Earlier today I carried out some contemporary archaeology. The site of excavation was Nottingham’s branch of Modelzone. This toy and hobby retailer has gone into administration and all eighteen of its remaining stores will close over the coming weeks.(1) Today it was the turn of the outlet at Broadmarsh shopping centre. Its demise is part of the terminal decline of this much-derided mall. Back in January I watched the last death throes of shoe emporium Gordon Scott.(2) This had occupied a unit adjacent to Modelzone ever since Broadmarsh opened in the 1970s. Nowadays customers in search of footwear must exit the mall and make their way to Lister Gate.
The closure of Modelzone is worth recording, not least as a reminder that over 500 people have lost their jobs following the company’s liquidation.(3)
Given that they are now things-of-the-past, all manner of quotidian Modelzone-related artefacts have suddenly accrued heritage-value. Thus the till receipt recording my last purchase plus the plastic carrier bag with its Modelzone logo merit preservation in preparation for their future museum-status.
My choice of purchase on this final day was deliberate. It involved a box of British paratroopers from the Falklands War, lovingly sculpted in plastic in a scale of 1:76. It seemed appropriate to buy these tokens of a post-imperial (sic) military adventure just as Britain is on the cusp of war with a new foreign enemy. (But see Supplemental note below.)
But not all Britons are as enthusiastic for another Middle East campaign as the current British government.(4) Upon leaving Broadmarsh I headed for Old Market Square. At “Speakers’ Corner” I came across a small band of protestors, urging the people of Nottingham to join them in opposing any British involvement in Syria’s bloody civil conflict.
One thing seems certain, however. If British soldiers do engage this new foe, it will no doubt lead to the production of more model soldiers. One day it will become possible to purchase items from the range marked:
“British Paratroopers (Syria War, 2013-?)”
We shall have to acquire them from an online store, of course given that soon the notion of physical shops on something that used to be known as “the high-street” will be a quaint, nostalgic Woolworths-sweet-wrapped memory (the last bag of which sold on eBay for a reported £14,500 (5)).
(1) Simon Neville, “Modelzone toy retailer collapses after failure to find buyer”, The Guardian, 28/09/2013, http://www.theguardian.com/business/2013/aug/28/modelzone-collapses-deloitte-fails-buyer.
(2) Stuart Burch, “Respect for the Riddler”, 27/01/2013, http://www.stuartburch.com/1/post/2013/01/respect-for-the-riddler.html.
(3) Neville, op cit.
(4) “Syria crisis: David Cameron makes case for military action”, 29/08/2013, http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-23883427.
(5) “Last ever bag of Woolworths pick 'n' mix sweets sells for £14,500 on eBay”, Daily Mail, 21/02/2009, http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-1151542/Last-bag-Woolworths-pick-n-mix-sweets-sells-14-500-eBay.html.
Cancel that box of toy soldiers! In a rare outbreak of democracy, the Westminster parliament has put a temporary halt to a British foreign policy formulated in Washington DC.(1) Can it really be that, at long last, “Britain's illusion of empire is over”?(2) Only time will tell. But for now at least let us savour the true taste of Tony Blair’s political legacy.
(1) “Syria crisis: Commentators react to Cameron defeat”, BBC News, 30/08/2013, http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-23894749.
(2) Polly Toynbee, “No 10 curses, but Britain’s illusion of empire is over”, The Guardian, 29/08/2013, http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2013/aug/29/no-10-curses-but-empire-is-over.
This blog is being written during day two of the East Midlands Heritage Conference 2013.(1) One of the speakers is Graham Black, a colleague of mine at Nottingham Trent University. He has just spoken passionately about the need for museums to work in partnership with their communities. Over the course of the next two years his Arts Council-funded “Innovation in Museum Displays” will facilitate this across the East Midlands.
At the heart of the “Innovation in Museum Displays” initiative is the notion that museums should consider giving up control over their collections, exhibitions and their decision-making processes. They should instead incorporate the voices and ideas of their users/visitors into everything they do.
All this talk of public participation and democratic museums is interesting, not least because of the widespread disconnect between the electorate and traditional political parties.
