12 Apr 2020
Drawing by Nika Ham
In September 2018, I wrote “My Post-Catastrophic Glossary” ( [My Post-catastrophic Glossary, 305–326]), which was in essence a kind of glossary of memory relating to my professional work. At the time, I never dreamed that, a year or so later, a pandemic would force museums into a situation not unlike what I was describing in my glossary.
The key questions that stand behind the entries in the glossary, which were illustrated by the artist (and Moderna galerija museum guard) Nika Ham, are: How should museums function in times of extreme limitations? and, How can we create fairer and more equal cultural exchanges on the global scale?
The impact of the pandemic is already apparent: museums all over the world are reporting enormous losses. The world’s major museums are facing huge drops in revenues, in some cases as much as several hundred thousand euros a week. Big international exhibitions are being cancelled, because, given insurance issues, the redistribution of public funds, and scheduling conflicts, preparations are too risky for these times. A museum’s revenue losses are nominally proportional to its financial strength: institutions with an annual budget of €10 million or more are seeing losses of several millions, while the Moderna galerija, which receives €2 million annually, foresees in one month “only” some €18,000 less than in “normal” times. Despite these numbers, institutions with smaller budgets will draw the short straw. Not only are museum activities affected, but, everywhere, so are the people who work at museums, both salaried employees and, most severely, their external co-workers, who almost overnight are finding themselves out of work. Small-budget institutions, which themselves are barely able to breathe, cannot do very much to help such workers. But at the Moderna galerija, we are at least drawing attention to the ever more precarious position of our external co-workers through the project Several Flies at One Blow, in which we have continued to employ a number of our museum guards/students for a while longer by having them deliver food and other necessities to artists infected with the coronavirus and our pensioners. Also, like many other museums, we quickly developed several online projects, most of which link to our collections and archives but there are some that also respond to the current situation.
Of course, everyone is wondering how long the pandemic will last and what its long-term consequences will be. Museums will undoubtedly have to operate under greatly altered conditions. It will be probably be some time before we are again able to go to openings, greet each other with friendly hugs, and exchange our impressions face to face. And almost certainly, we will be working under worse conditions than we did before; even now our funders are advising us to focus primarily on our collections and archives, in other words, what we have under our own roof. And what about artists? How in the future will we be able to support them and other threatened groups – not only professionals such as writers, translators, and designers, but also refugees, the homeless, and other marginalized communities?
For a long time now, museums have been more than just places for housing and presenting art; they have become important sites for critical discourse, social sensitivity and solidarity, and the imagining of a better future. Certainly, the catastrophe in which we now find ourselves is also an opportunity to think about an even stronger social role for the museum. At a time when public space is reduced to balconies and windows and we are increasingly becoming captives of the virtual world, museums should be contemplating an even more active social role for themselves. The fact that the economic aspect of our work will only become more difficult obliges us to think about and propose an alternative economy, an economy of solidarity, one that is based not primarily on a market economy but on the direct exchange of services and the results of work, as well as donations. Museum associations throughout the world are warning governments that funds must be made available for the revitalization of museums after the present crisis. Italy’s museums, for example, have recently asked the Italian government to establish a National Fund for Culture. It is also incumbent on us to refocus the priorities within our existing programmes. Living artists must come first; we must develop acquisition funds intended primarily for working artists and in this way help them to survive.
It is necessary to respect our resources, not just in terms of our collections and archives but also in terms of people – everyone with whom we collaborate and together produce meaning for our work. For the most part, these are people from our own environment, from the environment in which our museum is situated, but also from the environments of our “trans-situatedness”, by which I mean all the spaces where people work with whom we join in the effort to respond to the dilemmas of the global world. Through our “trans-situatedness” we can develop more equitable exchanges of ideas on the global level.
All these things are conditions of the “sustainable museum”, which, indeed, is one of the entries in “My Post-Catastrophic Glossary”. But I first wrote about the sustainable museum in connection with the exhibition Low-Budget Utopias, which was drawn from the Moderna galerija’s own collections. Among other things, I presented a diagram showing four museum models (besides the sustainable museum, there was also the universal museum, the global museum, and the meta-museum). The essence of the sustainable museum is that it actively operates within the framework of a certain community and does this by working with others – with artists, various kinds of stakeholders, and socially engaged groups, individuals, and organizations – people who, in the L’Internationale confederation of museums, we refer to as “constituencies”. The constituencies of a museum are those resources without whom the museum, as a museum of its time, could no longer survive today. It goes without saying that the sustainable museum is also a “green” museum, but more than this, it is first and foremost a museum of its constituencies, for whom and with whom it is continually transforming. The sustainable museum, therefore, lives the same life as its community, who are shaped by a multitude of constantly changing relationships and interests. The sustainable museum is grounded in the resources of its environment, in people and their work, and in nature, and as such it connects with other environments. It does not address its public from any exalted position of expertise with only the “weapons” of its collections and archives; on the contrary, it is open to interaction.
In “My Post-Catastrophic Glossary” I describe a situation in which all museums have been destroyed, along with their collections and archives. Only people and their memories remain. And these are not just the memories of the experts, but also those of museum guards, visitors, and everyone else. Maybe one of the priorities of the post-pandemic museum should be work on developing a future collective memory that will include all of the museum’s constituencies.
Translated by Rawley Grau