Yvette Mutumba during the “10 Years Bathtub: Open for the Open” lecture series at Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam, 24 September 2022. Photo: Ernst van Deursen.
November 22, 2022
In September 2022, Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam celebrated the ten-year jubilee of the Badkuip (the Bathtub), a new wing designed by Benthem Crowel Architects that kept the museum closed for eight years. This month marked the museum’s reopening to the public, a milestone that was celebrated with a special program titled “10 Years Bathtub: Open for the Open”. Yvette Mutumba, our curator-at-large since 2020, gave a lecture on widely debated topics that surround cultural institutions today, such as its (institutional) definition and contemporary role in society. Here, we publish her presentation as an essay, wherein we are invited to wonder what elements enable museums to enact outward-looking practices?
Museums are trusted. They are seen as more credible sources of information than newspapers, other NGOs, and—by particularly large measure—federal agencies.
This was one of the major findings of research commissioned by the American Alliance of Museums.[i]
Another study in the UK found that museum curators are among the most highly trusted professions.[ii]
This is seriously worthy of note. And I don’t mean to overstate the significance of the responsibility that comes with this trust, but, well, it is quite a responsibility.
One that’s at once amazing and daunting.
One that entails great possibilities, for better or worse.
And it raises a couple of crucial questions: How did museums even achieve this level of trust? And why and how do they deserve to be trusted?
In August 2019, 24 national ICOM committee members objected to a previously proposed 99-word definition of a museum that included words like “democratizing” and “inclusive,” terms that were deemed excessively “ideological” by those members. The vote was subsequently postponed, and ICOM launched an 18-month-long survey to weigh opinions on the revisal of the definition.
The debate is known to have divided ICOM members as it raised the fundamental question of whether a museum’s primary purpose is to educate the public and preserve cultural heritage, or to exist as a hub that effectuates social progress. Well, I don’t think this is an either-or question; rather, I consider the two aspects deeply intertwined.
This August, ICOM approved a new definition:
“A museum is a not-for-profit, permanent institution in the service of society that researches, collects, conserves, interprets and exhibits tangible and intangible heritage. Open to the public, accessible and inclusive, museums foster diversity and sustainability. They operate and communicate ethically, professionally and with the participation of communities, offering varied experiences for education, enjoyment, reflection, and knowledge sharing.”[iii]
While this approved proposal follows the definition’s previous structure, it includes concepts like “diversity,” “sustainability,” and “accessibility—terms that are meant to reflect recent debates around the civic role of museums.
While this is all very honorable, the question remains as to why museums deserve to be trusted, firstly, as their capability and willingness to live up to this definition is yet to be seen, and secondly, because there’s an important issue that has yet to be addressed, namely that #MuseumsAreNotNeutral.
According to the initiators of the campaign bearing this name—art historian and curator La Tanya S. Autry and museum educator Mike Murawski—this phrase is both a hashtag and the rallying cry of a movement aimed at changing the way museums around the world are visited, curated, and protested.
What I think is important to add here is that while museums are indeed not neutral—a characteristic that has justifiably negative connotations—we should not forget that this lack of neutrality also means being subjective in the most positive sense of the word.
Lacking neutrality also suggests a love for the arts, a devotion to collections and artists, and a depth of care for the relevance of culture.
So, we need to find ways to draw all the “non-neutralities” together, to embrace them, work through them and move on from them into new non-neutralities—maybe even better ones.
Should/can/will museums ever be neutral?[iv]
Can researching, collecting, conserving, interpreting, and exhibiting ever be free of bias?
Can education, enjoyment, reflection, and knowledge sharing be non-subjective?
And why should they be?
Does it not remain a matter of choice, preference and interpretation how all the tasks that museums are officially assigned to do are implemented?
Museums have never been neutral, and examining this lack of neutrality of course entails confronting the problematic historical outcomes of this phenomenon.
SINS & SYMBOLS
As we all know, last year, the Stedelijk Museum celebrated its 125th anniversary. As part of this celebration, the cultural historian Nancy Jouwe wrote a really important article in which she places the museum in the cultural-historical context of the late 19th century. In this article, she outlines the manner in which wealth gained by private enterprises in the colonies was used to create an idea of cultural sensitivity supported and validated by an ambitious city council government.
