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Museums, Spectators and Participation

By Paco Barragán

For more than two centuries since the Louvre went public, the museum has hardly changed.

I am shockingly aware that such a statement may sound like a provocation, as many respected professionals from the museum world and academia alike-Kenneth Hudson and Eilean Hooper-Greenhill among them-think just the opposite: that “museums refuse to stand still” and that “change has been unprecedented and extreme.”

Imagine now the first peasants, pimps and prostitutes who visited on August 10, 1793, the day the Louvre first opened to the public, being catered around like ignorant cattle but fulfilling their inalienable revolutionary rights to the “ouvrages maintenant appartenants à la nation française”, while they stared in awe at voluptuous gods, satraps and nymphs. Fast-forward to today, we see visitors in the same Louvre running about freely and loudly while they try to crowd together in front of the Mona Lisa or MoMA’s The Starry Night by Van Gogh to take a selfie in the same superficial aesthetic mood as in the past.

Whilst awe has certainly given away to irreverence, the citizen-spectator continues to be no more than a passerby looking at the “top of the pops” and fatally assuming a passive condition in the face of what the ‘nanny museum’ has decided is convenient for you to see, and what Jean-Jacques David incisively labeled as a “vain assemblage of frivolous luxury objects that serve only to satisfy idle curiosity.”

The many adults and adolescents who don’t attend museums typically explain why with the same crushing unanimity: “They are boring!” And if we insist on a more elaborate answer, we hear something in the vein of: “They are not fun like, you know, a movie, a pop concert or a videogame.” And let’s not forget the too often pseudo-intellectual topics that are going to save the planet, boring exhibition displays on antiseptic “white walls,” bureaucratic style wall texts and credits, and the usually snotty, paternalist treatment of the visitor.

The shift from a word-based to an image-based society has created new audiences who demand a different museology: It’s not about seeing but about participating, not about the intention of the artist or institution but about one’s own individual experience. Our visitor now hails from a visual, pop, participative, short-attention-span, multitasking media culture.

Visitors crowd around of Vincent van Gogh’s The Starry Night, at MoMA, New York. Photo: Paco Barragán.

Unlike Germany around 1900, where the art world argued about whether or not to collect contemporary art, and the equally fascinating debates in the Soviet Union in the 1930s, which focused on downplaying bourgeois ideology and the deification of the artwork, the American-Eurocentric art world has never had such heated discussions in its search for a different museum model.

As a natural result of this lack of criticality, I argue that in the early 21st century we’re still stuck with unradical museums, unradical collections, unradical exhibitions and unradical audiences.


The “enlightened” museum was borne out of an act of estrangement, and the “modern” museum suffered a second and additional act of iconoclasm. So paradox is its second skin. The unavoidable question is still then: Is the original context or framework necessary, or can we experience art directly? We can agree with Peter Vergo, who argues that, for most visitors, works of art remain remarkably “taciturn objects.” And in this further quest for the past, the museum, as the child of imperialism, colonialism and neocapitalism, respectively, also raises contingent questions about culture, race, gender and class.

While the “universal survey museum” (Duncan and Wallach) still struggled with the enlightened idea of contextualization-think of the famous Period Room and Stimmungsraum-for modern and contemporary museums, this was no longer an issue. I have to admit that I was moved to tears when I recently found out that the Stedelijk Museum had a period room until 1973!

Based on German museum models experimented between 1875 and 1933 by professionals such as Wilhelm von Bode, Alexander Dorner, Karl Ernst Osthaus and Hugo von Tschudi, MoMA´s director, Alfred H. Barr, Jr., successfully adapted and introduced the weisse Wand, or white wall. Wrongly translated, the anachronistic “white cube” display, which was born in the 1930s, became the standard in international modern and contemporary museology and has lasted ever since.

Today, the problem is that the formalist “white cube” model is not appropriate for the vast majority of museum visitors who aren’t experts and are unable to engage with art in a critical manner.

Albeit the 20th century democratic idea of the nation-state providing access to culture for all its citizens, this absence of mediation between the artwork and the public demands a notoriously higher competence from the spectator in order to fulfill a meaningful experience.

With wittiness, Eco signaled some years ago that, by lack of information, the encounter with the artwork-fetish only provided the spectator with a superficial aesthetic enjoyment.

Klaus Biesenbach said recently in an interview that people “take many pictures at MoMA every day” and that “that´s participation.”

It would be ironic to think that the evolution of the visitor, from the French Revolution to today, has ended up meaning taking a selfie.

Paco Barragán is the visual arts curator of Centro Cultural Matucana 100 in Santiago, Chile. He recently curated “Intimate Strangers: Politics as Celebrity, Celebrity as Politics” and “Alfredo Jaar: May 1, 2011″ (Matucana 100, 2015), “Guided Tour: Artist, Museum, Spectator” (MUSAC, León, Spain, 2015) and “Erwin Olaf: The Empire of Illusion” (MACRO, Rosario, Argentina, 2015). He is author of The Art to Come (Subastas Siglo XXI, 2002) and The Art Fair Age (CHARTA, 2008).

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