Irene Campolmi | Aarhus University, Aarhus, DK

Sustainable Development and Sustainability in 21st Century Museums

Rethinking the Modern Experience through the Narratives Making-Processes

 In 1980s, postmodernism put into discussion the role of art museums and cultural institutions, It criticized that their narratives-making processes were not fair, transparent and open as the institutions devoted to the presentation of modern and contemporary art- first, the MoMA – had proposed by means of the white cube displays.

The storytelling mode of ‘white cube’ galleries reflects the power of linear thought: objects seem to speak to us in a language that we implicitly understand. While beholders may not be able to articulate the phenomenon experienced, they nevertheless adjust their understanding of the objects by relying on curators’ choices. This frameless context – which is also a framing device – presents artworks either as highlights of the arts history or forms of human expression that have no time or space constrains.

Minimalistic architectures of pure synthetic forms, white walls, generous spaces and diffused lighting had provided an obstructive backdrop in art museums within which artworks can become the central focus of the visitor’s attention. White cube galleries aim to avoid the conflicts and contradictions that ‘other’ narratives –besides the prominent one chose by the museum- may generate while presenting an object.  

Museumgoers frequently doubt about the artistic quality of the artworks in modern and contemporary art museums. Hardly, they question if the displays in which the objects are presented is transparent, fair or reliable enough to exhibit the contents of these artworks. The white cube paradigm turns art museums into shrines, where visitors think they are having a transformative aesthetic experience, because the expertise of “the museum man” -director or curator- assures that these objects express universal truths in established canons or standards of excellence. Though, who does establish these canons? Why should beholders rely on these, if everybody agrees that art is subjective? Furthermore, should the museumgoers trust the curators’ competence? Nonetheless curators and directors’ good intentions of working transparently, their job is necessarily embedded and influenced by contemporary art markets, collectors and fairs.

In the last ten years, art galleries, public museums, collectors and auction houses have established a dense, global hierarchical network that imposes narratives and operational standards, and establishes strategies aimed at creating the status, the visibility and the cultural recognition of artists and museums. Quoting Latour, they “transport meanings without transformation”.

Challenging the trustworthiness of displaying technique instead of criticizing that of the art works may change the status of contemporary and modern art museums from “emphatic” sites – providing supposed authentic aesthetic experiences, into spaces of “vulnerability”, where visitors must get comfortable with disruptions, doubts and uncertainty.

How could the museum curators and staff visually present in displays the questioning of the curatorial approach itself? Beholders might get involved right from the germination stage of the museum narrative-making processes. This paper proposes issues as sustainability and sustainable development as means to challenge the current patterns of artistic production and consumption in modern art museums, and encourage beholders to become “critical” visitors.