A month ago, the Director of the Polish National Museum in Warsaw, Piotr Piotrowski, resigned after the museum’s Board of Trustees had rejected his strategy for the development of the museum. The resignation took place only two years after the Board of Trustees had offered Piotrowski the position on the basis of his proposal for an earlier version of a radical change of the museum, called ‘The critical museum’.

The aim of this proposal was to open the museum to the problems of today’s world and transform it from its status as a provincial version of great museums to an independent institution of intellectual culture which was to compete with commercial tourist attractions. Some local observers believe the Board of Trustee’s rejection of Piotrowski’s strategic plans for the futher development of the museum was related to last summer’s controversial exhibition ‘Ars Homoerotica‘; others believe he had to resign because the museum staff couldn’t accept the new strategy.

Whatever reason, Piotrowski’s ideas about a ‘critical museum’ are important and deserve wider circulation. I’m grateful for his permission to post this English translation of a summary of his thoughts:

Critical Museum
In fact, simplifying to some extent, one can distinguish among three types of museums: museum as a temple attended by the faithful who believe in the dogma of the “sacred” character of art, museum as a place of entertainment, “mcdonaldized,” as it were, and involved in the global networks of consumerism and tourism, and museum as a forum which wants to perform critical tasks and encourage reflection on the changing world both on the macro- and micro-scale.

The idea of the museum-as-forum, which Hans Belting refers only to one type of the museum as a response to the globalization of culture and its local aspects, i. e. to the MoCA, should be applied to the mission of another type, i. e. the “universal survey museum.” (Hans Belting, “Contemporary Art and the Museum in the Global Age,” in Peter Weibel, Andrea Buddensieg, eds, Contemporary Art and the Museum. Ostfildern: Hantje Cantz Verlag, 2007, pp. 30-37).

The potential of the “provincialization of the West” in respect to museums I can see in the idea of the “critical museum” – on the one hand, local, not to say “provincial,” and on the other, global. The role of museums is not so much to help develop a new “empire,” but a global politeia, a global constitution of the world on the local, not to say, “provincial” agora. Only such a museum will be able to support the ways of controlling international politics. It will do it by its influence and by addressing local problems which, because of the cosmopolitization of the local, are acquiring global significance. In other words, what gives us a chance is the idea of a local “critical museum” with global ambitions.

There are at least two levels on which such a museum can operate. One of them is its participation on the local agora, analyzing social and political questions, recognized as the key ones for a particular community. Since, however, local communities are in the process of global changing, to address local issues is at the same time global. Not only London is a cosmopolitan European city with its multicultural social strata. Also smaller cities in Europe, including Central and Eastern Europe, are changing their character in the same way, too, however, not in the same extent. Warsaw for example is not such a cosmopolitan center as London, is not a metropolis in the above mentioned degree, and perhaps will never be. However, its character is changing very fast. The local society is much more complex and differentiated in terms of ethnic, political, sexual etc. identities, than it used to be before 1989. The critical museum, thus, should address these processes.

The other level is to rethink the internal condition of the museum in such a historical context, and develop a sort of self-criticism. Something as a critique of local artistic cannons, or relations between local and international art history, should be a subject of a new museum strategy. In one word: both of them, i.e. museum participation in the agora and reshaping its traditional (national and hierarchical) concept of the museum, should be a point of departure in the process of creating the idea of the critical museum, and at the same time its new identity in the face of contemporary cultural and social processes. The theoretical basis of such a museum concept is the museum studies, called also critical museum studies, or new museology, has been developing for ca. thirty years mostly at the universities and art criticism.

Will museums or, more precisely, the type of museum called “universal survey museum,” rooted in a nationalist ideology and European, Western hegemony, prove able to face the challenge? Will the potential of scholarship, if one defines it as critical reflection on reality, be used to transform museums into critical institutions, to cover the distance between the critique of the institution to the institution that is critical? Will the museum or, again, more precisely, the “universal survey museum,” use critical theory, well developed at the universities, and change it into critical practice? Will it drop its role of the mausoleum and become a public forum shaping a politeia? All these questions still remain to be answered.

© Piotr Piotrowski, 2010.

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