I thought it was tremendously important that Nancy laid bare the connection between the concept of colonial exhibitions and the origin of the museum, because it is a relationship we find repeated across Europe. Major colonial shows were held in metropoles such as Paris, Berlin, Brussels and London to demonstrate the grandeur of the colonial enterprise and show off the wealth and power gained through the exploitation of the colonial territories.
It’s particularly interesting that Nancy’s article links this to an art museum. Ordinarily, the subject tends to be raised in reference to ethnographic museums, such as the British Museum in London or the Humboldt Forum in Berlin. But now the Stedelijk Museum was being placed alongside the Tropenmuseum, a cultural-historical link also mentioned in the current collection presentation Yesterday Today.
It is crucial that we know and acknowledge the origin of the institutions we represent. It is important we understand that their history is intertwined with that of colonialism. Without this connection, they would not have acquired the funds that enabled their very establishment.
It’s important that the Stedelijk demonstrates this awareness, makes it a natural part of its trajectory, uses old symbols such as the location of the museum to create new traditions, new narratives and yes, perhaps even new symbols to represent these new narratives, such that this history isn’t limited to isolated inclusions in the occasional exhibition or article, but is continuously accessible.
This effort, however, shouldn’t be about inducing or alleviating guilt, as that wouldn’t be particularly useful. The goal isn’t to atone for past sins, but to understand the consequences of this history and find the signs and symbols necessary for addressing these consequences and mediating it transparently. When I say symbols, I mean that in the broadest sense. Thus, not simply a commemorative plate or a timeline on a wall (although these can’t hurt, depending on how they deal with the aspect of time), but rather in the sense that includes sustainable strategies that acknowledge the past as much as they do the present, as well as what that present actually means to the museum today.
BUBBLES & BODIES
Here we are today in the Bathtub, which is fitting given that everyone here operates in a bubble, the so-called “art bubble”. Anyone who works in a museum in Europe is operating in a bubble within a bubble. And I am very aware that, despite my curator “at-large” status, I, too, am inside this bubble. Museums of the 21st century are making efforts to poke holes in this bubble, stick their heads out and perhaps even extend a hand to so-called marginalized artists, curators, and audiences.
About two years ago, during the “George Floyd moment,” the bubble seemed closer to bursting than it had been for a long time, under the force of the protests taking place across the world. Among the responses to this pressure was the quick alignment of many European Institutions with the cause, albeit primarily through social media. But what many of these institutions assumed was the right thing to do was actually the opposite, as their token gesture was neither useful nor helpful to anyone to whom it was seemingly addressed. Actually, to whom was this even addressed? To those in the bubble who were likely to nod in agreement, those in the bubble who didn’t happen to be part of the majority, or those outside the bubble who were unlikely to ever know that these museums had demonstrated their solidarity in an Instagram post? Furthermore, if anything, this moment was revealing, in the sense that it exposed and amplified the century-long practice of systemic racism towards and ignorance of everything outside the bubble.
On various occasions, I overheard representatives of major European museums use phrases like “the topic of the moment,” “Zeitgeist,” “trend,” “necessity” and “momentum” to describe what was happening, revealing yet again a dumbfounding ignorance of the fact that this was never, not then, and not now, two years later, just a “moment”. This was about centuries of history and centuries yet to come. This never was and still isn’t an “issue” or a “theme,” but rather a matter of real lives, and real people, mostly outside the bubble, who are affected by the subjects of the protests. Real bodies bearing generations of pain and trauma that had once again burst into the open.
Speaking of bodies, I’d like to turn my attention back to the museum, which is often seen or described as a single homogenous body. As all of you who work in one are of course keenly aware, it is not. Rather, it embodies terribly complex structures with stubbornly persistent hierarchies that are either already deeply ingrained or in the process of becoming ingrained in the consciousness of those working in and representing the institution.
