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One of a museum’s most salient characteristics is that it is a valuable tool for understanding our society. To read the history of the museum in a given context is to observe in depth the comings-and-goings of values and the changes that have taken place; what has been — and is — considered so important that it is removed from the time of life for the purpose of its present and future enjoyment. The museum is thus itself an instrument of imagination and creation of the future; it becomes a monument of what it has been decided to hand down to posterity. It goes without saying that this complex organism changes over time, indeed to a considerable degree, sustaining and embodying the new paradigms of society. Starting from the wunderkammer and kunstkammer, with their veneration of the status of the collector, through the museums, properly speaking, of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries — defined as “instruments of imperialism”, which affirmed the power of the nation state — museums then changed substantially in the 1970s. Now, they changed from “temples” to “forums”, with this latter model embodied by the Centre Pompidou in Paris. The museum then broke through its own conceptual barriers and became a multi-functional centre, a public square, a place of sociability and also of consumption. This was taken to extremes in the 1990s by the so-called “hyper-museum”, by the sites of “hyper-consumption”, where the container merged into the content, and sculpture-museums (“ArchiSculptures”) — of which the Guggenheim in Bilbao remains the most striking example — were able to become true urban landmarksthat also attracted considerable streams of tourists. There is a lively debate on the museum in general, on what it is and what it should be in the present and in the future. It also involves ever-more subjects, starting with the discussions of the ICOM (International Council of Museums). Following the development of the definition that this association has offered, from its creation in 1946 up to the present, allows us to observe the perimeter within which this institution has operated. If we want to understand what the museum of the future is going to be, we should start from here. On 24 August 2022, at the ICOM’s Extraordinary General Assembly in Prague, the new definition of a museum was approved, the result of a long participatory process involving 126 committees around the world. It replaced the previous one established in the ICOM Statute approved in Vienna in 2007, with the following definition: “A museum is a not-for-profit, permanent institution in the service of society that researches, collects, conserves, interprets and exhibits tangible and intangible heritage. Open to the public, accessible and inclusive, museums foster diversity and sustainability. They operate and communicate ethically, professionally and with the participation of communities, offering varied experiences for education, enjoyment, reflection and knowledge sharing.”

Since the previous definition in 2007, terms such as accessibility and inclusiveness, diversity and sustainability had also been integrated, and explicit reference was now made to the museum as a place that offers knowledge sharing. The subject of sustainability — understood in a broad sense, according to the goals of Agenda2030 — is a key question also and especially for contemporary art museums, which have always been vigilant actors in the forefront of raising the most pressing issues of the present. Sustainable development has, indeed, always been an integral part of the programmes of contemporary art museums. This is precisely because they deal with the living, with current artistic practices, which often intercept social and anthropological practices and make them their own, in the interest of staying close to the realities of current and future life. The macro-theme of education, as well as questions concerning inclusion, gender equality, the fight against discrimination of all kinds, attention to environmental issues, and sustainable cities: these are all topics that directly concern museums as well as the work of many contemporary artists whose exhibitions and works are conveyed to the public through the museum. In recent years, moreover, there have been ongoing experiences of artists curating programmes in other types of museums, such as science museums: at the MUSE in Trento, We are the Flood, a programme regarding the climate emergency which spans art and science, and curated by the artist Stefano Cagol, has been running for two years now.[1]

Clearly, the museum is first and foremost a place of wonder. The contemporary art museum has always been so, and this dimension could be insisted upon to increase its attractiveness. The “space of exception” it offers — a place other than that of life — should be seized as an opportunity to create a curiosity in the public that becomes an engine of understanding and awareness, starting with the youngest audiences. The sections and the offer specifically dedicated to the youngest — one example is the Louvre in Abu Dhabi — need to be centre-stage, so that a relationship is created that will endure over time. This also means preparing them to be adults conscious of the possibilities that remaining in touch with the museum will offer for their own and the community’s daily life. Museums — especially of types other than art museums, such as the MUCEM in Marseilles — tell of this place’s capacity to become a “museum of narrative” rather than a “museum of the object”. It is necessary, also with the help of digital tools, to develop this institution’s capacity to narrate the multiple stories that make an object into an artwork bearing values that are worth preserving and valorising in a museum’s collection. Indeed, when it comes to digital technologies, although the pandemic period has highlighted how far behind Italian museums are still lagging, it has also sped up the use of different technologies. This has, moreover, underlined the irrelevance of the distinction between an online and an in-presence dimension, given that they each belong to one and the same institutional ecosystem.[2] This is a dual-channel use of digital: both as a tool for communication and museum promotion, and as a tool for listening and participation. ICOM’s definitions also show how the focus has increasingly shifted from a focus on the collection to a contextual dimension. In 2006, the cultural economist Pier Luigi Sacco spoke of the “activator museum”, which practices a cultural policy of involving all actors in the local territory and adopting strategies of consolidation in this same space, thus distinguishing it from the “attractor museum”. Ten years ago, he pinpointed the “Culture 3.0” paradigm, thus distinguishing from the “Culture 1.0” model, based on patronage, which saw culture as the prerogative of a restricted circle and then of state patronage; and also from the culture industry which he identifies in “Culture 2.0”, which sees the museum as an entertainment machine that aims to get closer to the public. “Culture 3.0” sees the concept evolve from entertainment to a precondition for any aspect of everyday life, producing value in all spheres of economic production and sociality; culture becomes a kind of social welfare. Museums become part of the life of the city, they become inhabited museums: museum policies must become policies of social cohesion, competitiveness and welfare.[3]  