The rationale behind “Innovation in Museum Displays” is reminiscent of arguments propounded in the mid nineteenth century by John Stuart Mill (1806-1873). He is credited with promoting ‘local political institutions’ as potential ‘training grounds for democracy’.(2) The museum of the twenty-first century is being revisioned to take on just that role. This association becomes even clearer when allied with Mill’s belief that small-scale acts of popular governance serve as stepping stones for the enacting of change on the larger political stage.(3)
The extent of this repositioning of museums remains unclear, however. Does this supposed change come at the expense of the museum’s traditional role of collecting, preserving and displaying objects? And are museums really prepared to give up control? Should this be sanctioned and what might be the consequences? And is this a genuine, deep-seated shift in our understanding of museums? Or is it simply a ruse to ensure continued support at a time of increasing political pressure and decreasing financial support?
(1) ‘Stronger together’, The East Midlands Heritage Conference 2013, Wednesday 5 & Thursday 6 June, at Nottingham Conference Centre, Nottingham Trent University, http://emms.org.uk/events/detai/east_midlands_heritage_conference_2013.
(2) See Stuart Burch, “Taking Part: Performance, Participation and National Art Museums” in Knell, S. et al (incl. Burch, S.) (ed.) National Museums: New Studies from Around the World, London: Routledge, 201, pp. 225-246, available at http://www.stuartburch.com/uploads/8/1/9/1/8191744/2011_burch_taking_part.pdf.
(3) Mill, Essays on Politics and Culture cited in Cities @ Crossroads: Digital Technology and Local Democracy in America, Boston University School of Law Working Paper No. 11-11, Boston University School of Law, Harvard Law School, 2011, p. 10, available at http://www.bu.edu/law/faculty/scholarship/workingpapers/2011.html.
Marc Quinn, The Creation of History (2012)
On Thursday 4th August 2011 officers of the Metropolitan Police Service stopped a taxi on Ferry Lane in Tottenham Hale, London. Its occupant – Mark Duggan – was subsequently shot dead in uncertain circumstances.
This single incident gave rise to a spate of riots across England. The worst scenes took place in the capital. A defining image of that summer of violence is a photograph taken by the Turkish born photojournalist, Kerim Okten.
It shows a man in a grey tracksuit and trainers. The skin on his hands is covered by black gloves. His face is veiled by a mask such that only his eyes are visible: they gaze fixedly at the camera lens. Framing that stare are the orange flames and choking black smoke of a burning vehicle.
Various versions of this iconic scene are available online. They differ in all sorts of major and minor ways. Some depict the main protagonist in alternative poses; others show bystanders looking on at the searing shell of the car.
Text invariably accompanies the picture wherever it appears. A front page headline such as “The battle for London” turns this masked celebrity into a capital warrior. Replace that caption with something like “Yob rule” and our battle-scarred warrior becomes a mindless hoodlum. His slow, purposeful steps and cold stare do indeed make this lord of misrule appear above the law.
The rights to Okten’s image have now been acquired by the British artist Marc Quinn. He has used it as the inspiration for a variety of artworks including paintings, a sculpture and even a tapestry. The latter has been entitled The Creation of History (2012) and exists in an edition of five.
The title chose by Quinn reflects his belief that the 2011 riots constitute “a piece of contemporary history”. The artist is quick to add, however, that this history – like every past event – is “a complex story and raises as many questions as it [does] answers. Is this man a politically motivated rioter? A looter? What is in his pocket? And rucksack? More intriguingly, the mask he wears appears to be police-issue: could he even be a policeman?”(1)
The merest suggestion that our photogenic “yob” might in fact be a lawgiver rather than a lawbreaker disturbs this already troubling image, transforming it before our very eyes.
This is exacerbated further in Quinn’s tapestry transmutation. Metamorphosing the pixels of a digital photo into the knots of a woven image catapults this contemporary history back in time. Now our “yob” can stand alongside armour-suited warriors in a medieval pageant.
The rich heritage of Quinn’s The Creation of History makes it worthy to enter into the sacred realm of the museum. And what better institution than Nottingham Castle Museum and Art Gallery? This establishment rose like a phoenix from the flames of a riot: on 10th October 1831 a group of rabble-rousers intent on creating a little history of their own torched the palatial home of the Duke of Newcastle in protest at his opposition to electoral reform.
For fifty years the burnt out shell of the building remained an admonitory reminder of this bad behaviour. Then, in the 1870s, it was converted into the first municipally funded museum outside of London.
This place of learning and leisure still stands. And it only exists thanks to the sort of scenes that were to take place 180 years later – not only in London but also Nottingham, where Canning Circus police station was firebombed by tracksuited warriors / yobs.