Interestingly enough, whenever we talk about the necessary changes required of museums, they suddenly stop being single homogenous organisms. Suddenly the fixes are the responsibility of very specific individuals. Expectations are typically high, as has become clearer in recent years with the appointments at the Stedelijk Museum and other European institutions such as MACBA, Barcelona (Elvira Dyangani Ose), and at institutions without collections such as the House of World Cultures, Berlin (Bonaventure Soh Bejeng Ndikung), and the White Chapel Gallery in London (Gilane Tawadros). It’s worth noting here that the debate around institutional restructuring is much older in the UK than it is in the rest of Europe, and can be traced directly to the Black Arts Movement that began in the 1970s and grew louder and more “official” in the 1980s. Nothing comparable has happened as yet in any other European context. Thus, despite the persistence of unresolved problems, the UK is at least ahead of all others with respect to the diversity of people at the helm of major institutions.
The UK also has a longer history of employing people for the sole purpose of ensuring the institutions consider narratives and contexts beyond their bubble and influencing HR policy accordingly. Such efforts are now being introduced in Europe. In Germany, for instance, the German Federal Cultural Foundation’s 360° program specifically aims to fund such positions at cultural institutions, and several museums have taken up the offer. The funding period, however, only runs from 2018 to 2025. And then what? Here yet again, the task of correcting the centuries-old dysfunctions of the machinery of museums is officially being left to single individuals. Can these isolated wheels set entire machines in motion and carry them in new directions?
PROCESSES (or is it PROGRESS?) & POWER
“Museums are processes,” suggested the Brazilian ICOM delegation in 2019 as part of their proposal for the new definition of a museum.[v] This might sound to some like the complete opposite of what museums, at least in Europe, seem to represent: preservation and permanence. However, processes, in the sense of changes and shifts, have to increasingly define the dynamics of museums in the 21st century. The debate around the “new museum” or the “museum of the future” did not begin in this century, as Nora Sternfeld reminds us, but—as with many things—has again become a major concern.[vi] Sternfeld quotes Alfred Lichtwark, who, in 1904, already argued that “As long as museums do not petrify, they will have to change.”[vii]
The employment of individuals as fixers isn’t the only means by which changes and shifts can be initiated. While it is of course still incredibly important to have specific recruitment policies aimed at bringing about sustainable shifts, it is just as important for everyone at these institutions to understand that these shifts are not and cannot be achieved solely on the basis of hiring decisions. The task is equally about the decisions that each and every member of those institutions takes every single day. And institutions can, or perhaps even should, support the development of decision-making awareness by providing their staff with relevant information, opportunities for exchange, and the space and time necessary for developing said awareness.
Patience is key here.
Decision-making for change is the starting point, and can be supplemented by a variety of things from workshops and outreach programs to new permanent exhibitions.
Acknowledging the individual within a museum is a process of humanizing the institution. And in so doing, processes can also represent progress, manifested ideally by the dismantling of the institution’s deeply engrained hierarchies.
The very concept of art history, and hence art museums, in the European context is inherently about hierarchy, as their main task is to determine which objects are the “best” and thus belong at the top of this hierarchy and which are of less importance. This determination of value is naturally very subjective, but with it comes power.
It is of course impossible to work without decision-making of one sort or another. But that does not preclude being receptive to the idea of other perspectives that involve different criteria and hierarchies.
So, what I’m talking about here is the idea of power sharing, which happens through recruitment policy and input from external experts as much as it does through collaboration with other and, yes, why not, smaller institutions and grassroot organizations.
The redistribution of funds or the initiation of efforts to acknowledge that these funds were never allocated fairly is crucial here. Especially given that, as indicated earlier, the genealogy of these funds can be traced back to colonial exploitation. For instance, contributors to the Stedelijk Studies Journal were for years expected (as is normal in the academic sphere) to write ten-page essays, or longer, without any form of compensation.
Unpaid labor is a strange luxury that many underrepresented voices with important ideas cannot and should not have to afford. Thus, if institutions, and in this example the Stedelijk, really hope to welcome a diversity of perspectives, they have to be willing to make changes to a seemingly ossified system. Otherwise, regardless of outreach efforts, the system is destined to retain its existing hierarchies and inequalities, which again filter out anyone who does not fit the mold or is unable to afford to offer their labor for free, no matter their level of expertise. The Stedelijk has shown willingness to change with respect to the Stedelijk Studies Journal, and these changes will apply from the forthcoming edition onwards.
It’s the only way to truly work “with the participation of communities, offering varied experiences for education, enjoyment, reflection and knowledge sharing,” as noted even by the new definition of a museum.
