Museums at a Crossroads

Published June 30, 2021


by Zainub Verjee, Executive Director

Canadian museums, caught between the pandemic and a conundrum about their role in a changing society, are in crisis. The fact they are functioning with an outdated policy framework from the 1970s only accentuates the problem.

This article first appeared in Galleries West, May 2021

Pablo Rodriguez
Pablo Rodriguez

Pablo Rodriguez

In 2019, Pablo Rodriguez, then the Minister of Canadian Heritage and Multiculturalism, accepted the recommendations of a milestone report from the House of Commons standing committee on Canadian heritage. Titled Moving Forward – Towards a Stronger Canadian Museum Sector, the report, based on testimony from 44 witnesses, was the first comprehensive review of museums policy since 1972, apart from a minor tweak in the 1990s.  

Two years later, amidst the ongoing pandemic, the cultural landscape has changed dramatically. The fear and panic in the visual arts sector is palpable. Federal COVID-19 support programs and subsequent provincial interventions have exposed fault lines that have developed over the last three decades, as museums and public art galleries were forced to adapt to the box-office business model common in the performing arts sector when governments delayed significant new investment. This false homogenization of business models between these two sectors is now being replayed through a framework for pandemic relief that poorly serves the visual arts.  

The reality is that the political economy of the arts and culture sector has been critically altered. Theres no going back. Rather, expect an extended present.

The current situation echoes the endemic fiscal problems that faced municipal art galleries before the pandemic. In Ontario, for example, a provincial decision to download additional fiscal responsibilities for public health onto local governments leaves culture vulnerable to the chopping block when municipalities attempt to manage their budgets. 

Yet, during the pandemic we have heard repeatedly – especially from political leaders – about the importance of art and culture. How can we miss the irony here?

The reality is that the political economy of the arts and culture sector has been critically altered. There’s no going back. Rather, expect an extended present. Any suggestion of a “new normal” is yet another corporate act to create business opportunities for profit.

It’s in this context that I suggest we revisit the Moving Forward report. No longer can it be a premise for a new national museums policy – we need to incorporate the changed landscape of the pandemic, which, among other things, has made the sector’s digital challenges even more pressing.

Upgrading Digital Infrastructure

We all understand the public rhetoric of going digital. With millions of people constituting Gen Z (those born between 1995 and 2010), priorities in the cultural sector are already shifting from the millennials. Digital technology is the idiom of Gen Z, not just for survival, but to flourish and seek their truth. 

With less than two per cent of collections currently digitized in Canadian museums, it’s imperative to go well beyond Moving Forward’s recommendation that Ottawa provide “additional funding to modernize the storage and cataloguing of collections” and instead radically upgrade capacity and digital infrastructure. Expand

Galleries Ontario was awarded $250,000 from the Department of Canadian Heritage for its project, Data-Shy to Data-Driven, which will help public art galleries make better use of digital data. (Courtesy Galeries Ontario/Ontario Galleries)
Galeries Ontario / Ontario Galleries was awarded $250,000 from the Department of Canadian Heritage for its project, Data-Shy to Data-Driven, which will help public art galleries make better use of digital data. (Courtesy Galeries Ontario/Ontario Galleries)

In the clamour of pivoting to digital during the pandemic, the true costs, challenges and institutional incapacities have become obvious. Indeed, the urgent need for a dedicated emergency digital fund has been echoed many times over the last year. 

Many cultural spaces – there are some 2,600 museums, public art galleries and related heritage institutions across Canada – do not have a digital strategy. Efforts to fill this critical gap are underway through a two-year national project organized by Galeries Ontario/Ontario Galleries, the voice of public art galleries. That project, Data-Shy to Data-Driven, aims to help museums use digital technology more effectively in their operations and programs.

Confronting Identity Issues

As if revisiting the Moving Forward report is not enough, by next year the sector will also have to confront a fundamental identity issue – the very definition of what a museum is. A global discussion is underway involving members of the International Council of Museums, an international organization of museums and museum professionals that has formal relations with UNESCO and chapters in member countries, including Canada.

