Thinking about the Museums in the Global Contemporary

The idea of the Global Contemporary has been borrowed from contemporary art where old art hegemonies have been displaced by global engagement that nevertheless values geographically diverse practices, and which sees contemporary art as defined by its engagement with the present day.

Many emerging artists sense that Modernism…is past its used-by date. They regard ‘Postmodernism’ as an outmoded term…Their youth means that they have inherited the successes and shortcomings of the political struggles of the 1960s and 1970s – from anti-colonialism to feminism – and now seek to relate these lessons to the even greater challenges of living in the conditions of contemporaneity. Emergent artists are focused on questions arising from this challenge: questions as to the shapes of time, place, media, and mood in the world today.

Terry Smith, Contemporary Art: World Currents (Laurence King Publishing, London, 2011), 11.

Museums in the Global Contemporary

This is an open conference and our speakers will touch on many themes. However, here are just a few ways to ground the notion of museums in the global contemporary:

The mobility of people and things

Consider the implications and opportunities of our new mobility. We are less culturally isolated and more likely to exist in multicultural societies. But the movement of people has other complexities. We live in an era of human displacement, economic migration and asylum-seeking. Demographic change, social media, and foreign policy have produced threats from rising nationalism to political extremism and global terrorism. Global capitalism has produced new power structures, the evasion of corporate responsibility, neo-colonialism and homogenising cultural change. Museums have faced up to this by being active in building social cohesion and integration, protecting identities, and acting in cultural exchange and cultural diplomacy. Museums have developed new international collaborations, challenged the politics of majority in favour of disenfranchised groups and embraced new forms of collection mobility and access. Museums may rarely work at the level of international headlines but instead can have a powerful effect at community level. What models, innovations, and opportunities exist in this complex mobile world?

Perceptions of ourselves and others

The Global Contemporary is not simply about mobility. It also affects perception. It opens up new influences in the conception, management and business operation of the museum. It has provided a new context for global acts of professionalisation and standardisation, and for the dissemination of models of practice and museological research. It has made museum and heritage practitioners and communities increasingly aware of the uniqueness of specific cultures and the threats posed by globalisation and social change. It has also exposed the damaging consequences of tourism and heritage, and called for new models of engagement. Globally it has been possible to know, and conceive of, the individual in distant cultures. The exotic Other has been displaced. The world has been increasingly humanised. The world is no longer to be read or understood through dominant Western cultural models. There is a new global cultural awareness that situates national minorities in the context of international politics. Global visibility also exposes to a wider audience matters of social injustice, indigenous rights, and racial and religious discrimination. If museums possess a new global visibility to what extent can they disseminate the core values of peaceful and cohesive societies built on local cultural values? To what extent do they offer an alternative worldview to that played out in world politics?

The conceptualisation of performances and audiences

The Global Contemporary also transforms how we think about museum media, audiences and markets. Today, it is possible for the city exhibition to become the global app, the local loans scheme can realise global ambitions, the material collection can be experienced as virtual and augmented reality, the temporary exhibition might seek crowd funding, and so on. The local audience might now be a medium for global reach, as the audience becomes participant and advocate. Museums everywhere now have access to expertise. In a world where few audiences are isolated from world media, how does the role of the local museum change? How does the global potential of a local project affect its conception and scale?