February 14, 2011

Rethinking the Museum

I was speculating the other day about an epigrammatic comparison of the attitude of the current government and the previous one to its subjects (us); and came up with “the last government wanted to control your every thought and action; the new government doesn’t care what you think or do; it wants you to fuck off.” Maybe an over-simplification but it was only for my personal entertainment, one of those idle conceits you think to yourself but don’t say out loud. But it came back to mind when I read the ‘think-piece’ on the new North West Museums Federation website “Rethinking the Museum”.

At first I was pleased to see that someone had attempted futurological thinking beyond the constrictive cultural damage of the previous government and the cultural catastrophe of the current lot forward to 2030; but as I read the ‘think-piece’ another question inviting epigrammatic speculation came to mind: what would the future look like to organisations conditioned by New Labour managerialism and then splayed under knives of sado-monetarism? It would look like the current essay “Rethinking the Museum”.

The science fiction conventions of looking forward are either utopian or post-apocalyptic. The addition of the concept of ‘Vision’ implicitly supposes the former, a dynamic positive projection from current conditions to a desirable future. The NWFED essay finds a bureaucratically dismal third possibility. “Rethinking” offers a future that assumes an absence of positive change, a future of degradation and decline, an extrapolated acceptance of the consequences of the ideological attack on the foundations of British social and cultural structures. http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2011/feb/02/margaret-thatcher-coalition-lib-dems The “think-piece” should embarrass the writer(s) because it accepts and carries forward a cultural outrage. This doesn’t surprise me: the paper is branded to MLA (Museums Libraries & Archives Council), Renaissance North West and National Museums Liverpool (NML). I’ve had no dealings with the latter but generally found MLA a mildly irrelevant organisation – its chairman is the turgid ex-poet laureate Andrew Motion; both it and Renaissance NW were creations of New Labour and are philosophically flawed in that conception. Recently I had a meeting with a Renaissance officer, during which she actually told me that “Greater Manchester has a super-supply of galleries and museums and could bear a controlled ‘thinning out’”. This doesn’t fit with David Fleming’s (NML) introductory comment: “new museum leaders emerge. They will be those who were prepared to stand up and be counted when times were really tough, who didn’t take budget cuts lying down.” The NW Fed site contextualises this debate with: “We need leadership now more than we ever have.” Yet “Rethinking” starts with the comment “some of the museums we know and love today will be distant memories”: these ‘visionaries’ are puppies waiting for the psycho to pull their legs off, some of them still have wagging tails.

Each aspect of this ‘vision’ is an extrapolation of Tory rhetoric, essentially saying back to anyone in government who might be listening (they’re not), ‘New Labour created us and conditioned us to think what we are told to think so don’t hurt us because we can deliver whatever you want.’ The upshot of this is a ‘vision’ that attempts to justify practices that no museum professional would say unless they had a gun to his head.

By 2030, apparently “successful museums will have learnt how to save money and make money… Monetisation of the museum will be the key”. No, this is the desperation of Now. Museums “…offering paid for services, a healthy [sic] network of volunteers and… exploiting the philanthropy of those with ‘significant net personal wealth’. These are governmental stipulations not vision: make money, run services with volunteers (ie the unemployed/unpaid), and the pretence/lie that by letting the Rich keep their money, they are disposed to redistribute because they are not really bastards. Significant net personal wealth? Another example: ‘Shared Services’, another of the current mantras: apparently a panacea to save running costs. Renaissance NW seems especially enamoured with this idea. In reality this is a very dangerous slippery slope which will lead to museum closures. The think-piece has already assumed that the culture crime has been committed. So in 2030 there will be collection sharing. This is non-idea – museums already share collections, regularly loaning works to each other. A related dismal thought is the “‘showbiz’ value for visitors and will be as much about the shared brand equity of big name museums”. As Riiko Sakkinen observed over the proposed Guggenheim in Helsinki “Guggenheim is the McDonald's of Art - reliable, easygoing and extremely unsurprising. Ronald McDonald serves us comfort food and Sololon R. Guggenheim shows us comfort art.” As he terms it – shoppingmallization. The paper is full of contradictions inherent in government policy: Museums will “centres of experience rather than consumerism…an alternative to ‘consume at all costs’. How does that square with “they will be past masters at leveraging the value of their brand” and the new ‘key value’ of ‘Monetisation’?

