The Museum as a Target for Change
In recent years, it has not gone unnoticed that museums have been the targets of protests, demands, and grievances concerning the ways they are governed. Especially in the Global North, numerous initiatives have drawn public attention to museums in inventive and unexpected ways. Often, protesters have used the museums’ architectural spaces, such as a grand entrance hall, as the focal points for their protests. They do this to get their message out. The protests are staged through carefully thought-out photo shoots that then spread and circulate their statement through social media and the press, and thereby attract more public attention, and prompt action.
Decolonize This Place deployed the above-mentioned strategy at the Brooklyn Museum, displaying banners with inscriptions such as “They Want the Art, Not the People” and “Decolonize This Place” in the entrance hall of the Beaux-Arts Court during the protest that took place on April 29, 2018. This protest was held to draw attention to issues related to gentrification and diversity. Another example is the protest initiated by artist and former opioid addict Nan Goldin, who held one of several campaigns in the rotunda of the Guggenheim Museum building in New York, and targeted the influential Sackler family. The Sackler family made their fortune by marketing an opioid-based pain medication, one side-effect of which is addiction. Many in the Sackler family are board members of numerous cultural institutions around the United States. During the protest, small white flyers with prescriptions written on them swirled down from the top of the rotunda, to land on the floor of the lobby amid empty orange medicine bottles labeled “Side effect: Death,” and people lay on the floor in a die-in protest. Also worth mentioning is Liberate Tate, which, after five years of campaigning, succeeded in pressuring the Tate museum to end its sponsorship agreement with oil company British Petroleum. One of the protests included a reanimation of Kazimir Malevich’s Black Square as a performative intervention in the Turbine Hall during a blockbuster exhibition of the artist’s work, noting the oil industry’s damage to ecosystems, communities and the climate.
Acts such as those just described use the museums’ authority as gatekeepers and sanctifiers of cultural values against them, to criticize the apparatus of the institution itself, meaning that the institution’s prestige has proven useful for leveraging visibility, publicity, and pressure to spark political aims and movements. This has been done by combining artistic strategies and activism, strategies that are inspired by the artistic tradition of criticizing institutions, where artists use their work to question the art institutions’ ethical and structural stances. Guerrilla Girls, Hans Haacke, Mierle Laderman Ukeles, and Michael Ascher, to mention just a few, are artists working in this tradition.
External cultural workers are not the only ones to take on the task of solving the problems presented by museums. It is time that the museums, as producers of cultural meaning, start to assume responsibility for the changes taking place and their role in today’s planetary culture. As museums have been the representatives of the dominant culture, it is time for them to come out of what may be seen as an illusion in present times and find a tenable position that acknowledges the necessity of diversity in society.
Museums as Conflict Zones
With reference to the chapter “Museums as Contact Zones” in History of Consciousness scholar James Clifford’s book from 1993, Routes, I borrow the construct of museums as contact zones for the title of this text, but add “conflict,” as I think we need to realize that conflict is inherited with the very idea of the museum, and therefore should be acknowledged and articulated.
In Routes, Clifford explains how he sees the museum as a manifold place for various groups to meet, with different purposes, around the artifacts: “Then the contact zone becomes the space of colonial encounters, the space in which peoples geographically and historically separated come into contact with each other and establish ongoing relations, usually involving conditions of coercion, radical inequality, and intractable conflict.” He quotes literary scholar Mary Louise Pratt, who originally coined the expression of “Contact Zones” in her critical research on imperial literature. The “contact” is to be understood as the way in which subjects are constituted in and by their relations to each other. Clifford writes that when museums are seen as contact zones, their collections established an ongoing historical, political and moral relationship—a power-charged set of exchanges, of push and pull. To aim for “contact” is the civilized and rational way to go about the interaction happening in the zones, but this may not always seem reasonable to the various participants. Emphasizing the “contact zone” as the core term seems to eliminate the inequality of the constitution of the museum from the outset (although it is acknowledged in the foregoing quote) and underestimate the conflicted situation. The museums’ authority as sanctifiers of the cultural value of imperialism is what keeps museums from becoming egalitarian contact zones. Sometimes, the meeting place is not right from the beginning.