So, with this in mind, wouldn’t it make perfect sense for the curators at Nottingham Castle Museum to acquire one of the five editions of Marc Quinn’s The Creation of History? It could hang on the same walls that were once covered by tapestries – before “yob rule” led to them being unceremoniously ripped down and either burnt or “sold to bystanders at three shillings per yard.”(2)
(1) Cited in Gareth Harris, “London riots get tied up in knots”, The Art Newspaper, Iss. 243, 07/02/2013, accessed 08/02/2013 at http://www.theartnewspaper.com/articles/quinn-tapestry/28545.
(2) Harry Gill, A Short History of Nottingham Castle (1904), available at, http://www.nottshistory.org.uk/gill1904/reformbill.htm._
Yesterday afternoon was spent wandering aimlessly around Nottingham city centre. On the way to nowhere I stopped off at Nottingham Contemporary where two new exhibitions have just opened. Not really in the mood for art, I devoted most time to looking at all the tiny trinkets on sale in the shop. Trendy, totally superfluous treasures were mixed in with the art publications and designer tat.
Exiting briefly into the sunshine I promptly plunged into a very different world: that of the Broadmarsh Shopping Centre. Hurrying past the serried ranks of empty retail units I descended into the bowels of the earth. Reaching the end of the escalator I glanced momentarily at the entrance to the so-called “City of Caves”. This place always makes me chuckle: I am supposed to have a professional interest in museums and heritage. Nevertheless, in the decade that I’ve spent living in Nottingham I have not once entered this tourist-attraction-that-time-forgot.
Moving on I glimpsed another sad sight: Gordon Scott. This shoe shop has been in the Broadmarsh Shopping Centre ever since the monstrous mall opened in the early 1970s. Now all that’s left are a few pairs of sale items and a couple of extraordinarily bored-looking staff waiting to be made properly redundant. Even more depressing is the disappearance of the mechanical monkey from the shop window. His loopy tricks on the horizontal bar were, for me, the centre’s absolute high point. He was the retail world equivalent of Wollaton Hall’s George the gorilla.
These textual “traffic signals” had a dual purpose.
Firstly, of course, they signified the Riddler. This is not the first time that this cartoon villain has featured in Newling’s art: a precedent was Between (Even the Riddler Makes Wishes), an installation from 1996 commissioned and hosted by Nottingham’s Broadway Cinema and Arts Centre.
Yesterday at the Broadmarsh Centre the Riddler’s question marks had an additional function. Passersby were stopped and asked to identify something that they valued. In return they were given a swatch of the same cloth used to make the Riddler’s jacket. They could then head off into the crowds with this pinned to their chests – generating riddles wherever they went.
My smart-arse answer to the question – what do you value? – was respect.
Because that’s the quality I appreciate most in people and groups: “the condition or state of being esteemed, honoured, or highly thought of.” If you think about it, the root cause of our society’s ills is the general lack of respect for politicians, big business, organisations and for so many individuals we come into contact with in our daily lives. And how many of us manage to get through life with their self-respect intact?
Newling intends to collate the “public values” gathered together at the Broadmarsh Centre and integrate them into a talk to be given as part of his “Ecologies of Value”, on show at Nottingham Contemporary until 7th April.
My advice would be to get there as soon as you can – and ideally before the whole of Nottingham city centre goes into liquidation and all that we value goes with it.
Moderna Museet online (left) and in print (right)
Earlier this month I reflected on a fascinating newspaper advertisement for Sweden’s Moderna Museet. Additional investigation has now turned this commentary into a spot-the-difference.
On the museum’s website is a promotional feature that includes the same image.(i) Only, on closer inspection, it becomes apparent that it differs from the version that appeared in the newspaper, Dagens Nyheter.
1 The invigilator’s clothing has been darkened. This ensures that she wears the attire of the art lover (i.e. dressed entirely in black). The same is true of the trousers worn by the visitor (2).
2 The visitor has been shifted further to the right. In the online image it looks as if she is reading a label next to the work rather than looking at the art itself. This risked introducing a troublesome piece of interpretation – a barrier preventing her from being in the midst of the art (mitt i konsten). This is alleviated by shifting the visitor closer to the art (although not too close given that the all-important pushchair is still in the way).
