BY Sam Thorne in Features | 25 NOV 15
Featured in
Issue 175

What is the Future of the Museum?

Sam Thorne invites ten curators to reveal how they envision the museum 25 years from now

BY Sam Thorne in Features | 25 NOV 15

Speculating about the future of the museum has a long history, one that goes back even further than the invention of the museum itself. A century and a half before the doors of Europe’s princely collections were thrown open to the public, philosophers of different stripes dreamed of museum-like constructions. These imaginary institutions spring up in a number of early-17th-century utopian tracts, such as Sir Francis Bacon’s New Atlantis (1627), which describes a building depicting ‘the whole of natural history’. In fact, as Andrew McClellan demonstrates in his excellent book The Art Museum from Boullée to Bilbao (2008), the neoclassical French architect Étienne-Louis Boullée’s visionary proposals of the 1780s would go on to influence the blueprints for the Louvre’s Grand Gallery. Speculations are often given form by later generations.

Museums have always been as concerned with prediction as with preservation. In caring for the past and the present, they must also stake a claim on what will matter in the future. These wagers often involve searching for new models or aspirations. In an 1889 lecture titled ‘The Future of the Museum’, a curator at the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C., predicted: ‘The museum of the future must stand side by side with the library and the laboratory.’ More than a century later, the dream of redrawing the museum’s boundaries continues. This tendency has been especially visible recently, with all kinds of different guises being tried on for size: M HKA in Antwerp temporarily turned into an art school (‘MUHKADEMIE’, 2013) and the Van Abbemuseum in Eindhoven dedicated itself to ‘useful art’ (2013–14) while, over a weekend earlier this year, the French choreographer Boris Charmatz refashioned Tate Modern as the ‘Musée de la danse’.

Johann Steingruber, M, 1773, from the series ‘Architectural Alphabet’, recreated by graphic design studio Europa for ‘Material Presence’, 2008, 176 Gallery, London

We are living in an era in which the shape of the museum, what it stands for and how it operates, is being rapidly reconfigured. Attendance has never been so high and there have never been so many new buildings in progress. Still, at the same moment, the ways forward have never been so disputed. The breadth of this shifting terrain is suggested by this none-too-brief list, found in publicity materials for museum consultant Mark Walhimer’s recent book, Museums 101 (2015): ‘inclusion, globalization, social media, social collateral, crowdsourcing, crowdfunding, mobility, collaboration, consumerization of it, online education and corporatization’. Most current debates are about balance. Where, for example, do the older pleasures of contemplation meet those of participation? How is popularity achieved while rethinking the canon? How can public collections keep pace with private collections? Or, in the face of cuts to state and municipal funding, what is the proximity between public institutions and private interests?

Snøhetta, design for a new staircase at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. Courtesy San Francisco Museum of Modern Art; rendering: Steelblue

Today, the tension between the museum as a civic space with a social responsibility and its increasingly commercial imperatives is often palpable. Since the early 1990s, these critiques have become more common, honing in on lucrative sponsorship deals, heavily branded exhibitions and events, along with dramatically expanding retail and cafe ventures. Recall the small furore caused in the late 1980s by Saatchi & Saatchi’s infamous campaign: ‘V&A: An ace caff with quite a nice museum attached.’ Again, this is a debate with a long history. Ad Reinhardt, in his 1940 broadside ‘How Modern is the Museum of Modern Art?’ was already asking: ‘Is the museum a business?’ His question continues to resonate. Two years ago, Claire Bishop updated Reinhardt’s title for her book Radical Museology: or, What’s ‘Contemporary’ in Museums of Contemporary Art?, which she opens by arguing that: ‘increased scale and a proximity to big business have been two central characteristics of the move from the 19th-century model of the museum as a patrician institution of elite culture to its current incarnation as a populist temple of leisure and entertainment’.

