Museums of Capitalism: Death by Aesthetics
A museum may be defined as “an institution that cares for (conserves) a collection of artifacts and other objects of artistic, cultural, historical, or scientific importance.” As Boris Groys (and many others) argue, our contemporary understanding of art is largely defined by the modern museum which has its roots in the French Revolution and the decision by the National Assembly to open the Louvre so that people of all rank and status could have access to the formerly royal collection. Historically, revolutions are usually followed by destroying the symbols of the old regime, but the French revolutionaries took a different course – they defunctionalized them through aestheticization. Groys states, “The French revolution turned the designs of the old regime into what we call art, that is, into objects not for use but for pure contemplation. This violent, revolutionary act of aestheticizing the old regime created art as we know it today. Before the French revolution there was no art – only design. After the French revolution, art emerged as the death of design….I would argue that aestheticization is a much more radical form of death than traditional iconoclasm.” Further, Groys points out that already in the 19th century museums were often compared to cemeteries (and curators as gravediggers) where the past goes to die. “The museum institutionalized the truly radical, aesthetic, revolutionary violence that demonstrates the past as incurably dead.” he states. “It is a purely materialistic death, without return – the aestheticized material corpse functions as a testimony to the impossibility of resurrection.”1
If since the French revolution “art has been understood as the defunctionalized and publicly exhibited corpse of past,” what might it then mean to place something as ubiquitous today as capitalism within a museum? Three geographically separate, but almost simultaneous efforts – Musee du Capitalisme (Brussels), Museum des Kapitalismus (Berlin) and Museum of Capitalism (Oakland) – have been attempting to answer this question in various ways. In March, these three museums gathered at an initial Museums of Capitalism Global Summit in Berlin, an event I moderated alongside a post-summit public panel “Museums of Capitalism: education, empowerment, and institutions from below” at Vierte Velt. Over the course of the day what quickly became clear was the importance of education for each of the projects as a means of placing capitalism within their museums – just as-if it was one of those corpses from the past, not only dead but impossible to resurrect.
Musée du Capitalisme – Brussels
Inaugurated on June 28th, 2014, Musée du Capitalisme was launched first by a narrow margin ahead of their German colleagues. With many iterations since, Musée du Capitalisme estimates to have reached over 9,000 visitors including over 300 guided tours. The idea for Musée du Capitalisme came during a visit to the Museum of Communism in Prague and has been guided by the mission to educate the broader public on capitalism in its many and often opaque forms. Musée du Capitalisme’s evolving exhibition consists of four thematic rooms: Origins, Hopes, Limits and Alternatives. The Origins room attempts to define capitalism and expose its historical ideological roots. The Hopes room has different ‘focuses’ (health, work and leisure, etc.) including an entire section on the American Dream (social advancement). The Limits rooms focuses on the problems of capitalism (sustainability, ecology, democracy, inequality, etc.) and the final room, Alternatives, was launched more recently to explore some of the solutions proposed to address the intrinsic problems within capitalism. While Musée du Capitalisme sees its mission first and foremost to be one of educating the public, the ultimate goal is to encourage public agency regarding both personal and civic matters. Notably, the project is run by an entirely volunteer team of over 35 people and has taken part in many organizational partnerships. Outside of Brussels, Musée du Capitalisme has also been recently been presented in Namur, Saint-Gilles, Ghent and Laeken, and they are currently working on a more transportable version of the exhibition alongside a board game “that combines pleasure and understanding of the capitalist system.”
Museum des Kapitalismus – Berlin
While also focused on education, the Museum des Kapitalismus in Berlin has a slightly more overt political stance than the other museums. They state: “Our goal is to establish an interactive and open Museum of Capitalism and through our work in the field of political education, to enable others to explore ways for social participation within the society.” Museum des Kapitalismus is particularly interested in creating interactive exhibits that provide visitors with the opportunity to see just how capitalism functions – with the ultimate goal of helping them to think beyond it. Founded in 2013 and also launched in 2014, Museum des Kapitalismus has held two major exhibitions in Berlin and opened a project space July 2016. They have also published a brochure describing their exhibitions and the methods behind them [available in German] in the hopes of inspiring other political education projects to develop their own approaches to the subject. Mostly recently they worked in collaboration with Kollektiv für Alternativen and Affenfaust Gallery to take the Museum des Kapitalismus to Hamburg during the G20 Summit with an accompanying program of teach-ins, workshops and films. Ultimately, the Museum des Kapitalismus in Berlin would like a permanent location and continue to work toward finding more sustainable ways to continue the project. As a representative stated at the summit, “We believe when people understand, then people care.”
Museum of Capitalism – Oakland
The most recent and speculative of the three, Museum of Capitalism is now open at its first exhibition location in Oakland. First launched in the form of an architectural competition (and later with an artifact donation event as part of Document V), Museum of Capitalism’s inaugural exhibition includes “a series of multimedia exhibits created by a diverse network of artists, scholars, and ordinary citizens, exploring the historical phenomenon of capitalism and its intersections with themes like race, class, and environment in the United States.” While also certainly engaging politics and education in both implicit and direct ways, the significance of the Museum of Capitalism lies in it’s self-referential use of the museum structure itself. With displays, docents and even a gift shop, co-founders/organizers FICTILIS see the Museum as a prefigurative political gesture that is a kind of activism that normalized critique, a space where people can imagine an end of capitalism. “Museums create subjectivities,” they stated during the summit, where Museum of Capitalism can be seen as a kind of rehearsal for the future – that also may bring that future into being. Alongside this major exhibition, Museum of Capitalism has published a catalog with Inventory Press with texts written by founders, curators, and other contributors to the museum including Stephen Squibb, J.K. Gibson Graham, Kevin Killian, Chantal Mouffe, Lucy Lippard, McKenzie Wark, and many others.2 Published as an extension of the exhibition, “the book offers a glimpse into its controversial project of untimely memorialization” and includes not only representations of artworks and museum exhibits, but also the Museum’s lexicon of “capitalisms,” documentation of artifact donation events and the architecture competition for the first time in print.
Despite these efforts: Is it really possible to send capitalism to its radical death by aestheticizing it through a dedicated museum? Of course, it’s probably not that simple. Or is it? If three international Museums of Capitalism can acquisition even some of our capitalist reality, it might be just enough to see what we have left. Our Museums of Capitalism Global Summit in March ended on a positive note with the prospect of an International Museums of Capitalism Alliance that just might be the next best step. Personally, I would love to see the day when the world stock exchanges become more permanent locations for Museums of Capitalism across the globe.