This is because the museum originates in a Western idea and tradition of explaining itself . The collection is like an assembly, a place that encircle its culture, and the museum takes on a conflict that is inscribed in the very constitution of the museum. The Western museum comes from the imperialist tradition with one hegemonic position, and meaning-making that embeds the rest of the world, either as becoming part of the reason-making, or becoming “the other,” something to study, to look at, to be fascinated or repelled by. Or to be less polemical, many ethical questions arise with the museum, which concern collection practices as well as more current discussions of the reciprocity of cultural heritage in the collection, and raise further questions, such as, “Who has been excluded from the history that has been told so far, or been regarded as ‘other,’ in order to encircle the culture of Western history?” How do we tell different stories, and how do we relate to the objects according to our backgrounds as visitors, curators, mediators, researchers, and so forth, and how do we articulate and translate the artworks in a collection for relevant and present-day concerns? Or, put directly, how do we decolonize our museums? How do we radically transform them from within?
The foregoing thoughts are not new: some have been thoroughly analyzed by art historians under what has been called “The New Museology.” Here, the idea of the modern museum defined by Enlightenment conceptions of knowledge have served to historically affirm Western cultural hegemony. However, if we acknowledge these as the museum’s inherited terms, it could become a space for highly relevant discussions about our times, and thereby contain the conflicts embedded in the museum, such as dominance-awareness in contrast to alterity and differences, acquisition and reciprocity politics, as well as handing down knowledge through the generations, but questioning whose story is to be told, whether it is relevant to tell it now, how it is told and by whom. By this, I mean that if the museum dared to address some of these conflicts differently, started to take on the awareness of representing a highly hegemonic power, and began to question some of the assumptions that go with this position, it could gain an integrated and meaningful position in society. One place to start could be exhibition-making.
The Museum as a Keeper of Cultural Identity and Beholder of History
The museum as a space for the collective memory of a common culture is in crisis. Instead of playing an active role, encouraging the public to understand the complexity of the present world and to acknowledge the significance of memory of the past for the development of a society that is transnational and diverse, the museum has developed into a space for entertainment.
The museum has lost ground to other institutions such as the biennial, and in the European tradition, the kunsthalle. The biennial and the kunsthalle are known for focusing on the contemporary and “the new,” but in recent years some of these institutions have gone beyond that, and have become spaces that address current contested discussions of historical issues, to foster an understanding of the current situation.
What is it that makes the museum worth holding onto as a place for collective memory, rather than letting it become a showcase for the spectacular, as it seems to be so successfully becoming? The museum can play a significant role as a place for a shared and diverse history that dares to create meaning, and not just reproduce popular discourses. The museum that is based on a local community is likely to have a collection rooted in a modernity constructed on a national ideology positioned in a colonial and imperial history that is up for discussion. It is necessary to come to terms with the shift that has taken place, and that means that national history is not sufficient, and that global/local and transnational history are concerns when it comes to relating to a heterogeneous history and to emphasizing differences and similarities in our present, referencing a history that is less repressive and more inclusive, which, one hopes, can make us more competent to meet the challenges of the future.
In the museum, the historical objects (artworks and artifacts) on display are witnesses of the past, and give the public access to a collective memory that is interpreted from a contemporary perspective. The objects tell a staged history, and the world inside the exhibition is laid out in its totality. This is done through research and knowledge-sharing, and the history is one that, depending on the perspectives assumed by the institution (curators and mediators) in their meaning-making, will have various points of departure and take different routes—and, always worth considering—could have taken others. In each exhibition, there is an experiment involving various modes of meaning-making. Curator Anselm Franke describes the exhibition as an ontology. It explores the threshold between consciousness and form. The exhibition presents an idea of what the world is like, it can challenge our images of the world, and it can make other worlds possible, which also means that other interpretations of the past can take shape.