The 1990s was once characterized by The New York Times as the ‘grandest, most ambitious museum boom’ in history. But that decade was almost sluggish by the standards of today, in a moment when the Chinese government has pledged to open 1,000 new museums. Over the last year or two, it has become difficult to keep track of the slew of new buildings, extensions and private foundations. The highest-profile opening this year was no doubt Renzo Piano’s widely praised Whitney Museum of American Art in New York, although the move left the much-loved, Upper East Side Marcel Breuer building empty. In March, it will reopen as the Met Breuer, the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s annexe for modern and contemporary art, a temporary measure while David Chipperfield’s new wing is built. (It’s expected to be completed in 2020.) Not to be outdone, MoMA’s galleries will also be expanding by about a third. The project will be overseen by Diller Scofidio + Renfro, who are currently busy on the West Coast: their Broad Museum has just opened in Los Angeles, while their Berkeley Art Museum is due to launch in January. The latter is one of two Bay Area museums to open in the next few months: Snøhetta’s SFMOMA extension will open in the spring. Across the Atlantic, Rem Koolhaas’s OMA has completed two private foundations in the last 12 months – Fondazione Prada in Milan and Garage Museum of Contemporary Art in Moscow – while, last year, there was Frank Gehry’s Fondation Louis Vuitton in Paris. In the summer, Herzog and De Meuron’s Tate Modern Project – an 11-storey, brick-latticed pyramid – will also open, expanding the world’s most-visited museum of modern and contemporary art by 60 percent. And, in the Gulf, Jean Nouvel’s controversial Louvre Abu Dhabi is opening in December.

Marina Abramović, 512 Hours, 2014, documentation of performance. Courtesy the artist and Serpentine Galleries; photograph: Marco Anelli 

Many are convinced that museums are going to have to change in ways other than by simply getting bigger. The Turkish novelist Orhan Pamuk, whose Museum of Innocence opened in Istanbul in 2012, has argued: ‘It is imperative that museums become smaller, more individualistic and cheaper.’ As Hal Foster suggested in his essay ‘After the White Cube’, published in the London Review of Books earlier this year, one pressing dilemma is the sheer variety of exhibition spaces required by contemporary art. While the white cube isn’t completely defunct, Foster concludes, it has become more various: black boxes for projection and grey boxes (or what the MoMA plan calls ‘art bays’) for dance and performance. What happens next, after this current wave of building projects? Is this the end of an era of expansionism or the start of a new phase? Might we be moving, instead, towards institutions that have multiple sites, are networked, collaborative or even immaterial?

Sam Thorne is artistic director of Tate St Ives, UK, and a contributing editor of frieze. His book, School: Conversations on Self-Organised Education, will be published by Sternberg Press in May 2016.

Abdellah Karroum

Abdellah Karroum is Director of Mathaf: Arab Museum of Modern Art, Doha, Qatar, and the Artistic Director of L’appartement 22, Rabat, Morocco.

Art forms evolve continuously as expression takes shape and adopts the shared languages of the time. Graffiti is the oldest and newest means of expression, found in both prehistoric caves and as traces of our present times on urban walls. Museums in 2040 will continue to serve as living archives and spaces for exploring art and creative expressions from other times and locations. As well as being places of memory, museums also act as arenas in which to think about how our bodies relate to space and time, how we remember the past, our relationship to elsewhere and how we project into the future. I envision a museum that is part of daily life, a space that co-exists with the transportation systems that are yet to be invented. Museums will be part of flights between Shanghai and Los Angeles, or floating villages in the Mediterranean between Tangier and Beirut. Beyond 2040, a museum of humankind might even be accessible on the moon or in outer space. But a museum is also a space for thinking about our present and expressing this moment through innovative language. And this is what we must cultivate, now and well beyond 2040.

Étienne-Louis Boullée, proposal for Sir Isaac Newton’s cenotaph, 1784. Courtesy National Gallery France 

Maria Balshaw

Maria Balshaw is Director of the Whitworth, Manchester, UK.

Future technologies will certainly offer entirely new experiences for visitors to museums, but these will only come to life if they draw inspiration from the collections and from the ideas that artists have and then connect to new audiences. The art museum in 2040 will be a space of contact and connection between people, artworks and ideas. It will be a beacon for culturally democratic participation in a thriving city, with a great collection still at its centre. The aspiration for the future has to be that more people will engage with our museum institutions.

Charles Esche

Charles Esche works at Van Abbemuseum, Eindhoven, the Netherlands, and Afterall, London, UK. He is curator of the Jakarta Biennale, which opens 15 November 2015.

The state of things in the world these days feels too urgent and harsh for empty speculations. But if we really want to project the logical trajectory of today forward to 2040, I think we are likely to see: big-city museum brands extending their control over, and support for, provincial museum outposts globally; more populist and less diverse museum programming; a global expansion of the ‘canon’ that widens its base but fights to keep the existing power structures intact; closures in western Europe and openings elsewhere; closer collaboration between the commercial world and the traditional ‘public’ sector. (Will there be a ‘Gagosian MoMA’ or a ‘Google Tate’, for instance?) There will be rising inequality of opportunity between museums; insurgent institutions, new and old, that crowdfund from a wide, shallow support group to undermine the universalizing mainstream and offer new forms of agency to communities. There will be an emergence of the idea of a ‘museum of the commons’ that breaks with ownership and commercial logic to serve new constituencies and generate a different political and intellectual space for art than the tired territories of modernity. In reality, I expect the current trajectory to fall into complete crisis before 2040, and for things to get much more interesting than this.