Currently, Canada conforms to the international definition agreed to in 2007: “A museum is a non-profit, permanent institution in the service of society and its development, open to the public, which acquires, conserves, researches, communicates and exhibits the tangible and intangible heritage of humanity and its environment for the purposes of education, study and enjoyment.” 

A new national museums policy could catapult Canadian institutions into a future-ready scenario where issues of public health, climate change and racial equality are front and centre. 

Of course, museums and art galleries are not homogenous and vary in mandate, scale and audience. The existing definition carries forward 20th-century ideas, so in 2016, the international council set up a committee to examine whether the definition should reflect recent societal changes.

The subsequent proposal for a new 99-word definition became a bone for contention. It reads in part: “Museums are democratizing, inclusive and polyphonic spaces for critical dialogue about the pasts and futures … to contribute to human dignity and social justice, global equality and planetary well-being.” 

This new wording would raise the stakes for museums to confront the changed landscapes in which they operate, especially the challenges of working with and for diverse communities. 

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What’s the big deal about the international definition? It’s the spine that defines the statue – it helps guide public policy around the globe and has been adopted in national legislation that governs museums, including those in Canada.

As institutions grapple with their role in a changing world, the Canadian arm of the international council made its position clear before the organization’s Kyoto conference in 2019 by calling for a decision to be postponed. Still, debate has continued, pitting reformers against conservatives, and the issue will again be a focus at the next conference in Prague in 2022.

Old Movements, New Realities

The furor over the definition is not about getting entangled in tautological experiments. I recollect when ideas of new museology and ecomuseums were in the foreground in the heady period of the ’70s and ’80s, which saw the transition of traditional museology to social and political domains. Inherent in this movement was the social function of the museum and the global character of its interventions. 

Canada was at the centre of the new museology movement via the 1984 Declaration of Quebec, which reaffirmed “the social mission of the museum as a new point of departure and the primacy of this function over the traditional museum functions: conservation, buildings, objects and the public.” The origins of the Quebec declaration were in a 1972 meeting in Chile organized by the international council. The significant Latin American museology movement highlighted the notion of the “integral museum” in discussions about the future of Latin America society. With the support of 15 countries, a resolution called for an international federation for new museology, with provisional headquarters in Canada. 

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Unfortunately, the new museology movement was appropriated by the 1989 publication of The New Museology, edited by Peter Vergo, an expert on German and Austrian art. With that began the slippery slope, as the neoliberal West became the role model and centre stage for all values. Even now, the relationship between decolonization and museums is not fully conceptualized. The effect has been to erase the rest of the world, whether one is looking at the Latin American museological movement or the counter-history of museums in the global south, best illustrated by an immersive study of the Lahore Museum in Pakistan by Shaila Bhatti, a scholar based in Britain. 

To understand the trajectory from 1989 to today, I invite you to read The Cultural Logic of the Late Capitalist Museum, a now-classic 1990 essay in which American scholar Rosalind Krauss argues pessimistically that proximity to big business propelled the scale and spectacular proliferation of contemporary art museums into their current incarnation as box-office entities of populist entertainment.

The main question now is not what a post-COVID museum or gallery would look like, but how a new national museums policy could catapult Canadian institutions into a future-ready scenario where issues of public health, climate change, pluralism and racial equality are front and centre. 

Shaheen Merali (photo by Peter Putz)
Shaheen Merali (photo by Peter Putz)

As Shaheen Merali, a London-based curator and writer, put it poignantly in his reflective keynote last fall at an international conversation organized by Galeries Ontario/Ontario Galleries in collaboration with the New York-based Association of Art Museum Curators: “In these uncertain times, are we all in search of critical corrections or, if not, should we be?” Let’s hope that on May 18, the theme of International Museum Day – “the future of museums: recover and reimagine” – offers some clarity.

Here in Canada, rather than a policy of remnants, it would be good to see a policy that emerges from a fresh look at the circumstances in which museums and art galleries find themselves. Beyond the clamour to define meaning, we need a national policy that offers a way out of the ongoing crisis facing cultural institutions. ■