Society Creates Museums - Museums Create Society
The Engineering Wing of the State Tretyakov Gallery hosted an international conference to mark the gallery’s 150th anniversary. Entitled “The Museum and Society”, this event was opened with a congratulatory address from the Russian UNESCO Commission.
This event was organised and run by Lydia Iovleva - First Deputy Director General of the Tretyakov Gallery. In her introductory speech "The Issue of 'The Museum and Society' and Its Relevance Today” she dwelt on priority areas of modern museum practice such as the museum in the context of history and modernity, museum pedagogy and social and psychological aspects of art appreciation. Iovleva also spoke of the forthcoming "Europe - Russia” exhibition: a major cultural event bringing together not only the largest museums of the European Union, but also a number of smaller galleries and museums. The importance of this project is hard to overestimate, felt the speaker. It will benefit not only from the "world encyclopaedias of art” that are the leading museums, but also from the contribution of centres organised around a single topic, a particular artist, or sometimes, even a single painting. Thus, the multi-layered and diverse museum community is increasingly coming together to organise large-scale joint exhibition projects and international conferences. Organised by the Tretyakov Gallery and boasting over 50 speakers from different countries, "The Museum and Society” was one such impressive international scholarly forum.
Society creates museums, which, in turn, shape society: this neat symmetrical concept was examined by participants from a range of different angles. Central topics included the place and role of the art museum in the period of globalisation, cultural dialogue through exhibition projects, the museum world and modern technology, museum pedagogy and educational work.
At Lydia Iovleva's decision, the first paper to be presented at the opening of the conference was Vladimir Dukelsky's "The Museum and Society: Two Lonely Entities. Will They Ever Meet?” From the Russian Institute of Cultural Studies, Dukelsky gave a philosophical study of his topic, which was subsequently echoed by almost all speakers: in one form or another, this issue was examined by the majority of participants.
Indeed, for most museums today, the task appears to be to preserve, enlarge and study their collections. The public only gets a look-in as and when circumstances allow: the museum space, it seems, no longer requires viewers to be present. This has lead to an illusory sense of the museum's self-sufficiency. Isolated from society, the museum is enclosed in its own lonely world. A barrier has arisen between the Museum and the Viewer: invisible yet solid, this is created by the museum system itself. The only information to pass through this wall of silence and reach the viewer is the sparse message conveyed by the printed material accompanying the paintings: the real life within our beautiful temples of art remains unseen and inaccessible.
So, why do people visit museums? Is it to compare the world of their own sensations with that of the museum with its history and culture? Or to undertake a ritual pilgrimage which, for many, occurs but once in a lifetime? Viktor Guruzhapov from the Tretyakov Gallery gave an interesting insight into the mentality of the museum visitor - his interests, his search for a cultural identity and his hopes to find in the museum an "ideal interlocutor”. Guruzhapov's study was followed by statistical data from Valery Koziev of the State Russian Museum.
The museum's isolation, and the isolation of the visitor within the museum are truly a problem of modern times. They reflect the increasing intellectual isolation of modern man kind, whose spiritual development occurs within the confines of the electronic and virtual world, as well as the large and rapidly growing gap between different social groups.
A solution to this problem can be found with museums, which offer a multitude of ways to build positive dialogue with the most diverse social groups. Interactive programmes, modern technology, social events, educational projects: initially, such activities may come across as mere entertaining games, in which works of art are taken apart like lego using pedagogy and electronic devices. These initiatives, however, really do allow people to "touch” and experience the museum space. Thus, it can be hoped that their development and use by museums (in part, to alleviate financial hardship) does not damage the world of Art, but serves to bring it closer to the viewer.
The museum of today has a new face. This has to do not only with multimedia exhibitions, but also with the changing nature of what is shown: action, text and sound have now become exhibits in themselves. Alexei Lebedev from the Russian Institute of Cultural Studies offered a fascinating look at several museums whose displays consist chiefly of electronic images and textual commentary. One such institution is the Kalashnikov Museum in Izhevsk, showing the famous constructor's memoirs on monitors in the form of video chronicles. Like the Pushkin Museum in Mikhailovskoye, which shows copies of items which never belonged to historical figures, the Kalashnikov Museum exhibits the only real memorial item available - Mikhail Kalashnikov's words, spoken from the screen. The physical body of the object is increasingly absent from museum displays, as from modern art in general. Its place is being taken by text, context and commentary, now seen as independent, and often self-sufficient exhibits. Such, indeed, was the thinking behind the "Tower of Babel” exhibition held at the Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts in 2004. The main space in the centre of the museum's White Hall was occupied by enormous boards bearing textual commentary, whilst the paintings themselves positioned themselves modestly around on the walls.
Conceptual exhibitions stimulating interactive dialogue with the viewer are now a common phenomenon. Besides those organised in leading art institutions, today events held by small museums are raising increasing interest. Nicoletta Misler (Italy) spoke about the smaller museums, which allow a more personal intellectual exchange with the viewer. The Museum of Jurassic Technology, Los Angeles, and Freud's Dream Museum, St. Petersburg, share not only a common theme, but also a particular modus operandi and display approach. The Museum of Jurassic Technology occupies a small detached building in the modest Culver City area of Los Angeles, whilst Freud's Dream Museum consists of three rooms in the East European Institute of Psychoanalysis, St. Petersburg. Being somewhat off the beaten track, both receive viewers already interested in the subject rather than chance visitors. To the enlightened, both offer a veritable treasure trove of ephemeral objects and associations in a gloriously intellectual environment. Museum displays of signs, symbols and fetishes hold meaning only for the initiated. A mole's skeleton under an elegant glass cover; a mouse sandwich; a Tanagra figurine; a floor decorated with meander curves; a mask of Pushkin and portraits of the dogs sent into space: all of these will be cordially explained by the museum directors over a cup of tea with their (somewhat rare) visitors.
A very different sort of museum was presented at the conference by John E. Bowlt (University of Southern California, Los Angeles). Created to show the work of Canadian-born photographer Gregory Colbert, the Nomadic Museum travels from site to site, taking its premises and display with it. Designed by a Japanese architect Shigeru Ban, the Nomadic Museum consists of dozens of freight containers. In assembled form it represents a monumental cathedral-like structure with three naves, fifteen metres high, covering a total area of 4,500 thousand square metres or more. In the three months which the museum spends in any one place, it receives around 500,000 visitors: rather than waiting for viewers to assemble, this incredible institution goes in search of visitors itself!
Indeed, mobile exhibitions are also becoming more common. Many major museums organise international showings of their collections: summer 2006 saw the Guggenheim present 200 of its best-known works, including paintings by Monet, Van Gogh, Picasso and Chagall, in Bonn. The Tretyakov Gallery began its jubilee year by launching the programme "Museums of the World Congratulate the Tretyakov Gallery”: masterpieces from the Musee d'Orsay, State Russian Museum, museums taking part in the "Golden Map of Russia” project and many others were shown at the Tretyakov Gallery.
The museum of today is clearly advancing to meet the viewer. Naturally, this tendency mirrors the interest shown by modern society in its cultural heritage. Society creates museums, and museums shape society. This mutual attraction can help to overcome the current cultural isolation of the museum - and of modern man.
Architect Renzo Piano