Avant-Garde Museology in a Multicultural and Global America

Using the recently published anthology Avant-Garde Museology1 as its launching point, the symposium “Avant Museology” began its two–city, two–weekend run on November 11th and 12th at the Brooklyn Museum2. The expansive conference of thirteen rigorous and engaging presentations considered early Soviet attempts to use museums to craft a “better, more evolved human being”3 by making them more reflective of all aspects of life, in content and form. The speakers expanded upon these themes with examples of contemporary experiments that disrupt traditional museum parameters by interjecting interaction, social engagement, and inclusive programming that engages and redefines its constituencies. The program organizers frame the symposium by asking, “[c]an contemporary museology be invested with the energy of the visionary and political projects contained in the works that it circulates and remembers?”4 While the Soviet Union was largely rebuking class-based structures in constructing their national identity, U.S. museums must acknowledge and engage our nation’s diversity and its global relations, especially now as we consider the prospects of an isolationist and ultra-conservative President-elect. Both Fred Wilson’s presentation and the Brooklyn Museum as the conference site stand as astute examples of innovative curation that positions art as a tool or place to help shape and engage a nation’s citizenry.

As an early example of Russian avant-garde museology, a number of presenters invoked El Lissitzky’s Cabinet of Abstraction (1927)—commissioned by German art historian Alexander Dorner for the Hannover Provincial Museum. Lissizky’s cabinet featured fellow Modernist artists like Piet Mondrian, Laszlo Moholy-Nagy, Pablo Picasso, Fernand Léger, and Mies van der Rohe. As a hybrid installation and exhibition, the cabinet’s modular sliding panels, graphically painted walls, and reflective materials created physical interaction and optical illusion. Arseny Zhilyaev’s presentation expanded this discussion to include early Soviet mobile museums, like the interactive laboratory vans with agricultural-based displays sent to rural areas. He also discussed the ways that Soviet curators created museums of revolution, atheism, and agitprop, and fused museums with science, folk art, and artifacts of daily life. As early Soviet experiments offered expansives ideas of what the museum could be, they challenged cultural elitism by redefining who is privy to cultural production and how it speaks to the populace.

In parallel with Soviet museum models, Bruce Atshuler’s presentation touched upon how in the late nineteenth century U.S. museums were established to showcase our national treasures and as public institutions to help craft and educate our diverse socioeconomic and ethnic populations. As contemporary corollaries to early Soviet experiments, Anne Pasternak addressed her programming with Creative Time, Hans Ulrich Obrist spoke of his Museum in Progress, Fionn Meade discussed house museums, like the Museo Casa De Leon Trotsky, Lynne Cooke addressed self-taught artists like Sam Doyle, and more. Building from the conference’s central conceit, the speakers offered examples of how contemporary curators are attempting to transform museums from entrenched institutions whose conventional practices have been devoted to preservation, chronological order, clear distinctions between departments, and a separation between popular and “high” arts.

As an example of an artist’s intervention, Fred Wilson spoke of his project Mining the Museum (1992). The project was born out of a collaboration between The Contemporary Museum, Baltimore5—a nomadic organization that partners with artists, institutions, and diverse audiences—and the state’s oldest cultural institution, the Maryland Historical Society (MHS). The prompt for Wilson’s exhibition itself disrupts traditional museology by joining one organization dedicated to collaborative projects, rather than its own collection, with another devoted to preservation. In uniting to reach out to Baltimore’s previously neglected minority communities, the collaboration addressed the politics of locality in terms of who constitutes MHS’s community and how to serve them.

In Fred Wilson’s eloquent presentation, the artist discussed how he uses museum collections and the language of display to make African Americans visible. During Wilson’s talk he explained how an organization’s deep storage can tell you more about the museum than what’s on display. The artist provided a dramatic example that resulted in him famously placing a Klan hood in a baby carriage. In another less charged intervention, Wilson redirected the focus of the work from being a portrait of bourgeois family life to the African American butler by simply adding a label that offered Fred Serving Fruit as an alternative title to Ernst Fischer’s Country Life. While historical collections have traditionally asserted a neutrality about the narratives they construct, Wilson highlights the politics of how museums display their holdings.

When invited to do The Museum: Mixed Metaphors (1993) at the Seattle Art Museum, the institution’s encyclopedic collection offered Wilson a more culturally expansive set of materials. For example, Wilson collapsed the difference within the African continent and museum departments by displaying Egyptian headrests alongside ones from Sub-Sahara. Additionally, Wilson reinstalled a number of mid-century Western Modernist paintings and sculptures in a cluster on a plinth to mirror the way that Native American artifacts are displayed. In standard exhibitions, the former are presented in groups that suggest sameness, while the latter are displayed individually to announce their authorship and uniqueness. Museums’ collections and display practices, even seemingly benign ones, echo the social structures outside the institution, in particular reflecting how Western society represents non-European cultures and histories.

While Wilson did not address Muzeum Impossible (1992)—commissioned by the Center for Contemporary Art at Warsaw’s Ujazdowski Castle—it would have been an interesting bridge between the contemporary and historic conversation, as well as Soviet and Western museum legacies. The Soviets began using museums to shape their new citizenry in the 1920s, but now the U.S.S.R. and Eastern Bloc have collapsed. Nikolay Punin’s discussion addressed how the former U.S.S.R. is having to reconcile their Soviet history and ideology while creating new national identities and cultural heritages, which includes the reintroduction of Russian avant-garde artists, who were once heralded as revolutionaries, excoriated as bourgeois, and then completely erased. With the fall of the Soviet Union, in 1990 the Polish Communist party declined and Lech Walesa was elected president. As Poland transitioned from communist to a representational democracy, its museums largely relegated the symbols of their totalitarian dictators to storage rooms. In the wake of these changes, Wilson retrieved Social Realist paintings and busts of Lenin along with dinosaur bones. As Wilson has worked with historical societies, encyclopedic museums, and museums abroad, his contexts have changed. The artist speaks not only to the erasure of African Americans and Otherness, but prompts discussions around how institutions display our local, national, and global identities and histories.