Bice Curiger

Bice Curiger is Artistic Director of the Fondation Vincent van Gogh, Arles, France. From 1993 to 2013, she was a curator at Kunsthaus Zurich, Switzerland.

How can museums be protected from technocrats? This seems the most urgent question. The museum is an ordering machine, generating conventions of looking that must, of necessity, get broken down. It is also a paradoxical place that combines the past with surprise and new ways of seeing (and close contact with artists is a guarantor for a lively culture of looking). Ideally, the museum should have an aura of imaginative disinterestedness. This is at odds with the ethos of the hyperactive museological camp, with its populist programming, steamroller communications, loud merchandising and metropolitan branding. My generation fought to open up and democratize museums, and for an expanded definition of art. Today, it is a matter of reasserting the museum’s relevance in society in the face of the mercantile intentions of optimized entertainment engineering, with players increasingly acting as if museums were part of the fashion industry. The museum of the future will bear witness to the degree of intelligence, love and sensitivity with which it has been developed. As most innovations in today’s society are technologically driven, we must imagine that museums, too, will prioritize new technologies. In a few years, 360° 3D presentations, based on the algorithms of our personal preferences, will conjure up a musée imaginaire. A built-in update or surprise factor will make sure that our experience is not purely what we expect. What I hope for, however, is that the museum will survive as a place where things that have fallen out of time are allowed to slumber – to be woken one day with a kiss from some inspired princess or prince. 

Translated by Nicholas Grindell.

Architect’s rendering of Zeitz MOCAA, Cape Town, under construction. Courtesy Heatherwick Studio 

Lawrence Rinder

Lawrence Rinder is Director of the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive, Berkeley, USA.

In 25 years time, museums will have evolved to be much less doctrinaire and limited in presentation styles and formats than they are today. Except for certain exhibitions (those that attempt an accurate historical re-creation of modernist style, for instance), the white cube approach will have largely vanished. Rare will be the museum that sees its role as primarily illuminating historical periods or the achievements of individual artists. The vast majority of institutions will have embraced an instrumental, experiential approach in which art (from any time or place) is understood as a tool with which to achieve some kind of impact or impression on the visitors. The biggest challenge facing museums will be that, while there’ll be a much greater focus on the viewer’s subjective experience, there will be a commensurate rise in the demand for quantitative (or at least qualitative) measurements: museums will need to prove to funders that they are achieving their impact targets. On the bright side, the presentation of objects (especially unique ones) will remain a powerful dimension of museum programmes. However, the line between ‘art’ and things that are simply remarkable will have become considerably blurred. If we’re lucky, the museum of the future will look little like the museum of today but it will be just as compelling and transformative, if not more so.

Yilmaz Dziewior

Yilmaz Dziewior is the Director of Museum Ludwig, Cologne, Germany.

I foresee two possible scenarios: 1) Dystopian, pessimistic. In 2040, museums will be defined more by their architectural shell than by the collections and activities they contain. This development began with Guggenheim Bilbao, and will reach its apogee with the ‘starchitect’ museums of Abu Dhabi. There will also no longer be a need to distinguish between private and public funding, as all institutions will depend entirely on patrons and corporate sponsorship. As a result, museums will only host blockbuster shows designed to maximize visitor numbers. 2) Utopian, optimistic. In 2040, museums will be able to focus wholly on preservation, research and communication, because the public will have recognized the importance of the institution in engendering a functioning, civilized society. Quality will take precedence over quantity. The items on display will no longer be viewed as objects divorced from the social context from which they emerged. In addition, the western-oriented canon of modern art will have been extended, incorporating art from Africa, Asia and Latin America, as well as work by artists from other regions that are currently still marginalized. With free entry to all museums, and increased efforts on the part of institutions to communicate their content democratically, art and culture will no longer be the exclusive preserve of the middle and upper classes.

Translated by Nicholas Grindell.

Andrew McClellan

Andrew McClellan teaches art history at Tufts University, Massachussetts, USA, and is the author of numerous books and articles on the history of museums, most recently The Art Museum from Boullée to Bilbao (University of California Press, 2008). He is currently completing a book on the development of curatorial training in the USA.