3 The posture of the hands-on art educator has changed. Her rather motherly pose is replaced by a less overtly protective position in relation to the three children. This prevents her from coming between them and the art (again ensuring that they are mitt i konsten). In the image on the left the children and the facilitator have their back to Sterling Ruby’s Monument Stalagmite. The print version spins them around such that all the group members are oriented towards the sculpture.
All this confirms the meticulous attention that has gone into this carefully crafted framing of Moderna Museet. A genuinely artful and art full advertisement.
(i) “Fira 1:a advent på Moderna Museet”, http://www.modernamuseet.se/sv/Stockholm/Nyheter/2012/Fira-1a-advent-pa-Moderna-Museet/. The image is credited to the photographer, Åsa Lundén.
Today’s issue of the newspaper, Dagens Nyheter features a full-page advertisement for Moderna Museet – Sweden’s national museum of modern and contemporary art. Every art lover knows that a picture is worth a thousand words. So, with this in mind, I’ve picked out ten points of interest and used them to structure a one thousand word reflection on this most artful of advertisements:
1 Moderna Museet is a place of celebration for all. This is important to stress at the outset because some misguided people continue to insist on treating our museums as either mausoleums or bastions of elitist culture. Moderna Museet isn’t like that. It’s a place to come and have fun; to celebrate things like the start of the Christmas period. And what better way to escape the commercialisation of this sacred event than by going on a pilgrimage to a secular temple of art such as Moderna Museet.
2 Moderna Museet puts you in the picture: when there you will be in the midst of art – your art, your museum (mitt i konsten, på ditt museum).
3 The director and his deputy have given up their holiday to greet the visitors. Tomorrow afternoon – Sunday 2 December – Daniel Birnbaum and Ann-Sofi Noring will talk about their latest acquisitions. In so doing they affirm that Moderna Museet is living up to its reputation: it is filled both with modern Old Masters (fylld av klassiker) and “with the work of a new generation of artists” (med verk av en ny generation konstnärer). These new works, we are told, “crown the collection” (kröner samlingen). They also enable the recently appointed director to put his mark on the museum. This raises lots of fascinating questions: What has the museum acquired under this leader that it might not have under its predecessor? Which criteria are used when choosing what to buy? Who makes the decisions? What did the purchases cost? Who are the donors? Who are the artists? And what personal connections link them with Birnbaum and his colleagues? Will any of these questions be addressed when the director speaks? They certainly should be, after all, this is your museum.
4 Who are these people so deep in conversation? A perfect pair: enthusiastic gesture is met with rapt attention. These two are clearly art lovers. But they aren’t visitors. Nor are they security guards. Instead they are young, trendy invigilators just waiting to share their love of art with the museum’s well-behaved guests. How do we know that they are art lovers? Their gestures and their clothes say it all (see 6).
5 This isn’t an art lover, but he looks nice and friendly. He’s carrying the tool of his trade and wearing his work clothes (just like the couple in 4). But his place of work isn’t the galleries. Nevertheless, rather than being marginalised, this menial worker is given pride of place. Indeed, he looks rather like a work of art: culinary art. Because Moderna Museet isn’t just about consuming art. It’s a place to eat and socialise. That’s why the chef is important enough to be included here. But he isn’t that special. His name is not given. Nor are those of the two invigilators. In fact, only two people are referred to by their names. And neither of them is visible. Standing in as substitutes for the director and his deputy are the artworks that they have sanctified by choosing to include them in the collections of Moderna Museet. The art stands for them. It embodies them. Thus Sterling Ruby’s Monument Stalagmite could be renamed: Monument Birnbaum. It’s a bold assertion of his fitness to lead; his regal good taste (thanks to this and the other acquisitions that “crown the collection”).
6 This person adopts the ideal art pose, with one hand on hip, the other touching the face in a gesture of deep contemplation. She wears the uniform of the art lover, dressed as she is entirely in black. She is part of the same tribe as the invigilators (4) who serve as acolytes assisting at the altar of High Art. This true believer is standing at a respectful distance from the art, not touching but visually consuming. Unfortunately, she is not able to stand directly in front of this particular artwork because there is an object is in the way. But this is not a sculpture; it’s a child’s pushchair! This obstacle is not just there by chance. It’s as symbolic as any of the paintings on the wall. It says: this is an accessible, family-friendly museum in which children are welcome (see 8).