While the Brooklyn Museum did not present at the symposium6, it was an apt place to hold the conference in regards to its commitment to vanguard curation that cuts across departments to champions its diverse constituency and political programming. For example, the American collection was dramatically reinstalled in 2003 and again just recently (along with the Egyptian and European collections). In both its controversial 2003 and recently streamlined installations, the museum insisted upon juxtaposing works across the Americas and through time so that contemporary artworks sit alongside artifacts from U.S. and indigenous histories. The museum’s recent exhibition Disguise: Masks and Global African Art also takes a thematic approach (rather than chronological) – an idea championed at many points in the conference. Organized by Pamela McClusky from the Seattle Art Museum and Kevin Dumouchelle from the Brooklyn Museum, the exhibition featured twenty-five contemporary artists from Africa and with African heritages along with traditional masks from Sierra Leone and the Ivory Coast to name a few. While most of the works exhibited were contemporary visual arts, McClusky hails from the department of African and Oceanic Art and Dumouchelle from Arts of Africa and the Pacific Islands, disrupting the conventional framing of their focus from strictly “artifacts” to include “art” and from historic to contemporary works. Additionally, the museum’s open storage allows viewers a glimpse into its many objects and artworks not presently included in an exhibition, which nicely resonants with Wilson’s presentation. The Brooklyn Museum creates active social and political spaces, where clarity is not delivered to visitors, but emerges through dialogue and participation and offers a more equitable and fuller representation of cultural production in the U.S.

In Peggy Levitt’s book Artifacts and Allegiances, Arnold Lehman (Brooklyn Museum’s then Director) explained that at the time the museum’s advocacy of global cosmopolitanism and national identity should, “exist in parallel: but when you are successful they should collide. We are in the midst of a professional-led rethinking process, a rebranding, although I hate to call it that” and that the museum can use art to help people make sense of the world7. He goes on to explain that, “it helps to take on these sometimes parallel [goals]—showing diversity and showing global—together. Right now, we are creating better New Yorkers, better Americans, but not yet global citizens8.” Lehman’s comments encapsulate the museum’s ethos of mixing time, genre, and departments, which results in a mash-up of national and global histories designed to enrich museum-goers.

As a conference that attempted to explore expansive curatorial propositions, most of the speakers were scholars and curators from contemporary and modern visual arts background. Many speakers alluded to challenging the distinction between artifacts and art objects and thus museums dedicated to natural or social history versus the visual arts. This may have been an interesting opportunity to include curators or scholars from different museum departments, particularly the curators of Disguise or the Brooklyn Museum’s American department. While avant-garde museology suggests the present and future, all departments, even those largely dedicated to antiquities and history, are engaged in creative approaches to initiate timely and relevant public discourse.

As the conference explored ideas of defining museums’ constituencies in the Soviet Union and U.S., the idea of defining the populace moved from class-based identities to multiculturalism with scheduled speakers like Fred Wilson, Kimberly Drew, and Juliana Huxtable9. While Wilson and Drew gave excellent presentations, this discussion could have been extended to any of the many New York museums dedicated to ethnic and racial constituencies—like the Studio Museum of Harlem, El Museo del Barrio, Jewish Museum, and Asia Society. This could have been a great opportunity to hear from ethnically and racially defined institutions who are attempting to transform museums and respond to their communities’ needs for representation and dialogue about national identity, cultural artifacts, and contemporary practices and issues.

As nations’ ideologies and demographics change, vanguard museum concerns and approaches constantly evolve. Curation has moved from an objective methodology to a creative enterprise with auteur curators. At the other end, Wilson is approaching curation from an artist’s perspective. This blurring of boundaries creates provocative questions and situations. The idea that museums could be used for political purposes was novel for the avant-garde and was demonstrated, sometimes exhilaratingly and other times tragically, in the former Eastern Bloc. In the era of post-modernity, we have all come to acknowledge that museums and display are not neutral, which places tremendous and invigorating responsibilities upon our cultural institutions. Though not explicitly stated in the conference’s aims, the presentations suggested many ways that museums can use art to make sense of the world. With the symposium occurring within days of the election, the speakers and attendees were understandably unprepared to approach the prospects of a President-elect Trump. With shock and dread hanging in the atmosphere, now is the time that museums can lead the political and social conversations that are pressing, both both domestically and abroad.

  1.  Arseny Zhilyaev (ed), Avant-Garde Museology (e-flux, 2015).
  2. Organized by e–flux, the symposium traveled to the Walker Art Center, Minneapolis, November 20–21, which I did not attend.
  3.  From the Brooklyn Museum program schedule
  4.  http://www.e-flux.com/program/67019/avant-museology-symposium-at-brooklyn-museum-and-walker-art-center/
  5.  The Contemporary Museum is now known as The Contemporary.
  6. Anne Pasternak, the Director of the Brooklyn Museum, was included in a panel with Nancy Spector and Liam Gillick, but the topic was not the museum itself.
  7. Peggy Levitt, Artifacts and Allegiances: How Museums Put the Nation and the World on Display (Oakland, California: University of California Press, 2015), 77.
  8. ibid
  9. Huxtable unfortunately had to cancel.

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