The history of Western philosophy has a tradition of being self-critical. By self-critical, I mean the ability to question and be reflexive about one’s own discipline. This tradition started with the philosopher Immanuel Kant, who was the first to criticize the means of criticism. Imagine if the museum assumed that position, and started questioning the history it has been narrating. As political scientist Chantal Mouffe states, “Instead of deserting public institutions, we must find ways to use them to foster political forms of identification and make existing conflicts productive. By staging a confrontation between conflicting positions, museums and art institutions could make a decisive contribution to the proliferation of new public spaces open to agonistic forms of participation where radical democratic alternatives to neoliberalism could, once again, be imagined and cultivated.” What I would like to emphasize in the quote is the possibility of rethinking and reorganizing the institutions to make them productive when confronted with conflicted positions, to make the institutions open to agonistic forms, where various voices that may not agree and correspond, but express various aspects of history, may be heard. In the next section, I look at what I consider a successful example of how a museum can work with its exhibition-making, leading to radical transformations from within.
Sámi Dáiddamusea—Occupation from Within
In the early Spring of 2017, the Nordnorsk Kunstmuseum in Tromsø, Norway, closed to provide a temporary space for a new museum, Sámi Dáiddamusea (the Sami Art Museum), in a collaboration with local partner RiddoDuottarMuseat, a cultural history museum of Sami culture and an open-air museum. Prior to this new institution, Nordnorsk Kunstmuseum relied mainly on a national collection, with loans from the National Gallery of Oslo. On the other hand, RiddoDuottarMuseat holds the world’s largest collection of Sami art and design, but has very little space, close to none in which to display this collection. Nordnorsk Kunstmuseum hosted a very small part of the collection under the temporary directorship of Sami performance artist Marita Isobel Solberg. The collaborators called it a “museum performance,” thereby directing attention to the museum’s capacity to respond to an immediate concern. The name also indicates how they were able to experiment with their own constitution, and from a self-critical position, by making the museum a performer. Situated at the northernmost tip of Norway, quite far from any major city, the collaborators emphasized a powerful communication and design strategy to attract attention. The museum announced its opening through an emotion-charged press release with the opening lines: “Finally, Sápmi, Norway and the world has a museum dedicated to Sami art! After almost 40 years of activism, acquisition, negotiation, lobbyism and stubbornness, the world of art enters a new era. A big day for Sápmi. A big day for Norway. A big day for the world.”
The museum performance was held for two months, with an exhibition that presented some of the collection and represented the work of sixty artists, but also drew attention to the long struggle to establish a museum for the collection as the press release text stated. The collaborators called the exhibition, There is No, an ambiguous title with several meanings: one was that there is no Sami Dáiddamusea. Despite the attention drawn to the need for a museum to host this collection, there was still no permanent institution to present the Sami art collection. The title also referred to a long discussion surrounding the hierarchy of art. One of the repeating aspects of colonialism and the dismissal of indigenous or non-Western people has been the reiterated claim that these cultures are without art, and have different relationships to art objects, for example, regarding them as crafts or as relics. This self-affirmation signaled a rejection of the standard fine art category of reception and understanding. So, by playing on this colonial legacy, the collaborators reclaimed the opportunity to invent a way to reframe the collection, simply by making their communication strategy a set of statements, which went like this: “There is no set of rules for Sámi art. There is no fixed definition of Sámi art. There are no limitations on Sámi artists.” By resisting the implicit power structures’ ways of defining the status of art, the newly acclaimed institution was able to define the collection in a way they found accurate.
A similar method of reframing the collection may be addressed by what art history professor Jennifer A. Gonzalez calls “rhetorical topoanalysis,” a term she uses for the institutional critique artist Fred Wilson’s method, which she coined for her analysis of his 1992 exhibition, Mining the Museum, at the Maryland Historical Society in Baltimore. As Gonzalez describes it, “The rhetorical topoanalysis is to be understood as every buried secret and every surface becomes part of a new logic that maps the institution’s history.” By inserting a few items into a commonly known display structure, a well-known history is turned around, and what were previously accepted as the traditional hierarchy and inscribed truth when recounting local history are no longer taken for granted. For instance, a pair of slave shackles was placed in a display of silver goblets entitled “Metalwork 1793–1880,” and in a section called “Cabinet making 1820–1960,” a group of finely crafted nineteenth-century chairs was arranged like an intimate concert around a wooden whipping post. The solid cruciform whipping post became emblematic of violent punishment, of abjection in the face of power and privilege. By making unexpected connections, by simply bringing together surprising objects, some of the overlooked, suppressed, and invisible histories of slavery and racism are suddenly revealed, and tell a different history. Gonzalez points out that, “What emerged from these historically researched and carefully juxtaposed displays was the overwhelming sense of the complex ideological intersection of power and violence with high culture and the fine arts allowed for, and depended upon, a slave economy to survive.”
