Year 9, n.30 May – July 2019 What the museum does not say

Year IX, n.30, May – August 2019
I non-detti del museo
(what the museum does not say)

 curated by Anna Chiara Cimoli and Maria Chiara Ciaccheri

What does the museum not say because it cannot, does not want to or believes it has not the time to do so? Does it only talk to specialists because it does not know who else to talk to or does it speak in such a low voice that no one hears it? Does it lack the tools to communicate or common practices to refer to such as over the treatment of human remains, practices that differ according to culture and location.
Does the museum remain silent because it fears society is not ready to listen; because it does not believe that this is its role or because opposing voices within the institution are stronger? Does the museum feel trapped, confined by its collections, enclosed in its cases, its storage and its archives? Perhaps it is a matter of time and what it needs and wants to say will emerge. In the meantime do such silences serve better than words.
Such overarching, philosophical considerations prompt more practical questions:

Who, within and beyond the institution, makes decisions, and how?
How much awareness does the museum have of its educational role, what level of priority does it give to this and what space does it assign for this purpose?
What is its relationship with the concept of “neutrality”?
How was its collection developed?
Who writes the catalogue, the labels, the gallery text, and what influences the choice of words?
What political or strategic context influences both acquisition or disposal of collections?
What are the risks, if any, of what some may consider as too great an emphasis on “political correctness” and participation?

If the museum is an autobiography – of a city, a territory, a society – then it will have gaps and omissions. It will have been embellished, manipulated, even raped. In this context what space is left for visitors to knock on the door and ask the reasons for such shadows and silences? Is this where the space for protest opens up? Who organises such protests, and in whose name? And if not protest, what dialogue can emerge, what requests can be responded to; what participatory methods can be applied?

In Marvel’s movie Black Panther, Erik Killmonger, the super-criminal from the imaginary realm of Wakanda, in front of a showcase displaying African art objects at the British Museum asks the curator (red hair, British accent, suit): “Where do you think these objects come from?”. She, like an automaton, cites country and century. Killmonger urges: “How do you think your ancestors got these? Do you think they paid a fair price, or did they take it, like they took anything else?”. The scene does not end well for the curator.
Black Panther’s museum scene, although somewhat caricatured, has become an icon of the Decolonize Our Museums movement, which supports forms of protest and occupation in the name of a fair, respectful and multi-vocal representation of the cultures exhibited in the museum (one of the most recent protests took place at the Brooklyn Museum, following the appointment of a white curator as head of the African art department).

While Senegal was preparing for the inauguration of the Musée des Civilizations Noires in Dakar, on December 6, 2018, in France the Rapport sur la restitution du patrimoine culturel africain signed by Felwine Sarr and Bénédicte Savoy exploded like a bomb on a system totally unprepared for the counterblow of the post-colonial critique, as the events linked to the establishment of the Musée National de l’Historie de l’Immigration in Paris had clearly demonstrated a few years earlier. Other European institutions, such as the Africa Museum in Tervuren (Belgium), the Tropenmuseum in Amsterdam or the Grassi in Leipzig, have been adopting profoundly new, radical positions, both through a new layout and performative, critical and dialogical practices.
Citizens too have been active in this sphere. In England, the independent art historian Alice Procter conducts her Uncomfortable Art Tours in various London museums, including the British Museum and the National Gallery, bringing to light uncomfortable histories, previously silenced colonial events, omissions and rewriting of history. In December the Stolen Goods Tour took place at the British Museum: an unauthorized tour of all the colonial appropriations, plundering and lack of recognition evident in the museum’s displays. The visit included a series of interactions by artists, activists, citizens responding to objects or works of art related to their lived experience or their culture.
The tropes common to these forms of protest are rooted in popular tradition: among them is the occupation of space in front of the entrance that redraws it and marks a new threshold, that of the atrium as an “introspective piazza”, with recognisable visual codes (the choice of colours, the format of the billboards or banners, clothing…), the use of the megaphone and or the microphone. Hence the visibility through digital communication channels, using manifestos, fanzines and texts.

These actions are influenced by the specific historical, cultural and political context of the countries in which they take place: In Italy, for example, showcasing certain examples of equality and activism might inspire practices and reflections that contribute to social justice. Such examples might be inappropriate in other contexts. In some instances the use of “politically correct” vocabulary and choices will be necessary but in other cases this might lead to unconstructive debates about censorship, inspire revenge and undermine attempts for constructive dialogue. Protests underpinned by democratic intentions have sometimes produced reactionary outcomes, such as the demolition of some monuments of the US confederates (without articulating multiple interpretations) or, the removal the Pre-Raphaelite work of John William Waterhouse, Hylas and the Nymphs he Manchester Art Gallery, because it depicts a young naked nymph (without inviting audiences to explore how gender representations have shifted over time).
Paradoxes and contradictions are multiple. The second number of roots§routes of 2019 is therefore dedicated to all such stories – small or big – that are unspoken, that have shaped the profile of museums as we know them, in their fullness and in their voids. It aims to explore questions of power, legality and opportunities, highlighted in post-colonial studies but that also transcend it. In fact, it is a question of articulating new modes of comparison, internal and external, so that diversity (whatever it is) can be understood and represented in all its complexity.
There have been both conscious and guilty silences, due to issues of provenance, the history of collecting in any institution, the different socio-political contexts in which museums operate, their methods and practices and lack of information. Such factors have affected all aspects the museum – leadership and management, curatorship, documentation of collections, writing of texts and educational material, the museum’s image, the diversity of their audiences and its relationship with those they do not reach.

But there are also, perhaps, poetic silences, unanticipated interruptions and musical interludes that can allow other stories and reflections to come to the surface – it seems the right time to align and uncover these.