Museums as signs of distinction in the Global era. Considered within their urban environments, British museums of the Victorian period could be seen as assets to the cities in which they were established and erected. They were not solely places where knowledge was collected, stored, studied and exposed to the public for its enlightenment, but they also bore testimony to the power and status of those who funded their creation and the progressive setting up of their collections. Through their existence, high profile figures who had established their status through political or commercial dominance could seek to consolidate their social position through the addition of subsequent cultural capital. Geographical entities were also highly involved in the process, as an individual or a group of individuals would mostly bestow their investment on cities in which they lived and for which they felt a pride of place1. The museums in that respect functioned (amongst other valuable roles) as ornaments and signs of distinction for the city and its inhabitants. At the end of the 20th century, the global scale has progressively been added to the initial local, regional, national, and international scales. How have museums, considered through their role as tools of distinction, been affected by the time-space compression of the global era? Cities have increasingly been competing on an international and now global scale. Furthermore, ideas and strategies of economic development have been shared and exchanged at an increased speed. This is particularly true for world cities such as New-York, London or Paris, but it is also affecting the strategies of cities which have only limited stakes in global networks, be it economical, political, or cultural, and smaller cities which are on the periphery of global networks, yet subject to the diffusion of ideas on a global scale. It is within this enlarged territory that we seek to find the role that museums have played as cultural assets, and the repercussions it might have had on their infrastructure and on their activities. The North of England, a territory which has been a focus of research for the author will be used as a case study. The influence of the global area on museums as signs of distinction for the urban body in which they are based will be analysed through different stages: genesis, location, and programmes. 1. New museums in late 20th century England Cities in the North of England had seen the progressive demise of their traditional industries after the end of the Second World War. During the 1980s, the imposition of a new paradigmatic shift (Heffernan 2000) by the conservative government led by Margaret Thatcher in the United Kingdom brought considerable change to the northern cities. Entrepreneurship, value for money, managerial efficiency and above all adhesion to the free market (at least ideologically; Hewison 1995) formed the frame in which a reconstruction of local economies could take place. Through the use of public-private partnerships, new beginnings were propelled and announced where culture and art would be at the forefront of economic and social reconstruction. Thus, northern cities embraced the path of cultural regeneration. Regeneration in itself implies a ‘regrowth’ of lost or injured tissues, and the reinstatement of a system to its initial condition (Couch 2003). This is a definition used in biology which applies to urban regeneration. Interestingly, cultural generation can be seen mostly as a branch of urban regeneration. It is thus mainly embedded within the aims of the latter: to renew economic activity where it has been lost, social functions where there is dysfunction, environmental welfare where it has been lost (ibid). Consequently, it is important to note that if urban regeneration is concerned with the renaissance of the city, and its
We are refering intitially to the idea of distinction as exemplified, analysed, and thought by French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu.