“Rethinking the Museum” is shot through with self interest. As Morpheus observed in the Matrix “Most of these people are not ready to be unplugged and many of them are so inured, so hopelessly dependent on the system that they will fight to protect it”. The North West Federation of Museums will still exist. Laudably museums will have helped people ‘through the worst of’ the onslaught’ (at least this recognises the scale of the disaster we face and it projects into the future). However, the Museum sector will be structured pretty much as the New Labour Renaissance model: National Museums (the showbiz brands), the Core Museums (which is currently equivalent to where the Renaissance staff sit), and local museums. But wait, it’s just been announced that Renaissance is going to be called New Renaissance and will focus on ‘Core Museums’. So against the evidence of history that Museum national and regional structures have a shelf life of about 3-5 years, ‘Rethinking the Museum’ reckons these structures will still be in place for 20 years. In the same spirit of adopting ‘future’ nonsense, local museums will all have been morphed in line with today’s ideology – museums will be charitable trusts, ‘independent’ from local authorities (under this government its possible that local government itself will essentially cease to exist), ‘benefiting from mutuality and enterprise’ – every few weeks I get an email inviting me to training courses so I can prepare for mutuality and enterprise. It’s bollocks now and it would be bollocks in 2030.

The only passage that can be said to actually speculate creatively about the future is the opening “some of the museums we know and love will be distant memories, their collections dispersed, their buildings transformed into…work/live units for micro-creatives [whatever they are], crash pads for funky seniors, urban food hubs or incubation facilities for nanotech start-ups”. Thus bizarrely the only unrestricted futurology makes predictions about the non-museum uses of museums after the wreckage of the sado-monetarist apocalypse.

But the think-piece does provoke thinking – Can we extrapolate from current conditions a future with equal validity but containing some hope, some fight?:

The museum wars finished in 2016 when the radical micro-creative movement destroyed the last remaining museum of capitalism, as much from anger at the mind-numbing obsession with stories as its association with the catastrophic Cameron Regime. The preserved ‘archaeology’ of this ‘museum’, which no longer fulfilled the by then accepted definition of a museum, were adorned with the severed heads on pikes of those who had previously held ‘significant net personal wealth’ (for those worried about the museological implications of preservation of biological material for future generations – the outdoor versions will actually be realistic cases of the originals which will have supplementary status in the Museum of Dead Bastards Heads). Meanwhile the Turbo-Realist Museum Movement will be globally networked Glass Bead Game-style hubs of new idea generation, overlaying holographic virtual realities projected contiguously onto surrounding streets or even whole towns. Rather than users or visitors, museums will have thinkers; the only ‘brand’ that will matter will be the depth of a particular museum’s experimentation. Unlike the expectations of “Rethinking the Museum”, the global problems that society faces and to which museums can contribute solutions will be entirely different and unpredictable from 2011. For instance, the solution to climate change was sorted out within 12 months of the bankruptcy and subsequent collapse of capitalism, coming remarkably and unexpectedly from the socialist New Renaissance of the Arab world (sees Zizek http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2011/feb/01/egypt-tunisia-revolt), after that it was simply a matter of project implementation. [As I have recently experienced idea thief, I hereby copyright this vision].

Is this future more fanciful than “Rethinking the Museum? Of course. But it is just as valid in taking forward current trends with the difference that it suggests some prospect that progress is possible, or if you don’t accept this projection as progressive, then let’s just say it’s more imaginative.

Fundamentally the problem with “Rethinking the Museum” is the problem of museums in the UK. I am reminded that the new (toothless) People’s History Museum uses the strap line “Sometimes ideas are worth fighting for” – this is exactly what is missing in British museums (PHM included): for them if ideas are worth fighting for, they are fights that happened in the past. This isn’t a recent problem; it was there in the earnest procession to take idiotic performance indicators seriously. The objection that these were externally imposed doesn’t wash because in my experience it was possible to do the minimum bureaucratic nonsense and therefore not compromise artistic vision. Generally, however, public galleries accepted that the government targets told them something important about how they were doing, but each governmental regime is value-laden and thus slanted to distort radical museological practice. The museums sector is defenceless because it relies on arguments based in Liberalism, on protestations of social value. The current government is not interested in social value; it’s only interested in cost. And Liberalism itself is intestate now that the Liberal Democrats in government have been shown to be without principle. To rethink the Museum, we have to finally ditch its reliance on liberal ideas of the past and focus on facing the ideological challenges of the 21st Century.

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