7 The art is shown in glorious isolation in this pristine, white-cubed gallery. This lends it a spurious, “neutral” quality in which nothing comes between us and the art (we are, after all, “mitt i konsten” (1)). There is not a label or interpretation panel in sight. None of the works are literally framed in the sense of there being borders around the paintings or separate plinths under the sculptures. But they are framed in all sorts of other ways. This advertisement and all its messages (overt and subliminal) are frames. Art never speaks for itself, no matter how white and bare the walls.
8 We have already been reassured that the museum is not a mausoleum (1). Now we are reminded that it is not a library either. It’s a playground – for art lovers, young and old. Perhaps this trio of immaculately behaved children will one day be the artists (or museum directors) of the future? With luck they will grow up to wear black clothes and feel as at home in the museum as the lady in 6. The art instructor – just like the proud parent – does her best to make this a reality: she acts as a mediator of the art. She and the other parents and guardians are surrogates of the invigilators seen in 4. During the years 2004-2011 “Zon Moderna” served as the forum for Moderna Museet’s youngest guests. This initiative has been disbanded by the current director. But he is not reducing the museum’s commitment to children. Far from it: they are now brought into the bosom of the museum (mitt i konsten). Zon Moderna ran the risk of being dismissed as a case of “ghettoisation”: “an area specifically reserved for extra activities, and largely containing children within these spaces” (Gillian Thomas, “‘Why are you playing at washing up again?’ Some reasons and methods for developing exhibitions for children” in Roger Miles & Lauro Zavala (eds) Towards the Museum of the Future: New European Perspectives, London and New York: Routledge, 1994, p. 118.) The kids visible in this advertisement are not relegated to some sort of out-of-sight ghetto: we see them as they are just about to scribble away on the floor of the museum, centimetres from the museum’s latest priceless acquisition (5).
9 The museum’s logo adds to the friendly atmosphere: a personal signature which is actually a work of art, based as it is on Robert Rauschenberg’s handwriting. How long will it be before the museum decides to rebrand and ditch this naff typeface?
10 The museum is open every day except Mondays. There is even free entry on extended Friday evenings – perfect for those trendy young things that opt to stay on to drink in the museum’s newest space: a bar. There was a time when Moderna Museet – like all Sweden’s national museums – was free for all: now adults must pay because the current government says so. But the most important visitors still get in for free, namely children up to 18 years old. With luck, by the time they reach maturity they will have blossomed into the sorts of adults seen in this advertisement. They will thus be willing to pay to enter the museum and reacquaint themselves the fresh acquisitions that are to be introduced tomorrow: these are the works that today’s children will grow up with and later recognise as canonical works in their own personal museums of art. This recognition and sense of ownership will help ease the awkward truth that, by charging its citizens to enter Sweden’s Moderna Museet, they will actually be paying twice. After all, their high taxes have already paid for the museum. Their museum.
On Sunday 11 November a fascinating debate took place at Arkitekturmuseet (Sweden’s national museum of architecture). It marked the culmination of a weekend of activities to celebrate the institution’s fiftieth anniversary. Events included guided tours of the Rafael Moneo-designed building which Arkitekturmuseet shares with another of Sweden’s state museums, namely Moderna Museet.
The highlight of the festivities focused on the commemorative publication, The Swedish Museum of Architecture: A Fifty Year Perspective. This was launched following a series of reflections by two contributors to the book, Thordis Arrhenius and Bengt O.H. Johansson (the latter was director of the museum from 1966-77).
This was followed by a panel debate entitled “Midlife crisis or stroppy teenager? A discussion about Arkitekturmuseet yesterday, today, tomorrow”.(1) It was at this point that matters started to get interesting. It quickly became apparent that the past, present and future of Arkitekturmuseet are far from settled. Much attention was given to the recently expanded role of the museum. This is summed up in an introductory section of the anniversary book. Under the rubric, “More than a museum”, Monica Fundin Pourshahidi cites a press release by the Swedish minister of culture, Lena Adelsohn Liljeroth in which it is stated that, from 2009 onwards, Arkitekturmuseet is vested with being a “power centre” not only for architecture but also for design: “The Museum of Architecture can and must be a display window and a distinct voice in the debate on social planning, architecture, design and sustainable development”.(2)
This point was taken up by Arkitekturmuseet’s present director, Lena Rahoult. But her positive spin was immediately problematised by a fellow panel member, the architectural historian Martin Rörby. The focus of his criticisms was a recent governmental memorandum which instructed the institution to engage in “promotion and communication” (främjande och kommunikation) rather than “traditional museum activities” (traditionell museiverksamhet). This would be best signalled by a change in title, with the word “museum” being replaced by “centre” or “arena”.(3)
Rörby expressed reservations about such a shift in focus, fearing that an increase in breadth would come at the expense of depth and critical engagement. He was also troubled by the vague, empty rhetoric of the memorandum. On the other hand, the notion of going beyond what was expected of a “traditional” museum was nothing new. Rörby illustrated this point by citing Arkitekturmuseet’s past involvement in the often heated debate regarding Sergels torg in central Stockholm. He stressed the rapidity of the museum’s response which enabled it to react to a pressing, contemporary issue. This active engagement, however, was only possible because of the museum’s unrivalled collections of artefacts, architectural models and other archival documents. Rörby was of the opinion that the museum would find it far harder – if not impossible – to arrange such an exhibition in the additional field of design. This is because the museum responsible for the national design collection is another entirely separate institution, namely Nationalmuseum. The design holdings will remain there, despite Arkitekturmuseet’s increased mandate.
