Lessons Learned: Looking Back at Reinstalled Permanent Collections in the Past Decade
Museums worldwide are experiencing a process of rapid change that reflects their fast-changing environment. Operating in the middle of society, they are acquiring an ever more important social role. After protracted debate, ICOM has finally adopted a new definition of a museum. It states that museums must focus more than ever on fostering a sense of community, accepting their social responsibility, and remaining open to diversity and pluralism. Over the past ten years, since we last met as CODART members in the Rijksmuseum in 2013 to discuss permanent collection installations, many museums, from small to large institutions, have worked on new presentations, frequently while the building was closed altogether. The Royal Museum of Fine Arts in Antwerp (KMSKA) recently reopened to the public with completely new installations. In the Netherlands, museums ranging from the Rembrandt House Museum to Museum De Lakenhal have undergone drastic renovation and reinstallation. Similar processes are underway in numerous other places around the world, such as The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, where the Dutch and Flemish collections were temporarily moved to the Lehman Wing during renovation work, and Museum Hof van Busleyden in Mechelen, where a temporary exhibition on art from Mechelen down the ages was installed in a new wing while the city palace is being renovated. So many other examples come to mind: the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, The Frick Collection in New York, the Museum of Fine Arts (MFA) in Boston, Tate Britain in London, the Amsterdam Museum, and last but not least the Nationalmuseum in Stockholm – where this year’s congress is to be held. Newly designed installations almost always accompany a major operation to renovate and upgrade the building itself, with the permanent collection being relegated to the finishing touch rather than the point of the whole exercise.
What do you tell visitors?
In the case of historical museums and others where the dividing line between art and history is hard to define, presentations age more rapidly. Yet even art museums are not “timeless,” and challenges to the canon lead to changes in the permanent galleries. Museums have adapted their acquisition policies and a new generation of curators is entering the workforce. Diversity and inclusion are topical themes in today’s presentations. We want to show more female artists, and more works that shed light on the history – including the colonial history – of our countries.
Who determines what the permanent installation includes? And who is it for?
The permanent installation used to be the exclusive domain of the curator. Today it is more of a team effort, involving numerous participants – museums will sometimes even engage with communities. This means that the public is involved not just as a target group, but as potential creators. Creating a permanent installation is often a balancing act between curators and educators, directors (who may be newly appointed) who have their own mission, and the public. In some institutions, there is a political dimension, with national government, regional/provincial or municipal authorities actively involved in the stories the museums want to tell. Recent years have seen a development in which the traditional mode of display – that is, an art-historical narrative in an aesthetic arrangement – is subordinated to an inclusive experience. The museum exists by virtue of its collection, but it is no longer acceptable for a museum to say, “We don’t have that, so we can’t say anything about it.” All this increases the importance of storytelling, developed not only by museum curators and educators, but also external advisers. The influence of this latter group – external agencies enlisted to advise museums – is growing, as is the tension between content and design.
Like a temporary exhibition, the permanent installation too is increasingly a means of telling stories. Does that mean that determining content is no longer the curator’s prerogative? And have we ourselves started to change the way we view permanent installations? The public is central to everything we do, but to what extent should the public have a say when it comes to the permanent installation? Can they relate to the works displayed and the accompanying stories? Should objects that are important from an art-historical perspective be left in storage for the sake of the story? At Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, the situation has been completely reversed: all the artworks that usually hang in the galleries are currently displayed in a new storage facility, while the museum is closed for renovation.
What has changed?
Each museum has its own specific context and its own institutional identity: there is no standard situation. Some museums are still quite new. In others, ideas on what constitutes a good installation of the permanent collection have been able to develop organically over several decades, as a work in progress, with certain masterpieces always remaining on view, whatever the space limitations and other constraints the building may have. These lessons learned are valuable and part of an institution’s institutional memory but can potentially lead to stagnation. Certain museums, such as the Rijksmuseum Twenthe in Enschede and the National Maritime Museum in Amsterdam, have abandoned the whole concept of a permanent installation in favor of a more flexible approach. Others, such as M Leuven, have decided on a different approach to the “permanent” presentation, experimenting with changing, transhistorical displays of the collection with a focus on visual literacy and co-creativity. But even “permanent” installations of the collection are less permanent than you would think. Over the years, artworks are gained (as acquisitions or long-term loans) or lost (e.g., the return of looted artworks to the rightful owners). The days in which paintings and objects with nude figures had to be removed from public view may seem like the remote past, but times change rapidly – and so does the curator’s role. What choices does a curator make when presenting Dutch and Flemish art in the permanent exhibition? And in what respects is this art presented differently in museums around the world? Another issue: what do we think about combining paintings, applied arts, and history? What do we want to preserve and what do we want to change? What could we jettison for good? There is a prevailing belief that curators are reluctant to innovate, but that is a complete misconception.
Learning on the job
Designing a museum exhibition, whether temporary or permanent, is a specific skill. Yet curators receive no training for this key part of our profession: we learn it on the job. Only after opening a newly-designed gallery or an entire museum does it really become clear whether the installation works or not – which is more of an intuitive conclusion than anything that can be objectively verified. A permanent installation remains in place for a long time – for several years at least. At CODART 25 we will be reflecting together on museums that have reinstalled their permanent collections in recent years. What proves effective, and what is already in need of change? Where has it become clear that our plans did not work out as expected? This latter point also raises interesting questions about the durability of materials, not to mention the availability of money, knowledge, and people. We will have an open conversation about the choices we make, the dilemmas we face, and the lessons we have learned.