different parts, cultural regeneration is not solely the regeneration of culture (if it is at all), but the renaissance of culture for the city. There is an immediate instrumental relation implied in the cultural regeneration process, in which museums are highly involved. Several new museums and art spaces appeared in the North of England within this regenerative frame: the Tate Liverpool (1988), the Cornerhouse (1984), and Urbis in Manchester (2003), the Imperial War Museum in Salford, FACT (Foundation for Art and Creative Technology 2003) and the International Slavery Museum in Liverpool (2007), the National centre for popular Music in Sheffield (1999), the National Glass Centre in Sunderland (1998), the Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art in Gateshead (2002), or Middlesbrough Institute of Modern Art (MIMA 2005) These institutions have different aims and functions, but they belong to regeneration strategies mixing in various proportions local, regional, and national incentives. In each case we can observe that they are an addition to the cultural infrastructure already in place in a given city. This addition can be seen on a regional or national level: these are new museums to enhance the profile of cities mostly in competition with regional neighbours; museums to help the transition from a secondary to a tertiary based economy, and attract businesses and their qualified workers to a culturally rich place rather than another. But this investment on the behalf of local authorities in museums and adornments to their cultural capital can also be read on a global grid. ‘Cultural regeneration’ is in itself a global idea, or an idea which has reached a global field of influence, which has been hailed as an efficient strategy for economic purposes (Myerscough 1988, Florida 2005, or even Roodhouse 2006). Furthermore, museums involved in the phenomenon are not solely targeting a local population, but also aiming to attract global tourism even when their city’s inclusion within global networks is limited. From their inception, these museums illustrate the concept of interconnection associated with globalisation. They are intended to function for the benefit of a local urban scale, which also has repercussions on a regional or national scale, and might be an asset for the city in terms of global tourism connected to the global economy and culture. 2. Location, homogenisation and heterogenisation The addition and implementation of museums in cities in the late 20th century has been a wide ranging phenomenon. It mirrors efforts made by leading cities to retain their cultural edge through the possession of world class collections and the adequate spaces to house them as well as major itinerary shows. Museums often strike a balance in between two opposite directions: homogenisation, and heterogenisation. Globalisation is generally seen as a phenomenon which tends to make things (objects, ideas, societies) more alike. It progressively homogenises the world. Barbara Czarniawska made an interesting point regarding the latest developments in crime stories which is of some pertinence to museum’s developments (Czarniawska 2002). She pointed out that the latest trend in crime stories was to adopt highly typical regional characters and regions as protagonists and settings, in which the crime narrative takes place: Kurt Wallander is the Swedish hero of Henning Menkell, Rebus the implacable Edinburgh cop of Ian Rankin, Aurelio Zen the slightly comical Venetian invention of Michael Dibdin, and Andrea Camillieri’s Sicilian gourmet inspector Montalbano is himself a reference to the Spanish crime writer Manuel Vasquez Montalban and his own creation, Pepe Carvahlo, rooted in Barcelona. The successful genre of the highly localised detective, bringing a bouquet of regional particularities to the reader, is an example of an idea turning global, though simultaneously bringing or favouring heterogeneity to the world. The question remains whether the genre (or in terms of ideas the investment in specificity) really favours a multiplication of specific unique artefacts, or merely sets the evolution on two lines
which come ever closer the one to the other – as they adopt identical patterns – though they are destined never to touch as they spiral in infinite variations within the adopted pattern. Similar interrogations could be made regarding the latest developments in the creation and orientation of museums. The link to their specific environment has often materialised in a remarkable insistence on their capacity to embody a local ‘sense of place’. This can be attained through architectural devices. The Tate Liverpool, or the Baltic are good examples of this, as well as the Tate Modern in London, in that they are housed in relatively ancient, historic, and eventually iconic buildings. The building connects the museum to the identity of the city. It serves as a place to be consumed (Miles 2004), but also as a symbol of its specificity and its singular historic characteristics (even though these might well be erased in this process of reconstruction). This can also be apparent in the thematic choice of the museum, such as the ephemeral National Centre for Popular Music which tried to invest in an available niche, while referring to Sheffield’s own local popular music tradition (such as Cabaret Voltaire, or Autechre). In the end, these museums are investing in the local as an asset for national and international purposes. Their investment in differentiation belongs to the same pattern. Specificity and heterogeneity is commanded by the same overarching concept, which is implemented through well-defined and polished global marketing and managerial methods. Thus the museum dedicated to uniqueness finds itself within the web of standardisation on a global scale.