In the light of this one can be forgiven for questioning the basis for adding design to the museum of architecture. The oddness of this situation was beautifully demonstrated by the fact that, at the very same time that this debate was unfolding at Arkitekturmuseet, Nationalmuseum just down the road was holding a “theme day” on “handicraft, time and creativity” in association with its craft and design exhibition, Slow Art.(4)
Way back in the late 1980s and early 1990s the museum fraternity in Sweden dreamed of a museum of industrial design (Konstindustrimuseet) being housed in Tullhuset adjacent to the main Nationalmuseum building in the Blasieholmen area of Stockholm. This nineteenth century toll house was to have been expanded to allow for 5000 square metres of exhibition space. Alas, this imaginative idea proved abortive, as did a plan to deploy the spectacular Amiralitetshuset on the island of Skeppsholmen.(5)
In the wake of these failed initiatives comes the current half-baked decision to place the design burden on the ill-equipped museum of architecture. Meanwhile, in February 2013, Nationalmuseum will close for a period of four years during which time a multi-million kronor refurbishment will take place. This, one would have thought, would be the ideal opportunity to resolve the status of design in Sweden. The risk is that the investment in Nationalmuseum is being made against a contested, confused and contradictory context.
Exacerbating this frankly farcical state of affairs is the added complication of Arkitekturmuseet’s relationship with Moderna Museet. These two museums, as has been noted, share a building. One might therefore have thought that it would sensible for the pair to unite, especially given the enlarged remit of Arkitekturmuseet. Indeed, in 1998 it was proposed that modern design dating from 1900 onwards should be moved to Moderna Museet.(6)
On being asked about the relationship with her neighbour, Arkitekturmuseet’s director Lena Rahoult made a few platitudinous comments and paid compliments to Daniel Birnbaum, her counterpart at Moderna Museet. However, when it comes to Moderna Museet’s upcoming exhibition on Le Corbusier, it emerged that the museum of architecture will not be involved.(7) This, it strikes me, represents a potentially serious threat to the autonomy of Arkitekturmuseet. If the Le Corbusier exhibition is a success despite (or perhaps because of) the exclusion of Arkitekturmuseet, then the argument is being made that Moderna Museet is more than capable of taking over this field.
Daniel Birnbaum would no doubt be delighted. He is a very shrewd operator. Upon taking over the running of Moderna Museet he erased all trace of its former director in the most charming manner: by turning the whole museum over to photography. This had a number of consequences. It facilitated a tabula rasa whilst showing Birnbaum to be both innovative and in step with the history of the museum. This in turn stifled any potential suggestion that photography was not being accorded sufficient attention. This was a smart move given that the formerly separate museum of photography had been subsumed into the collections of Moderna Museet on the completion of Rafael Moneo’s building in 1998. With this potential criticism snuffed out, Birnbaum then set about curtailing the independence of the museum’s satellite institution, Moderna Museet Malmö. This was led by Magnus Jensner until a “restructuring” made his position untenable and prompted his resignation.(8) In March of this year Jensner was succeeded by Birnbaum’s man in Stockholm, John Peter Nilsson.
Against the background of these strategic manoeuvres the decision to mount an exhibition on Le Corbusier at Moderna Museet is no mere innocent happenstance. It can be interpreted as part of a calculated empire building process. And, if the recent debate at Arkitekturmuseet is anything to go by, Birnbaum is a giant among pygmies on the Swedish cultural scene.
