Banu Cennetoğlu,BEINGSAFEISSCARY (Estar seguro é amedrontador), 2017, materiais diversos. Friedrichtsplatz, Kassel, documenta 14. 

Foto: Roman März.

The Museum Today: Troublemaker

Researcher, critic and curator, Marcelo Rezende, part of the Museal Episode team, talks about the future of the museum as an institution, reflects on the choice of Athens as host city for discussions on the subject and asks: "How do we we first decolonize thought, so we can then decolonize the museum?"

To start, the final gathering and its context. The place is Athens, in July, European Summer: the city and the time chosen to host the final meeting of the working group that comprises the Museal Episode – On the Global Future of Museums, one of the platforms of the Episodes of the South program, created and developed by the Goethe-Institut in Brazil.

For two years, professionals from several countries, perspectives and lines of research in the art field have gathered to reflect on the direction of the museum as an institution and some of its primary tools: collections, exhibitions, research, its workforce and its audience. Rather than looking for solutions in these reflections, interest was focused primarily on understanding the major issues, using a range of questions about the way in which the history of institutions drives the political and social world, leaving a set of ideas about the museum, its failures and its possibilities, in their wake.

What makes a museum a museum?

In this context, Greece and Athens are no longer just a place, and turn into something greater: a virtual metaphor for the themes and work processes experienced by the group, elucidating and embodying the questions posed in Salvador (Brazil), La Paz (Bolivia) and Johannesburg (South Africa). What is a narrative about the past? Who determines such a narrative and for what reasons? What is a collection and to what extent can we democratize an institution's systems of power and hierarchy? What is democracy anyway, and what does it now represent? What makes a museum a museum?

Democracy, the potential for disagreement in the public sphere, accompanied, like a shadow, by all that threatens it: Athens performs these contradictions, sending messages from the past carved in ancient marble blocks and proclaiming the plight of the present day in its streets, in documenta 14 (a museum in time, not in space), in its reactions to the flow of cultural tourists walking its streets. Acting as a reminder to the Museal Episode and its agents about some of their own paradoxes: being a critical element in the museum and its crisis, as an involuntary (or voluntary) participant in that same crisis.

But what is this crisis, anyway?

An official narrative on the museum, its cultural presence during the 20th century, has concealed another narrative, which deals with its invention and, in precious moments, a struggle in the name of destroying the museum as a reservoir of national identities, a European construction to be digested in an uncritical way, a cemetery of ideas and images. In Statues Also Die, a documentary as fiction, directed in 1953 by Chris Marker and Alain Resnais, the narrator states: "when men die, they enter history; when statues die, they enter the museum". The museum as a tomb of representations.

Its crisis: faced with a cultural space overtaken by new forms arising from the entertainment industry – affecting not only the relationship between art and the public, but art itself –, beared down upon by the limited space in the market of objects, threatened by the contemporary experience of time, confronted with the limits of its own version of history, with what and to whom does it communicate? What language are we now lacking, hidden by silence?

The questions come one after another. What is the purpose of a group of professionals transiting across three continents, contemplating the reasons and discussing the museum and a new vision for the museum? Essentially, it serves to formulate the question where before one didn't exist, to envisage a methodology, a system, or strategic changes in an institution's organization, resulting in the possibility of experiencing at least a second chance, a new opportunity.

If within a new and different narrative about the museum one also finds a crisis, this narrative still carries attempts at problem-solving from different forms of construction and deconstruction of the museum. In the place of museum-crisis, other experiences: the anti-museum, the museum-school, the museum-forum, the museum with and for the community, the museum as museum critic. This is also another possible version of the facts about the museum and its journey in the culture.

The "other" history

From this perspective, the Museal Episode can be understood as a body for the exploration of nonconformist experiences (and in not infrequent moments the overthrowing of those same experiences) directed at the museum, art and the exhibition. In this process, a tool inclined to reconnect the museum with its "other" history, looking for new and unknown chapters of this alternative version of the facts.

One example: what can an ethnographic museum mean today in a European nation with a colonial past? Could the answer be found in an art museum that is, at once, ethnography, modern art and contemporary production, in the same space? What would be a Brazilian response to the dilemma of the relationship between the museum and the community? How should an institution be formed, to overcome conflict with agendas imposed by large economic centers, an agenda that in no way belongs to it?

Culture wars

The questions are full of urgency, and the historical moment takes on this same urgency. Local centers, global centers – the process of influence and domination (colonization?) takes on a new character, which is not limited to geographical location. Culture wars happen everywhere, sometimes within the same territory, told in the same language, with all the winner's spoils on display, in the form of an exhibition.

What does the museum reflect, then? In a potential "Museal Episode: Book of Questions", what might we find? In what ways might the museum listen more than it dictates (the beginning of another art and education)? What does a collection and archive mean for a museum, besides objects? What separates ethnography from art? How can we tell the story of the culture produced in communist countries, after their disappearance? What strategy do we use to intervene in the hierarchies produced by the institution? How can we first decolonize thought, so we can then decolonize the museum? If we teach, what do we teach, how do we teach, and whom do we teach? In this question-making machine, what can we learn, how do we learn, with whom do we learn?

Marcelo Rezende (Brazil, 1968) is a researcher, critic and curator. He was director of the Museum of Modern Art of Bahia (2012-2015), artistic director of the 3rd Biennial of Bahia (2014) and part of the curatorial group of the 28th São Paulo Biennial (2008), among other projects and positions. Author of the novel Arno Schmidt (2005), he is associate curator of the Museu do Mato in Bahia, and is currently preparing an exhibition entitled Kaffee aus Helvécia (2017) for the Johann Jacobs Museum (Zurich). He is director of the Archiv der Avantgarden in Dresden, Germany, and participated in the Museal Episode program (2015-2017), part of the Episodes of the South project.

Translation: Zoë Petry