3. Programmes and international networks. The content of museums’ programmes also appears to be increasingly embedded in the global sphere. There are certainly different layers of involvement in global networks. Major museums in major cities are much more intertwined in global connections than museums in the provinces. Museums like the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris, the Tate in London or the Museum of Modern Art in New-York, present a continuous flow of ambitious art exhibitions. The programme springs from these museums’ own vast collections, but is also facilitated by the first-rate exchange network which connects them the one with the other, bringing major shows from one museum to the other. These major exhibitions are themselves a good example of global culture as unique gatherings travel to distant lands enabling previously separate worlds to be in contact with similar artefacts and ideas. What of the museums in the North of England with regard to exhibitions and public? Are they also influenced or seized by global networks in that respect? The new layer of museums which has appeared at the end of the 20th century is not as bound as its predecessors were within regional territories. Their intentions which are reflected in their programme very often contain international claims. FACT in Liverpool aims to be a place where the best of artistic creation using new media technology in the world can be seen. Urbis in Manchester aims to enunciate a discourse through exhibitions which will be of significance to the world wide experience of the individual living in the postmodern city. The Baltic in Gateshead is paradigmatic in many ways. Created by the will of the local council with the help of the regional arts board and the money of the state (lottery money), it stands as an exceptional sign of audacity and reinvention on the border of a city once famously qualified as a ‘dingy dormitory’. Its first director, Sune Nordgren, accentuated the aim of the institution not to be seen as a lesser copy of London’s art spaces. It looked for artists and collaborations more in the North and the Baltic states, rather than in the South of England. Its programme, like Fact, like the Cornerhouse or Urbis, and up to some extent to that of the temporary programmes of the Tate Liverpool and the Victorian galleries, presents artists who work in an international network, that is the nomadic global network of contemporary art.
One could also reflect on the expansion of contemporary art activities in relation to globalisation, as museums have found themselves in a position and awareness enabling them to invest in the latest artistic developments (the presence of international contemporary art in the programme of municipal galleries is largely a consequence of the development of global information networks). It doesn’t mean that museums in regional cities do not think of their relevance to the local public, or to the local artists (though these two relations are clearly the source of subsequent problems). But they do position themselves through their curating process (and the employment of international curators) and their outward looking programmes, as operating within a global field of pertinence, involving producers on a global scale, and even to a lesser extent a global public. In doing so, they mirror the increased information capacities of the global age, but also the ambitions of the urban entity to which they belong, and for which they have updated the means of distinction to the requirements of the present days. The melange of global and local concerns as well as different geographical levels of activity which has been named ‘glocalisation’ applies aptly to museums (Czarniawka 2002). This capacity of distinction provided by the museum which benefits to its urban recipient is most visible in the large museums’ policy of creating branches, such as the Tate Liverpool, the first of the genre, and now the various Guggenheims or the Louvre in Abu Dabi. These are adjunctions to a specific location and will serve its prestige through their deterritorialised exhibitions and involvement in global artistic networks, while adapting to the specificity of the place of settlement: the Tate Liverpool pays some attention to the artistic past of the city (as for instance with the recent exhibition ‘Centre of the creative universe; Liverpool and the avant-garde’, while the Guggenheim in Abu Dabi is to have a programme of contemporary non western art). Deterritorialised capacities and global networks mingle with a geographical interconnection layered in various scales: global, national, regional, local. Museums can be seen as signs of distinction for the cities to which they belong, as they transcribe their power and wealth into cultural capital, or indeed when cultural goods are their main or only strength. In western societies, deindustrialisation has been paralleled by the apparition of new strategies which have invested in the tertiary sector. Services and the tourism industry have been deemed a viable path, as we have briefly encountered in the North of England, where like in other highly industrialised regions, a reconstruction of local cities imagery has taken place. While looking outwards towards global circulation networks (of ideas, objects and individuals), museums have been pulled within local specific identities. Their local specificity is an asset in the global world, which then connects places which have been able to distinguish themselves from their neighbours on the basis of their singularity (singularities which then mirror one another). Within the global network, museums strike a balance between the necessity of keeping a connection to their specific location (both an asset on the global scale, and a practical necessity as they serve as parts of a larger body which is the city), and keeping track of the global evolutions in the trade they are in (art, design, culture, science…), and for which they have to reflect the latest trends if they are to remain at the cutting edge in the race to distinction.
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