From Museum Critique to the ­Critical ­Museum

Eds. Katarzyna Murawska‑Muthesius, Piotr Piotrowski
Ashgate, Farnham – Burlington 2015

In 2015, the renowned publishing house Ashgate issued an anthology of articles on the critical role of the museum. The importance of this book lies not only in its subject, but above all in the fact that it takes into account the perspective of Central and Eastern Europe.
Museums from Central and Eastern ­Europe very rarely make their way into books published in the West, and when they do, they are usually mentioned only in passing. From Museum Critique to the Critical Museum is exceptional in this respect. The authors take up the issue of the critical nature of the museum in theory and practice, invoking not only Western cases, but also museums in Poland, the Czech Republic and Russia. The book brings to the international forum the discussion on the critical museum in Poland initiated by ­Professor Piotr Piotrowski and Dr Katarzyna ­Murawska‑Muthesius when they were working on the concept, and then the programme, of the National Museum in Warsaw (MNW). The formula they proposed for this particular museum has failed, but it sparked a heated debate on the role of the contemporary museum.
In the chapter called “Making the National Museum Critical”, Piotrowski presents the vision of the critical museum with which he started his work as the director of the MNW in 2010. For the Polish reader familiar with the book Muzeum krytyczne (Critical museum, 2011), where the author settles his accounts with this period, the text does not contain many new things, but here it should be read in the context provided by the other chapters. The crucial idea behind the MNW concept is based on the belief that, given the small number of masterpieces, the museum may compete with the largest world museums by introducing innovative curatorial strategies. Piotrowski writes, “the museums located on the margins of artistic geography are much more likely to become the avant‑garde [than the museums implementing Western models of functioning], since they are provoked to adopt alternative subversive strategies because of their own weaknesses. They cannot just open the door and wait, but must come up with a new vision of the museum. In Warsaw, the idea of the critical museum was such a vision” (p. 139).
The idea of the critical museum is related to the museum‑as‑forum type, traditionally opposed to the museum‑as‑temple and the museum‑as‑entertainment. As the editors of the book write, “The museum‑as‑forum is a democratic project which aims to grant space and voice to minorities and social critics, providing a critical response both to the conservative museum‑as‑temple and the populist museum‑as‑entertainment” (p. 7). I am not certain if we should introduce such clear‑cut divisions between museum types, and hence pigeonhole both the museums themselves and the exhibitions they produce. Each of these strategies has its justifications, and I see no reason that even all of them could not exist under one roof. As an external observer of the struggle surrounding the new shape of the MNW, I had the impression that the museum‑as‑forum was not meant to reject the traditional role and shape of this museum, but to add a new dimension to it. In practice, the idea of the critical museum took the form of exhibitions called Interventions, Mediators and Art Homo Erotica (described in the book), which showed that not everyone, both inside and outside the museum (Board of Trustees, part of the audience), was ready for a museum (at least one bearing the name “national”) “capable of taking a stance on the key issues in Polish or East European societies, [being] an active actor in a process of developing democracy” (p. 137).
The starting point for the concept of the critical museum formulated by the new management of the MNW was provided by reflections on the very idea of masterpieces, undertaken in the book by Murawska‑Muthesius and starting with a perverse question: “Could an art museum exist without masterpieces?” (p. 100). The answer seems trivial, but museums are the depositories of masterpieces and they also have the creative power here – they can promote some works to the status of masterpiece. When masterpieces are missing, innovative concepts for the museum’s functioning appear.
The other case study of a critical museum in Poland is the discussion of the main exhibition at POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews, its preparation overseen by Professor Barbara Kirshenblatt‑Gimblett. Opened in 2014, it was created in the same period when the MNW was experimenting with the exhibitions mentioned above. POLIN was immediately a stunning success, but there is no lack of critical voices pointing to the overwhelming amount of information on display, difficulties with finding your way and the secondary role of original exhibits. Kirshenblatt‑Gimblett explains the principles on which the exhibition (which she called “theatre of history”, p. 153) was built, recalls the fears of various communities which the museum’s creators encountered in the founding stage, and also relates the exhibition concept to the definition of the critical museum. “We count on visitors to discuss, debate, agree or disagree – and to come away better informed, curious, and hopefully more open” (p. 158).
The book raises various issues related to the critical role of the museum: the captions used, and inviting the audience to share their interpretations (J. Pedro Lorente); barriers to access to museums for minorities (Victoria Walsh); and neuromuseology (John Onians). There are also texts of a historical nature – on the sources of the museum of contemporary art in Russia (Andrzej Turowski), on Jerzy Ludwiński’s idea of a museum of current art (Magdalena Ziółkowska), or on the white cube (Charlotte Klonk). Personally, I especially appreciate the articles presenting a comparative perspective, providing a good counterpoint to case studies. The book contains only one such text – by Mária Oriškova – on the practical approach to museum visitors in three medium‑sized Central European museums: in Graz, Brno and Bratislava.
A great advantage of this book is the intermingling of two perspectives – the Western and Central European one. Of course you can complain that the number of texts is limited, that the Hungarian, Slovenian or Scandinavian perspective might have been introduced, that we could use an overall review rendering the concept of the critical museum in the context of different types of actual museums in all parts of Europe. This is a subject which ­Piotrowski would have been capable of taking up and giving shape to in his next publication. Yet this was the last book he worked on. Just before it was sent to press came the sad news of his death.

Katarzyna Jagodzińska