The challenge, today and tomorrow, for contemporary art museums is thus first and foremost to make local administrators realise that this is a place to invest in, instead of one of the first targets of cuts due to austeritypolicies; an essential service and not an accessory of a community’s existence (as unfortunately happened during the COVID-19 pandemic), a driving force and connector of a territory’s artistic and cultural realities and its extra-artistic ones. This last topic is a focal point for the museum’s future; it is the centre of gravity of two elements: a physical one, the territory in which it stands, and an intangible one, the space of artistic production. In both senses, it is called upon to play a role of great responsibility and, as the ICOM definition tells us, a professional role — a characteristic that, not by chance, regional-level museum recognition considers indispensable, and that it is always worth remembering. Promoting a network of relations between art subjects such as associations, foundations, publishers, patrons, collectors, schools and sites of education and formation, but also businesses, artisans, and the productive fabric of the territory — all this has to be the direction that the museum looks to as a priority. If the museum of the future really does seek to find its place in the heart of society, it has to increasingly be a connector of the different realities, i.e. promoting a synergic activity that identifies common objectives, even while recognising the diversity of the various subjects. The same applies to national-level dialogue in an art system, of which the AMACI network is the most obvious expression, capable of organising moments of engagement, study, and network-building (such as the “Giornata del Contemporaneo”) common to all museums, as well as sites of artistic production and valorisation. The most recent is the Study Day “Contemporary Art Museums and Sustainable Development: a necessary practice”. Taking place online on 31 March 2023, it was dedicated to the fundamental role that museums play with respect to the urgent issues pressing upon society.

It would be impossible today to give a formula for the future museum; we cannot know what our children will choose as their own values. We can hypothesise certain dynamics, however,  by following the trajectory of the evolution of the ICOM definition: the focus is increasingly on the relational, on the dynamic dimension of the museum, as a driving force of society, activator of processes, connector of realities, disseminator in the territory, valoriser of differences and place of inclusiveness. The very nature of the contemporary art museum has always been complex and in some ways contradictory; it works with living artists and with objects that are not (yet) historicised, meaning that it participates in the creation of values at the same time as it collects works and produces exhibitions. The typology of the contemporary art museum will always have to come to terms with this hybrid, atypical nature. The element of responsibility combined with that of professionalism is therefore unavoidable, as is that of autonomy from politics — a complex subject, this, especially when it comes to civic museums. In a territory like Italy’s, so rich in differences, the both contemporary and future art museum must aim at avoiding homologation, while also setting agendas in synergy with other museums and artistic realities on a national and international level. This is also the direction suggested by the ministerial call for proposals known as the Italian Council, which places a premium not only the artistic project presented by a museum or contemporary art institution, but also on the ability to build national and international networks. It would also be useful if, precisely because of its specificities, ICOM were to set up an international committee on the contemporary art museum, so as to open up a debate on a global level.

[1]     Stefano Cagol (ed.), We are the flood. Il progetto di un museo scientifico per affrontare la crisi ambientale attraverso l’arte contemporanea, Postmedia Books, Milan 2023.
[2]     Maria Elena Colombo, Musei e cultura digitale. Fra narrativa, pratiche e testimonianze, Editrice Bibliografica, Milan 2020.
[3] Pier Luigi Sacco, “Produrre l’arte contemporanea in periodi di crisi. Problemi e opportunità”, in Margherita Guccione (ed), Come sarà il museo del futuro? Lezioni di museografia contemporanea, MAXXI, Rome 2012.