Over the next 25 years, globalization will accelerate, as will technology; as a consequence, customary borders between nations, cultures and media will become more fluid, challenging how museums are organized and how they connect with their audiences. The push to remain relevant and cutting edge, favouring the contemporary over the historic, competes with a simultaneous drive for museums to act as a respite from the relentless 24/7, sound-bite culture that envelops us. In an often-confusing, ephemeral world, museums appeal (to mostly bourgeois audiences) as an oasis of ‘the real’, offering access to timeless products of human creativity and fantasies of transcendent beauty uncomplicated by the sociopolitical forces that bring works of art into being. So, museums can be palliative as well as acting as platforms for global dialogue, and will thrive to the extent they successfully manage their dual identities as zones of engagement and escape. Money, always important, will only become more so. The rarely acknowledged truism that without private wealth there would be no ‘public’ museums looms larger as public investment in culture diminishes and an unstoppable art market fuels more private vanity projects. The rich get richer, with unfortunate consequences for disadvantaged communities and the cherished ideal of ‘museums for all’. Those with access to, and at ease in, museums will be happier than ever.

Architect’s rendering of Louvre Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, under construction. Courtesy: Ateliers Jean Nouvel, Artefactory, TDIC and Louvre Abu Dhabi 

Suzanne Cotter

Suzanne Cotter is Director of Fundação de Serralves – Museu de Arte Contemporanea, Porto, Portugal.

Twenty-five years from now, I imagine the contemporary art museum will reflect the convergence of today’s diverse models; it will be a place of collection and display, of education and discussion, of individual and group interaction and of performance. The scope of content, while varying according to context, will continue to expand to encompass future art forms as well as relationships between cinema, architecture and literature. Undoubtedly, world markets will crash again, and possibly the art market will go down with it, but museum collections will maintain their relevance and their symbolic and intrinsic value due to the prescience of the curators and directors who have come before. It is hard to know where technology will take us but, if the present day is anything to go by, museums in 2040 will be places people navigate with personal communication systems; interaction with the public will continue to be valued but the emphasis will be on the empowered visitor. The contemporary art museum will increasingly become a socialized space, a plaza where people spend time together. Judging by the geopolitical shifts we are witnessing today, the museum is likely to become a necessary sanctuary for the free exchange of ideas and cosmopolitan tolerance. My hope is that it will not have to erect barricades to protect this freedom.

Mariana Castillo Deball

Mariana Castillo Deball is an artist based in Berlin, Germany. Her solo exhibition ‘Reliefpfeiler’ is at Barbara Wien Gallery, Berlin, until 14 November.

The museum of the future will offer a compelling experience based on the premise of silence. Surrounded as we are nowadays by overwhelming visual and auditory stimuli in our everyday lives, the museum will provide meditation halls where visitors can experience emptiness. Pioneering a radical approach to time and space, the future museum I envisage will be built on the site of an old train station, and extend for miles along the defunct tracks, offering a journey through art and meditation. Visitors will be able to walk for hours though an endless series of rooms, which alternate between galleries filled with old master paintings and vacant spaces suitable for peaceful contemplation. Traversing the whole space on foot, observing how the rooms become increasingly empty, visitors will gradually become more and more exhausted, until, finally, they realize there is no way back.

Solveig Øvstebø

Solveig Øvstebø is Executive Director and Chief Curator of the Renaissance Society, Chicago, USA, which celebrates its centenary this year.

Privatization of the institutional field will continue to dominate through the rise of single-owner collections, showcased in increasingly flamboyant museum buildings that mimic the castle collections of 16th-century European aristocrats. For better or for worse, these collections will have the appearance of public institutions, but will still be manifestations of private taste. Mega-galleries will expand further and take on public roles through educational programming, lectures, archiving and libraries. With a few exceptions, mid-size public non-profit institutions will develop into smaller research stations, as they will be unable to compete with the former in terms of budget, space or public outreach. These ‘institutes’ will provide independent platforms for art production, inquiry and institutional experimentation where failure is considered a working tool. The next 25 years will witness technological development and transformation on a scale that will reduce the need for human labour and completely alter our viewing public. As the computing powers of our devices grow, our ability to perceive and care through our bodies will remain our unique human traits. A new public will interact with art and glocal institutional models. The next Documenta will be curated by an audience member.

Sam Thorne is the director general and CEO of Japan House London.