A specter is haunting the world, and it is that of the New Normal Order. That mirage that invites us to go back to the life before the pandemic to feel safe. A return to travel, to walk without a mask, to step into an office, not to be concerned about a vaccination sequence, to surrender ourselves to the tumult, to fill the bars and, among these and many other things, to visit the museums again.
Just in 2020, the hierarchy of the art world was engaged in redefining such museums for the 21st century, but the pandemic arrived and put a stop to the disquisitions. So, two years later, after debates, resignations, squabbles, meetings, analyses, drafts and consultations, the International Council of Museums (ICOM) can now boast, at last, of having reach an agreement.
What is, as of today, a museum?
Well, in short, this is what the media have reproduced: “A non-profit institution, permanent and at the service of society, which researches, collects, conserves, interprets and exhibits tangible and intangible heritage. Open to the public, accessible and inclusive, museums foster diversity and sustainability. Engaging communities, museums operate and communicate ethically and professionally, offering varied experiences for education, enjoyment, reflection and knowledge sharing.”
Willing to verify what is new in this non plus ultra of virtue, I randomly pick up several dictionaries. Among them, some as popular before Wikipedia as El Gran Diccionario Enciclopédico Ilustrado, el Pompeu Fabra or Collins. The first thing I notice is that they are not exactly generous when it comes to elaborating on the term in question. However, in the Dictionary of the Spanish Language published by the Real Academia Española in 2001, there is already a definition very similar to the one just presented by the sages of ICOM. Here, the museum is described as a “non-profit” institution, “open to the public,” whose purpose is to “acquire,” “conserve,” “study” and “exhibit” objects and collections. In the few words that explain it, “knowledge,” its possibilities for science and its capacity to attract “tourists” are also emphasized. In short, almost everything that appears in the supposedly new definition of this international assembly. Let’s say that the one in dictionary is almost the same, but shortened, as the one that appears in the Web of the Reina Sofia would be the same, but expanded. And both of these definitions, moreover, were written much earlier.
It is obvious that, at this point in the 21st century, no one is going to turn up repeating the classic definition of the museum as the home of the muses. Although it would not have been a bad thing if, along with the linguistic attempts, the abundant elaboration that artists themselves have done on the place where their works, sooner or later, will dwell had been taken into account. From Marcel Duchamp to Claes Oldenburg, from Dora García or Erwin Wurm, from Judy Chicago to Rogelio López Cuenca, just to mention a few examples that would broaden a definition that boasts of “inclusion” as one of the fine arts.
This is not the only paradox. Today it is not possible to appeal to the democratization of collections without questioning their origin. Nor is it possible to brandish the tagline “not-for-profit” while at the same time pretending not to notice the place these temples occupy in the service economies of tourism, with their stores, their restaurants, their propensity for franchising.
Or flog ourselves with their community projection and their commitment to the social good without coming to terms with the fact that they are also an advance party —an avant-garde?— of speculation and the rise in price of cities; with those buildings in which the container, example of the so-called “starchitecture,” has become more important than the contents. As if the model these museums represent had not been a headlong rush for three decades: on the hunt for a saving mecca that has made them jump from New York to Russia, from Russia to China, from China to the Emirates, and not precisely to emancipate the peoples of those countries.
It is not possible to solve a structural crisis by tinkering with the dictionary. And it cries out to heaven, for example, how little have been made of the change of work model that the pandemic has left behind, with its corresponding processes of labor removal that have become so common in the employment, underemployment and unemployment of the cultural system.
That, on top of all this, the word “permanent” seals the idea of an institution that considers itself infinite, says almost everything about the implicit terror that accompanies this assignment. Because what is in crisis is not, in any case, a nomenclature but a structure. And what lies ahead is not its future but the end of a cycle that reached its apogee in modern culture and no longer finds a place in contemporary culture. It is very curious that a world that has killed art so many times cares so much about the eternity of its container.
In the end, this crisis brings us back to such obvious truisms as the physical expansion of museums is much less important than their mental expansion, that programs should be more important than buildings, projects more important than directors, the how more important than the what.
The question is whether we will know how to steer the course towards a place other than the paranormal reality in which the artistic model is confined, or the neo-normal reality to which a political and economic model intends to take us, with all its might, back to a status that two years ago had already given up.