Perhaps mindful of this, at the same time as spouting her platitudes, Lena Rahoult has been busy mounting the barricades. She has taken the decision to withdraw Arkitekturmuseet from the bookstore that it has shared with Moderna Museet since the inception of Moneo’s building. All the books are being sold at a reduction of 60% whilst magazines and postcards are being flogged off for a few kronor. Once this stock has been disposed, Arkitekturmuseet will open a separate retail establishment in its own part of the locale. This development is notable given that the bookstore was one of the very few aspects of the building where the two institutions merged. Another is the shared ticket desk. Moneo designed the building to incorporate the old drill-hall where Moderna Museet began life and which is now occupied by Arkitekturmuseet. In so doing he provided a new entrance and closed the original doorway. Rahoult plans to reopen this entrance whilst keeping the other in use. Birnbaum is on record as describing this proposal as “ludicrous” (befängd).(9) Well he might, because one of the main criticisms of Moneo’s building is its very modest and hard-to-find entrance. Should Arkitekturmuseet prove to be the main gateway into the combined museum it may well increase the number of visitors to the architecture collection, but it will draw attention from what is currently the dominant partner, Moderna Museet.
The proposed changes to the shop and entrance have led to claims that Arkitekturmuseet wishes to “break free from Moderna Museet”.(10) The paradoxical situation has therefore arisen whereby, at the same time that Arkitekturmuseet struggles to work across disciplines in one direction, it is placing barriers to the museum next door.
There is, of course, no reason why different disciplines should not be brought together in a single museum. A case in point is the Museum of Modern Art, MOMA. Its mission statement is grounded in the belief
[t]hat modern and contemporary art transcend national boundaries and involve all forms of visual
expression, including painting and sculpture, drawings, prints and illustrated books, photography,
architecture and design, and film and video, as well as new forms yet to be developed or understood,
that reflect and explore the artistic issues of the era.(11)
Another example closer to home is Norway. However, in this case the forced union of art, architecture and design has been far from amicable or straightforward. But at least Norway’s National Museum of Art, Architecture and Design is being given a grand new building in which to unite. This is not the case in Sweden. No one should be surprised about this given the paltry cultural policies of the present alliance government under the stewardship of its mediocre minister of culture, Lena Adelsohn Liljeroth.
When it came to the festivities to mark Arkitekturmuseet’s jubilee debate, the icing on the birthday cake occurred when the panel turned to the audience for questions and response. Up stepped Jöran Lindvall. He remains – as he was at pains to make clear – the longest serving director of Arkitekturmuseet (during the years 1985-1999). Nevertheless, he added pointedly, no one had thought to ask him to contribute to the fiftieth anniversary publication. His absence from its pages was a timely reminder that such official records are as partial as they are political. That much is shown by a similar publication released to mark Moderna Museet’s own fiftieth anniversary in 2008.
Such historical tomes might seem to be rooted in the past, but their main aim is to seek to placate the politicised present whilst simultaneously shaping the uncertain future. As if to underline this, Jöran Lindvall presented the current holder of the post he once occupied with a bag stuffed full of newspaper cuttings and other documents from his private collection relating to exhibitions that took place during his time at the museum. He declared his willingness to donate these to Arkitekturmuseet, but on one condition: that it remain a museum devoted to architecture. Lena Rahoult accepted this generous offer. She could hardly do otherwise.
It will be interesting to follow the fate of Lindvall’s loaded gift. Indeed, all those involved in museums would do well to keep track of events in Sweden and watch with interest as commentators, practitioners, museum professionals and politicians plot their next moves in a battle that is more comedy than tragedy.
But that is not to say that the outcome is likely to leave very many people laughing.
(1) The panel participants were the director of Arkitekturmuseet, Lena Rahoult together with Fredrik Kjellgren (architect), Petrus Palmér (designer), Birgitta Ramdell (director of Form/Design centre, Malmö) and the architectural historian Martin Rörby (Skönhetsrådet). The chair was Kristina Hultman.
(2) Press release dated 19 December 2008, cited in Main Zimm (ed.) The Swedish Museum of Architecture: A Fifty Year Perspective, Stockholm: Arkitekturmuseet, p. 4.
(3) Cited in “Stora förändringar föreslås på Arkitekturmuseet”, Arkitektur, undated, http://www.arkitektur.se/stora-forandringar-foreslas-pa-arkitekturmuseet (accessed 12/11/2012).