To “operate and communicate ethically,” as ICOM put it, means, in my opinion, to share power and give it up completely whenever necessary.
Ethics—what does or could that mean in regard to the non-neutrality of museums? During an international symposium entitled “The Future of Museums,” which took place about two years ago, representatives of various “Western” museums argued that the museum is not political or cannot be political. However, while it is true that the museum is not a political party, it is a political “arena” in which political discussions take place and political questions are raised. And this of course applies equally to museums that claim to be apolitical, as that in itself is obviously a political position.
The way I perceive it, and as Rein Wolfs has put it, the Stedelijk Museum is aiming to take positions on questions raised by art, or which belong to the history or DNA of museums. For instance, systemic racism, which is part of the history of museums, necessitates expressing an opinion about racism and the related questions shaping current debate.
Another notable example of an institution being vocal about its political position is Tate Modern, London, which has a statement about its commitment to race and equality in a prominent position in the “About us” section of its website, which has been continuously updated since 2020.[viii] In the same section of the website, and just as prominently displayed, is a statement of its policies and procedures, which include “diversity and inclusion” as well as “modern slavery and human trafficking.”[ix] How far these public statements apply to the reality of the actions and structure of the Tate remains to be determined and could be the subject of another debate.
In any case, this kind of political ambition automatically implies that the museum maintains its hold on power, even if new structures and distributions of power have been implemented. Power redistributed does not necessarily mean power shared.
But what does this reformulated power mean, or rather, what to do with it?
Rein Wolfs, Yvette Mutumba and Bas Heijne during a Q&A session for the “10 Years Bathtub: Open for the Open” lecture series at Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam, 24 September 2022. Photo: Ernst van Deursen.
ACCESS & AGENCY
In my opinion, increasing accessibility is key to the repositioning of European museums. This includes the aforementioned sharing of power and knowledge. It also necessitates museums regard themselves as spaces of experimentation and enquiry—in the sense that they also pose questions and show themselves open to listening and learning, rather than present themselves as the sole arbiters of truth.
Accessibility is about demonstrating museums’ receptivity to a variety of viewpoints and voices, even if those voices are not always in agreement, which in itself should be regarded as productive.
Ideally, this will pave the way for new forms of agency. Agency beyond the curatorial voices, agency of audiences as much as, and crucially, that of the artworks. And this could, or perhaps even should, position art itself as the medium through which the institution engages with politics, ventures opinions, and implements shifts. This could include reappraisals of collections and presentations of old and new icons, which will only be possible if space is afforded to previously undervalued works to enable them gain the agency necessary to their recognition as icons.
Collections are often perceived as static, assemblages of works stowed away in the bowels of institutions, sporadically surfacing in the context of exhibitions. Building on recent debates around museums, we could begin to think of collections as eternal processes for creating links and connections that spread across space and time. In this respect, collections would function not merely as sources of material for new exhibitions, but also as social libraries.
Collections can and should therefore be perceived as diversified networks of positions and voices. And these positions and voices include the “problematic works” contained therein, such as those that could be perceived as racist or that present individuals, cultures, histories and so forth in a stereotypical manner.
These works shouldn’t simply be kept from view, as that does nothing to relieve the museum of its history of embracing the narratives and perspectives demonstrated by the works. Avoidance of the uncomfortable is a barrier to re-thinking and re-evaluating collections. Transparency is what’s required for the presentation and contextualization of such works. Transparency in general is key to increasing accessibility, and to enabling agency. There’s so much going on with museums at the moment, little of which critics and audiences are aware of, and to a certain degree, it would benefit museums to be more open about the processes underway and what progress they are making, as that is also a way to share power.
CONTEXT & CELEBRATION
All factors mentioned thus far of course have in common the need for proper contextualization. What I’m getting at here is, first, the provision of the broader context of artworks, of icons, even if this entails some degree of discomfort. We saw an illustration of this following the opening of the Kirchner/Nolde exhibition here at the Stedelijk. While it was hailed by many, it also prompted a substantial backlash—how dare anyone contextualize these icons in a way that shows them in a different light? As I saw it, this backlash actually represented valuable feedback, as it demonstrated the necessity of exhibitions such as this. As a side note, the German iteration of the Kirchner/Nolde exhibition also provided some context, but in a much less candid or forceful manner, as a consequence of which it generated much less discussion and was, in my opinion, also of less relevance.