This method resembles the way in which the Sami Dáiddamusea was carried out. Here, the “rhetoric of the topoanalysis” was applied to the joint mission to create awareness of an underestimated art tradition in the local area, and of the typical museum communication strategies. It was a method for remediating the neglect of a specific local position and identity, and for actualizing some of the discussions that emerged over the years in Sami culture. By using the known formats of what is expected when communicating and displaying a traditional exhibition, and then inserting elements that confuse the expected message, a different story is revealed, a story that brings out many current questions concerning how the museum has persistently expressed ideologies that now are up for debate. So, by using the customs of how to communicate exhibitions in the museum—only this time for the temporal museum performance—a different inscribed truth but possible future was laid out.
From Tokenism to Actual Change
The example of the Sami Dáiddamusea shows that change can come from within. Museum director Jérémie McGowan states, “So, all the critique that the project launched was, of course, very crucially, also directed at ourselves, at Nordnorsk Kunstmuseum and our legacy/history/practice (which stretches back to 1985). As a director, it also had the feeling that small, steady changes were simply not enough—there was a very real need for total and comprehensive upheaval, to avoid ‘tokenism,’ for example. To mean business—not talking, but action.” This was not accomplished with a single exhibition, but continued at Nordnorsk Kunstmuseum in the extended aftermath, after the museum performance. That was only the first step. The museum is slowly but steadily changing its collecting activities, focusing on issues such as how to balance things, by always exhibiting with a local and global awareness in order to nourish the differences and multiplicities of voices, new acquisitions, classification of the artworks, and, it is hoped, changing the collection’s mandate to include Sámi art.
At this time, many cultural workers, activists, scholars and knowledge-producers present examples of how to decolonize institutions that are based on European imperialism. There are many suggestions. One to follow could be reparation as a practice, as suggested by artist Kader Attia, and followed up by modern culture and media theorist Ariella Aïsha Azoulay. The idea of reparation relates not only to recapturing a previous state, but also to the process of making new again. It does not remove the scars, but makes them appear and thereby acknowledges them. This brings a certain agency with it. Azoulay proposes combining reparation with the practice of potential history, which is also the title of her recent book, as another way to understand our institutions and work with them. She suggests that the way we use the imperial institutions, such as archives, museums and libraries, should be by withdrawing from them and finding other ways than the commonly known ways of reproducing the technology of knowledge production. This could be done by not always seeking out the new, insisting on progress, and positioning violence safely in the past. Instead, we should withdraw by un-expropriating and unlearning. One example of this practice that Azoulay presents is Tamara Lanier’s lawsuit against Harvard University, concerning its rights to daguerreotypes of Lanier family members, who were former slaves. Those daguerreotypes have been archived, deposited, and distributed in the name of science, which means that these portraits have been made publicly accessible without the family’s permission. Azoulay calls for the right to repair and care for relationships outside the terms set by imperialist institutions, and the right to deny perpetrators and their descendants the imperialist right to continue to own and profit from what was once taken without consent.
It is to be hoped that over time, there will be more and more examples of ways to withdraw from the known museum models. This requires changes in how to articulate and present the activities taking place in the museums, but this can happen only by experimenting, envisaging, and rehearsing other practices. The conflict zones need to be taken out into the open, and not exonerated by doing business as usual. As Chantal Mouffe suggests in the statement above, let’s make the existing conflicts productive.
