Redefining Museums

The Museum Is Not Enough is the intriguing title of a book intended to be the first part of a collective reflection that the team at the Canadian Centre for Architecture instigated, regarding the role of institutions and the challenges to be faced regarding “contemporary social concerns.”1 Which issues should be foregrounded when works and archives are displayed? How should they be approached? In both art and architecture museums, shouldn’t the public be presented with a sensory and intellectual experience that isn’t simply entertainment? No doubt, many museums share these concerns, regardless of their mission. Although the first museums date back to the 15th century, it wasn’t until the 18th century that they became places in which the main purpose was to house and exhibit collections, and increasing numbers of visitors were allowed in. Gathering momentum in the modern era, museums imparted humanist values, fostering the principle of a civilizational memory based essentially on Western culture. Although they hold a treasured and impressive heritage, the current global situation is compelling many of these institutions to go beyond the ideological frame promoted by modernity. And even though museums, within cultural capitalism, are subjected to economic imperatives, many of them find it important to encourage discussions around diversity and inclusion, often by highlighting their own collections.

In May 2021, the International Council of Museums organized a colloquium titled “The Future of Museums: Recover and Reimagine,” for which professionals in the field were invited to “create, imagine and share new practices of (co-)creation of value.” When it comes to art museums, such sharing of new practices often involves a “decolonization process” leading to a different comprehension of history. With this in mind, the Musée d’art de Joliette presented an exhibition titled Regards en dialogue from October 3, 2020 to May 23, 2021. The exhibition highlighted and updated the collection of bronzes donated by A. K. Prakash, which includes more than twenty sculptures by Louis-Philippe Hébert (1850–1917), Marc-Aurèle de Foy Suzor-Côté (1869–1937), and Alfred Laliberté (1877-1953). To encourage a “trans-historical approach,” curators Émilie Grandmont Bérubé and Anne-Élisabeth Vallée invited Toronto artist Nicolas Fleming to produce an installation within which visitors could view the sculptures. In addition, to compensate for the romantic vision of the “good savage” and shed new light on the heroic figures of Quebec’s past, the curators asked three members of Quebec Indigenous communities—Eruoma Ottawa-Chilton, Roger Echaquan, and Nicole O’Bomsawin—to comment, on video, on the ideology underlying the artists’ aesthetic, which was shaped by cultural stereotypes.

Offering viewers the opportunity to admire artworks from a different historical perspective was also the impetus behind the exhibition Rembrandt in Amsterdam: Creativity and Competition, presented this summer at the National Gallery of Canada (NGC) and organized jointly with the Städel Museum in Frankfurt. In addition to showing some masterpieces by the celebrated painter Rembrandt van Rijn (1606–1669), the guest curator, Stephanie S. Dickey, wanted visitors to understand the sociopolitical, economic, commercial, and colonial environment in which he worked. As well as admiring his paintings, drawings, and prints in the context of competition by presenting works of his contemporaries, the public was given a chance to situate Rembrandt’s art production in relation to the transatlantic slave trade and commercial ties with Indigenous peoples in Canada. To “advance understanding of the European tradition with a new, more inclusive approach,” works by contemporary Indigenous and Black artists from the NGC collection were also exhibited. Taking an approach similar to that of the Musée d’art de Joliette, three people—Joana Joachim, Black feminist art historian; Gerald McMaster, director of the Wapatah Centre for Indigenous Visual Knowledge; and Rick Hill, Tuscarora artist—were asked to contribute essays giving their points of view on the Dutch Republic’s colonial project.

In arranging various levels of reading within a contextual interpretation, curators are obliged to present exhibitions differently, transforming the exhibition site into a space open to dialogue. This is also what motivates some museums to invite artists to create works based on their collections. Having emerged with contemporary art and the new related curatorial practices, art interventions in museum collections began to multiply in the 1990s. This issue of ESPACE art actuel, co-edited by Mélanie Boucher and Geneviève Chevalier, thus delves into artists’ use of objects (musealia, semiophores) coming from the collections of museums of art, science, and society. In her essay, Jacqueline Millner, a specialist in contemporary Australian art, takes a decolonial perspective in her discussion of two recent exhibitions that took place in “the most colonially burdened” museums that now offer Indigenous artists the opportunity to reverse the “colonial understanding of history.” The subject of Emmanuelle Choquette’s contribution is artist Fabiano Kueva’s multifaceted research project Archivo Alexander von Humboldt (since 2011). Using a performative approach, Kueva develops a critical discourse on the controversial figure of the German explorer-naturalist. Also, in step with a creative approach related to the colonial aspect, Elif Karakaya focuses on artist Walid Raad’s exhibition Preface to the Third Edition, presented at the Louvre in 2013 following an artist residency. In 2012, the famous museum invited Raad to work with its Arts of Islam collection, and through his work Karakaya explores “the ideological implications of glass in terms of display culture.”

Among the other art interventions highlighted in this thematic section, Chrystel Lebas’s work is presented in an essay by Geneviève Chevalier. Invited to work from the archives of botanist and ecologist Edward James Salisbury at the Natural History Museum in London, Lebas produced images identified with the places that Salisbury photographed earlier. This project, with an “evolutionary ecology” approach, engages in a redefinition of the institution’s social and cultural role in the face of “the unavoidable issue of climatic change.” Cécile Camart analyzes two performance-related interventions by artist Béatrice Balcou, who features the actions preceding the exhibition of an artwork by “subverting cultural mediation and exhibition tropes.” Making visible what is usually off-stage is also proposed in choreographer Jérôme Bel’s intervention. MoMA invited him to take part in its Artist’s Choice program, but Bel turned away from the collection to bring the museum’s employees, who were entirely willing to be part of his work, into view for the visitors. In her essay, Mélanie Boucher analyzes this “radical initiative,” which seems to divert MoMA’s intention of engaging artists to revisit its collections. To complete this section, curator Anne-Marie St-Jean Aubre interviews art photographer Martin Désilets about Matière noire, an ongoing project based on his visits to collections. They also converse about a parallel project, which, following a residency at the Musée d’art de Joliette, gave rise to the exhibition Les tableaux réunis.

Finally, in parallel with the thematic essays, the “Reviews” section presents twelve articles on recent exhibitions in Quebec, Canada, and Europe. And this issue—which celebrates the return of bilingualism for the special topic essays—ends with the “Books” and “Selected Titles” section, in which we report on recent publications that have drawn our attention.


Translated by Käthe Roth


[1] Giovanna Borasi, Albert Ferré, Francesco Garutti, Jayne Kelley, and Mirko Zardini (eds.), The Museum Is Not Enough, nos. 1–9 (Montreal and Berlin: CCA and Sternberg Press, 2019).