Providing context does not always mean exposing the heavy burdens of history and injustices of the present. It can also mean telling amazing and empowering stories that celebrate works and artists. Like the issue of neutrality, context is often taken to be synonymous with tackling problematic issues.
Regarding celebrating works and artists, it’s important we remember that all of us inside the bubble subscribe to a very specific idea of aesthetic value, a specific idea of what satisfies the benchmark of quality and what does not, and, consequently, what is contextually interesting and/or relevant. And I think we must constantly challenge these long-held beliefs, because conditioned as we are to this universalizing idea of modernism, we must somehow find ways to unlearn what is deeply ingrained. So, we should try to keep ourselves and each other in check, and be ready to fail in our attempts to free ourselves of ideas that have shaped us through our studies and careers.
FAME & FAILURE
By careers, I’m referring to the way the trajectory of anyone in the industry is unavoidably shaped by the institutions they work with or in. It’s not uncommon for young art professionals to find themselves having to compromise their values so as to conform to institutional ideas, strategies and policies, as they are facing the precarity of life as cultural sector workers brought about by minimal wages and fees. All for the honor of working with or for a major established institution.
A couple of days ago, I got a call from an artist I’d nominated for a respected art prize. All nominated artists typically exhibit their work at the institution awarding the prize and are featured in a catalog. A paragraph in the description of her work outlined the way she—an academically trained painter—positions her practice within the narrative of the white male genius painter that has dominated art history for centuries. So, the artist was calling to tell me that the show’s curator and her “bosses” did not want to publish the text because—so they claimed after a couple of weeks of back in forth—they were concerned that the paragraph in question would hurt the artist’s career quite significantly if published.
And so, apparently, much was suddenly at stake—for the artist, of course, but also the institution, at least as they saw it, concerned as they were that the “situation” might destroy their fame or reputation.
At the end of the day, everything discussed thus far comes down to a matter of fame. Artworks and artists are ranked according to, and are part of, hierarchies defined by a very subjective system, but so are the institutions themselves. Fame attracts funds, and vice versa, so the only way to break this cycle is to have the confidence required to step away from it and simply not care about the repercussions.
The Stedelijk is world-renowned, and with such fame comes a whole variety of expectations, which is as it should be. But these expectations are often bound to the idea that the famed institution is not allowed to fail. Failure in this context is of course a matter of perspective. What to one individual counts as failure might to another count as success. See, for instance, the Kircher/Nolde exhibition discussed earlier.
Each museum must find its own way to fail—this is important. And figuring out what to do to fail includes accommodating contradictions. It includes “redoing as a practice, rather than an endpoint”, as Laura Raikovich observed.[x] And it includes operating with an eye on the big picture and focusing much less on the institution’s shortcomings.
But this is of course easier said than done. Two years after the “George Floyd moment,” the fatigue of having to continuously commit to the cause is palpable. So, when I speak of failure, I’m also speaking of the many times the voices raised in the name of change have had to accept failure.
Another example: In June of 2020, an open letter by a group of Black artists and cultural workers in Switzerland was addressed to several of the country’s cultural institutions. The letter included a set of questions designed to help these institutions identify where they were failing Black people in relation to their working practices and collections and how to proceed from there. The authors of the letter suggested the institutions make their responses public to encourage transparency and accountability across the industry. Of the letter’s 76 recipients, each of whom had previously declared their solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement, only three have made their responses public. The other 73 responded with a plethora of rather frustrating excuses.
This is an example of manifold failures leading to a dead end from which further progress is impossible.
The goal should therefore be to facilitate sustainable change that reaches deep enough into the system to cause real shifts. And no one expects museums to achieve instant success in this regard. But the only museums to succeed at this and are able to reposition themselves in the long run will be those that acknowledge failure and regard it as productive. And success will, and probably should, take years of thinking, working, experiencing, talking, learning, and growing.