Johanne Løgstrup is a curator and a PhD student at Department of Aesthetics and Culture at the University of Aarhus, Denmark where she is part of the research project The Contemporary Condition (2015-2021). Her research focus is on the possibilities of curating in light of a discourse of contemporaneity within art museums today. The project analyzes how various international museums have responded to a global historical present within their collection exhibition and explores through practice how it is possible from a curatorial approach to introduce an unsettled past into art museums. Recently she has published “Noone Creates Alone: Past and Present in a Common Reading of Artist Sonja Ferlov Mancoba” with artists Pia Rönicke and Yvette Brackman in Modern Women Artists in the Nordic Countries, 1900-1960, Routledge (2021); and Co-existence of Times—A Conversation with John Akomfrah, The Contemporary Condition, Sternberg Press (2020). Løgstrup has been the co-coordinator and teacher at the newly established MA in Curating at Aarhus University, where she has been teaching curating theory and practice. Previously, she worked for several years as an independent curator and she ran the art project space bureau public (2012-2014) together with Katarina Stenbeck in Copenhagen. Among many exhibitions, she curated Museet er Lukket (The Museum is Closed) in 2015 and Vertigo Sea by John Akomfrah with the additional discursive program Unfinished Histories in 2016, both at Nikolaj Kunsthal in Copenhagen.
 For further reading about these protests, see Artforum News, “Decolonize this place, activists occupy the Brooklyn Museum”, Artforum, April 30, 2018, https://www.artforum.com/news/decolonize-this-place-activists-occupy-the-brooklyn-museum-75238; Masha Gessen, “Nan Goldin Leads a Protest at the Guggenheim against the Sackler Family,” The New Yorker, February 10, 2019, https://www.newyorker.com/news/our-columnists/nan-goldin-leads-a-protest-at-the-guggenheim-against-the-sackler-family; and MTL Collective, “From Institutional Critique to Institutional Liberation? A Decolonial Perspective on the Crises of Contemporary Art,” October 165 (summer 2018).
 I am drawing on the article, “From Institutional Critique to Institutional Liberation? A Decolonial Perspective on the Crises of Contemporary Art” by MTL Collective. In this article, they present many examples of the intensive politicization of the art system in recent years, especially in the United States. Of similar acts in the Nordic countries, and specifically Denmark, where I am based, it is worth mentioning I Am Queen Mary, by artists Jeannette Ehlers and La Vaughn Belle. The two artists produced a sculpture of the leader of the slave revolt at St. Croix (previously a Danish colony), and placed it in front of the Danish West Indian Warehouse at Copenhagen harbor in 2017, the centenary of Denmark’s sale of the Virgin Islands to United States. For more information, see https://www.iamqueenmary.com.
Also worth mentioning is a workshop by Nuuk Art museums director Nivi Katrine Christensen, together with ULK (The Youth Laboratory of Art) at the National Gallery in Denmark, on June 21, 2019. In the workshop, which was held in the museum’s galleries, they questioned the omitted part of Greenland’s history as a former Danish colony, and by extension, the relationship between Denmark and Greenland. Members of ULK hung a banner next to the information sign for the collection of Danish and Nordic art, which read, “Minus Greenland.” See: https://www.facebook.com/ulksmk/?eid=ARC71WqByhL7WOqYZM1KPk9cB79XRTZjz5c-LnqqAFa2vLBEmQ_R-hNQuNHVEN9WdhZweuKUPhWWiJA4.
 This criticism of external cultural workers providing a critical perspective is not new, and was discussed by art historian Miwon Kwon in One Place after Another (2004), where she questions Fred Wilson’s intervention in institutions as an easy and light way of being critical. She calls this institutional practice “commissioned critique,” p. 47. For a more recent analysis of a similar situation, see Anna Vestergaard Jørgensen, Please do it for me! Affective Labour in (De)colonial Exhibitions (forthcoming).
 James Clifford, “Museums as Contact Zones,” in Routes, p. 192. Clifford quotes Mary Louise Pratt’s work on travel literature, Imperial Eyes: Travel Writing and Transculturation. In Pratt’s article, “Arts of the Contact Zone,” she describes in greater depth her use of the “contact zone,” and she is also clearly concerned about asymmetrical power relationships. It is worth mentioning that Pratt analyzes historical literary material, whereas Clifford considers how museums currently address colonial encounters.