(4) Slow Art, Nationalmuseum, 10 May 2012 – 3 February 2013. The special event that took place on Sunday 11 November included a talk by Cilla Robach (“Slow Art – om hantverk, tid och kreativitet”) followed by a craft activity for children (see the advertisement on p. 7 of the Kultur section of that day’s issue of the newspaper, Dagens Nyheter).
(5) Mikael Ahlund (ed.) Konst kräver rum. Nationalmuseums historia och framtid, Nationalmusei skriftserie 17, 2002, pp. 76-77.
(6) Ahlund, 2002, p. 77.
(7) Moderna Museet’s exhibition has been given the name “Moment – Le Corbusier’s Secret Laboratory” and will run from 19 January – 28 April 2013. The decision not to collaborate with Arkitekturmuseet is ironic given that the latter put together the exhibition “Le Corbusier and Stockholm” in 1987.
(8) “Magnus Jensner slutar i Malmö”, Expressen, 20/10/2012, http://www.expressen.se/kvp/magnus-jensner-slutar-i-malmo.
(9) “Arkitekturmuseets femtioårskris – en intervju”, Arkitektur, undated, http://www.arkitektur.se/arkitekturmuseets-femtioarskris-en-intervju (accessed 12/11/2012).
(10) Hanna Weiderud, “Arkitekturmuseet bryter sig loss från Moderna”, SVT, 01/11/2012, http://www.svt.se/nyheter/regionalt/abc/arkitekturmuseet-bryter-sig-loss-fran-moderna.
(11) Collections Management Policy, The Museum of Modern Art, available at, http://www.moma.org/docs/explore/CollectionsMgmtPolicyMoMA_Oct10.pdf.
In 1927 the New York Herald Tribune published an article entitled “The New Biography”.(1) Its author was the novelist and essayist, Virginia Woolf. At the outset she makes the following observation:
the truth which biography demands is truth in its hardest,
most obdurate form; it is truth as truth is to be found in
the British Museum; it is truth out of which all vapour of
falsehood has been pressed by the weight of research.
This statement highlights the longstanding trust that societies place in museums and their tangible collections. Even today these institutions retain their reputation for “hard facts”. And, like a well researched, scholarly biography, it is from this “virtue in truth” that museums derive their “almost mystic power”.
But “truth” alone is not enough: the book-on-a-wall approach to museum display is undoubtedly full of facts, but that doesn’t prevent it from leading to exhibitions that are “dull” or “unreadable”. Woolf realised that, in order to make something interesting and dramatic, “facts must be manipulated”.
The question is, therefore, how far to carry the fiction or toy with the truth?
It strikes me that this is particularly pertinent today as our museums seek to divest themselves of their reputation for being stuffy and scholarly in favour of “dramatic effect”. Yet museum professionals would be wise to heed Woolf’s advice. She realised that sanctioning fewer facts in exchange for the foregrounding of more palatable fictions runs the risk of “losing both worlds”. Because, if visitors begin to lose faith in museums, their “almost mystic power” will slowly ebb away. In its place we might well be left with apparently more accessible and dramatic exhibitions – but even the most fashionable of museums quickly seems “dull” and out-moded in comparison with other forms of popular entertainment.
And a museum without truths and “hard facts” is nothing more than a second rate visitor attraction.
(1) All direct quotations in this post are derived from Woolf’s article, which is reproduced as the final chapter in the fourth volume of her Collected Essays, London, The Hogarth Press, 1967, pp. 229-235.
Para, jämsides med.
En annan sort.
Bevingaren, 1980: 90
I once posted comments as Bevingaren at guardian.co.uk
Even a parasite like me should be permitted to feed at the banquet of knowledge
Note All parasitoids are parasites, but not all parasites are parasitoids
Parasitoid "A parasite that always ultimately destroys its host" (Oxford English Dictionary)
I live off you
And you live off me
And the whole world
Lives off everybody
See we gotta be exploited
By somebody, by somebody, by somebody
<I live off you>
Germ Free Adolescents
is a short step.
The word is
now a virus.
key words: architecture | archive | art | commemoration | design | ethics | framing | freedom of speech | heritage | heroes and villains | history | illicit trade | landscape | media | memorial | memory | museum | music | nordic | nottingham trent university | para | parasite | politics | science fiction | statue | stuart burch | tourism | words |