances similar ideas about the role of museums and the current emphasis on them as sites for social change and community engagement. The five nominees are not artists per se, but collectives. Among them are Black Obsidian Soundsystem, “a community of queer, trans and non-binary black and people of colour involved in art, sound and radical activism, following in the legacies of sound system culture.” Their nomination follows on the back of a recent 24-hour fundraising rave. Many see these urgent collectives – whose practises exist at the boundary of social work and art – as an inevitable response to years of austerity where artists have to fill the gaps in the provision of basic social services. This isn’t new: in 2015, the collective “Assemble” won the Turner Prize for their project, which involved renovating a Liverpool council estate with local residents.

Many see this type of cultural production – where the museum essentially becomes an archive of social work – as the ultimate death knell of “aesthetics”, and the end of an idea of art which exists outside the messy sphere of everyday life. Gone is the museum as a place of rapt contemplation where sensorial experiences govern your encounters with art. Curators who sideline art made in traditional mediums arguably miss the point: a purely “aesthetic” experience can be radical because it interrupts the dominance of the mind by reason and understanding. As the cultural thinker Claire Bishop says: “the undecidability of aesthetic experience implies a questioning of how the world is organised, and therefore the possibility of changing or redistributing that same world.” Museums, therefore, play a huge role in defining what art is, not just how we view it, and must be careful not to engagein ethical one-upmanship.

It is clear that museums are struggling to define themselves. But is this surprising? The museum as a universal collection of decontextualised art objects has always been controversial, and not just because of looted colonial objects. The idea of aesthetics comes in part from museums, owing to the “muting” of the objects as they were taken – legally or illegally – and put into museums for viewers’ pleasure, where the object’s meaning is overlaid with national patrimony. Universal, collection-based museums only really work as a nation-state’s soft power arm, much like the Louvre after the French Revolution. But the Humboldt Forum neatly illustrates their now inevitable decline in the West. It’s telling that China opens a new museum every other day – many of them state-owned and run.


Max Lunn is a journalist based in London

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