 See Nora Sternfeld, “Deprovincializing the Museum: What would a museum be if not a Western concept,” in Body Luggage: Migration of Gestures, ed. Zasha Colah (Berlin: Archive Books, 2016), 158–161; Walter Mignolo, “Museums in the Colonial Horizon of Modernity: Fred Wilson’s Mining the Museum (1992),” in Fred Wilson: A Critical Reader, ed. Doro Globus (London: Ridinghouse, 2011), 374–390.
 See Griselda Pollock, “Un-framing the Modern: Critical Space/Public Possibility,” in Griselda Pollock & Joyce Zemans (eds.), Museums after Modernism: Strategies of Engagement, (Malden, MA, Oxford: Blackwel, 2007), Tony Bennett, “The Exhibitionary Complex” in Reesa Greenberg, Bruce W. Ferguson & Sandy Nairne (eds.), Thinking About Exhibitions, (London: Routhledge, 1996) 81-112 and Carol Duncan, “Art Museums and the Ritual of Citizenship” in Ivan Karp & Steven D. Lavine (eds.), Exhibiting Cultures: The Poetics and Politics of Museum Display, (Washington: Smithsonian Institution, 1991) 88-103.
 See Rosalind Krauss, “The Cultural Logic of the Late Capitalist Museum,” October 54 (Autumn 1990); Piotr Piotrowski, “Museum: From Critique of Institution to a Critical Institution,” in (Re)Staging the Art Museum (Berlin, Revolver, 2011); and Claire Bishop, Radical Museology or, What’s ‘Contemporary’ in Museums of Contemporary Art (London: Koenig Books, 2013).
 Worth mentioning is the multiannual program, Kanon-Fragen, at Haus der Kulturen der Welt in Berlin (2016–19) which dealt with the question of how to expand the Western canon. This was done through exhibitions and discursive events. A similar initiative was Former West, by BAK, basis voor actuele kunst (2014–16), a transnational exhibition and research program on Western European self-perception after the Cold War ended. Art historian Nina Möntmann discusses the historical perspective in connection with the biennial in her article, “Plunging into the World: On the Potential of Periodic Exhibitions to Reconfigure the Contemporary Moment,” OnCurating 33 (June 2017).
 Anselm Franke, “The Third House,” Glass—Bead (2016), https://www.glass-bead.org/article/the-third-house/.
 I am aware that the tradition of criticism to which I refer comes from the same tradition of modernity that I am criticizing. Therefore, I also apply the idea of multiple modernities, introduced by curator Okwui Enwezor and others. For more on the subject of the tradition of criticism, see Clement Greenberg, “Modernist Painting” (1961) in Art in Theory – An Anthology of Changing Ideas, eds. Charles Harrison and Paul Wood (Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2003).
 This seems to be slowly happening, with an increased awareness of the overlooked roles of women and non-Western artists in art history. See reviews of MoMA’s new collective hanging of the work of Helen Molesworth, “The Kids Are Always Right,” Artforum, Vol 58, nr. 5 (January 2020); and Claire Bishop and Nikki Columbus’s “Free Your Mind,” N+1, January 7, 2020, https://nplusonemag.com/online-only/paper-monument/free-your-mind/.
 My knowledge of this exhibition is based on an e-mail interview with director Jérémie McGowan of Nordnorsk Kunstmuseum, in February/March 2020, and on the website that was made for the temporary museum. See https://www.sdmx.no/en/news/sami-art-museum-open.
 The temporary website for the Sami art museum: https://www.sdmx.no/en/news/sami-art-museum-open.
 Interview with McGowan, February/March 2020; also, see Nordnorsk Kunstmuseum website for the current program, which shows the many exhibitions and initiatives since 2017, when this performance at the museum took place: https://www.nnkm.no.
 Ariella Aïsha Azoulay, “Free Renty! Reparations, Photography, and the Imperial Premise of Scholarship,” Hyperallergic, March 2, 2020) https://hyperallergic.com/545667/free-renty/.