Benédicte Savoy once called museums time machines, as they constitute spaces in which different concepts of time meet. For example, there’s the visitor’s concept of time and that of the museum itself—in the sense of the time a particular object entered the institution, which will have happened under a particular set of circumstances that will likely have been favorable to the museums.[xi] For Savoy, the latter is invisible time, whose need for visibility is becoming increasingly urgent. To make that happen, European museums have to acknowledge the “favorable circumstances” that led to very one-sided ideas of art history. As Claire Bishop suggests, “This doesn’t mean that they (museums) subordinate art to history in general, but that they mobilize the world of visual production to inspire the necessity of standing on the right side of history.”[xii] Of course, how we define the “right” side of history remains debatable. But it must certainly include one thing: The fact that the most varied art histories already exist, along with not one, but many canons.
And in reference to these varied histories and multiple canons, I think it’s crucial, when steering a course for the future, to remember that we always have to take a step back to assess our position and look, continue, step back again and so on. It’s a continuous process.
IN MUSEUMS WE TRUST.
Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam building known as “Bathtub” designed by Benthem Crouwel Architecten. View from Van Baerlestraat. 24 September 2022. Photo: Ernst van Deursen.
About the Author
Yvette Mutumba is curator-at-large in the Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam, and co-founder and editor-in-chief of the art magazines Contemporary And (C&) and Contemporary And América Latina (C&AL). Yvette Mutumba studied Art History at Freie Universität Berlin and holds a PhD from Birkbeck, University of London. She introduces a broader view of contemporary art from the African continent and the African diaspora in her work. Mutumba worked at Weltkulturen Museum Frankfurt (2012-2016) and was part of the curatorial team of the 10th Berlin Biennale for Contemporary Art (2018) and visiting professor for Global Discourses at the Academy of Media Arts Cologne (2017–2018).
[i] American Alliance of Museums. “Museums and Trust 2021.” American Alliance of Museums, September 30, 2021. https://www.aam-us.org/2021/09/30/museums-and-trust-2021/; Colleen Dilenschneider, “In Museums We Trust. Here’s How Much (DATA UPDATE),” Colleen Dilenschneider, March 6, 2019, https://www.colleendilen.com/2019/03/06/in-museums-we-trust-heres-how-much-data-update/; Colleen Dilenschneider, “Credibility of Museums Continues to Increase during Pandemic (DATA),” Colleen Dilenschneider, October 14, 2020, https://www.colleendilen.com/2020/10/14/credibility-of-museums-continues-to-increase-during-pandemic-data/.
[ii] Museums Association. “Museum Curators among the Most Trusted Professions, Poll Finds.” Museums Association, December 4, 2020. https://www.museumsassociation.org/museums-journal/news/2020/12/museum-curators-among-the-most-trusted-professions-poll-finds/#.
[iii] International Council of Museums. “Museum Definition.” ICOM, 2019. https://icom.museum/en/resources/standards-guidelines/museum-definition/.
[iv] In regard to the discussion around the neutrality of museums, see also Laura Raicovich, Culture Strike: Art and Museums in an Age of Protest (London; New York: Verso, 2021).
[v] International Council of Museums, “Creating the New Museum Definition: Over 250 Proposals to Check Out! – ICOM,” ICOM, April 1, 2019, https://icom.museum/en/news/the-museum-definition-the-backbone-of-icom/.
[vi] Nora Sternfeld, Das radikaldemokratische Museum (Berlin: De Gruyter, 2018), 13–18.
[vii] Alfred Lichtwark, “Museen als Volksbildungsstätten,” in Die Museen als Volksbildungsstätten: Ergebnisse der 12. Konferenz der Centralstelle für Arbeiter-Wohlfahrtseinrichtungen (Berlin: 1904), 6–12, 8 quoted after Sternfeld.
[viii] Tate, “Our Commitment to Race Equality,” Tate, June 2020, https://www.tate.org.uk/about-us/our-commitment-race-equality.
[ix] Tate, “Policies and Procedures,” Tate, n.d., https://www.tate.org.uk/about-us/policies-and-procedures.
[x] Laura Raicovich, Culture Strike, 118
[xi] Bénédicte Savoy, Museen: Eine Kindheitserinnerung Und Die Folgen (Cologne: Greven Verlag, 2019),18, 25.
[xii] Claire Bishop, Radical Museology : Or, What’s Contemporary in Museums of Contemporary Art? (Cologne: Walther König, 2014). 6.