Museum of the future: tool of soft power?

By Artkhade with Art Media Agency

Paris, 7 January 2016


In 1990, the American professor Joseph Nye developed, in his book Bound to Lead: The Changing Nature of American Power, the idea of “soft power”. Used in the field of international relations, this concept describes the ability of a political actor to influence indirectly – by means of structural, cultural or ideological – and without coercion, the behaviour of other actors.

Twenty-five years later, Gail Dexter Lord -co-founder and co-president of Lord Cultural Resources– and Ngaire Blankenberg – senior consultant at Lord Cultural Resources -proposed an update of the concept of soft power, by operating in particular a displacement of its scope (Cities, Museums and Soft Power, The AAM Press, 2015). Art Media Agency met Gail Dexter Lord for more information.

  • To start with, how do you define the notion of soft power?

Soft power means the will and ability to influence people and cause behaviour through peaceful and cultural means. It is opposed to hard power, more coercive.

Today, we think that it is necessary that cities use their ability to influence in order to resolve the bigger issues of the future: CO2 reduction, management and integration of the flux of migration, etc.

  • Is this the thesis of your book?

Yes. For 25 years, the concept of soft power was built with reference to the States. Thus, there are rankings that distribute the countries according to their soft power. For example, that of The Economist puts France in fourth place and the United Kingdom in first. Hence, we often see soft power as a diplomatic leverage.

For us, in the twenty-first century, the centre of soft power will shift from the State to the cities. For the first time in the history of humanity, more than 50% of the world population is urban. This is a huge civilizational change.

Above all, we believe that museums–a large majority integrated into the urban fabric-will become the core of this soft power. Today we believe that museums are genuine “sleeping giants”.

  • Why?

Their power potentially is huge: they occupy a privileged place in urban networks, they attract large crowds, they have a significant impact on the land value of surrounding neighbourhoods, they are the intellectual centres, etc.

Currently, museums are not fully integrated to the inherent problems of their host cities, but this is called to change.

  • How do you explain this growing importance of cities?

More than ever, they are the engine of growth. The endowments of the states diminish everywhere, a prominent phenomenon in the culture, and governments continue to announce that they have less money – the result of the spiral caused by the debt crisis.

  • Does this happen in the context of state failure?

We can’t still speak on this issue, but we have one certainty: a balance – which has long prevailed – deeply changes.

For example, countries such as France and the United Kingdom contribute to the endowment of their museums for 60%, 70% or even 100% – currently we show that these endowments are constantly decreasing. In return, the museums are placed as vectors of soft power in favour of the State, thanks to their exhibition programs, lending their works, etc.

In exchange of the financial windfall of the States, museums ensured their cognition of their nation on the world scene.

  • That which has been particularly initiated with currents such as abstract expressionism, exploited by the United States after the Second World War?

Yes, the book of Serge Guilbault that addresses this problem (How New York stole the idea of modern art, 1983, ed.) is one of our favourites, and we cite it especially in the first chapter of the book.

Today, the balance changes. Museums – major – which were funded up to 70-100% by governments are not funded at 50% – encouraging them to develop their own funds

Meanwhile, cities are becoming more active and all seek to be correctly placed on the international arena. Today, cities are responsible for 80% of GDP, they are the heart of the economy and growth and can no longer rely on their governments to exist on the international scene. Moreover, cities are very active in the fight against global warming, on the issues of migration, social, cultural, etc.

However, cities do not yet benefit from tremendous synergies that they may develop. For example, when we interviewed social workers from different backgrounds, very few said they worked with museums, whereas the synergies between the two could be extraordinary. Museums are natural allies of all social service providers, they represent in particular a great way of integration.

  • Who benefits from the soft power of a city? Is it not a new tool for legitimising the dominating classes?

This is one of the main issues of the book. Museums were – and still are – the most powerful tools to legitimise the power of the ruling classes.

Certain French museums, whose collections come from colonial conquests, are a good example of this. This also reflects the fact that museums are the recipients of the hard power of the State that hosts them. Many collections are formed after looting, theft, etc.

In this context, museums have undeniably been the tools for elites. Some people avoid to attend for these reasons, as museums are not within their culture – but the outcome of the ruling classes.

Today, museums must make choices, and perhaps that of being more focused towards their public. This is not strictly a free choice, because they are pushed in this direction by governments – which is positive. Museums must provide more meaning to their visitors. This is a trend: in the last twenty years, museums have been redefined as tools for education – with school and libraries, they are one of the three pillars of education.

In the future, museums should still evolve. From an educational role, they malt themselves into tools dedicated to soft power.

According to a report from Larry’s List, 37% of collectors have integrated Boards and therefore decide on the politics of museums.

This reflects a trend. In cities, the most affluent have more and more wealth, at the expense of the poorer classes. Museums follow a similar path, and very particularly art museums. The art market is the most deregulated in the world.

Gradually, art museums have become tools to play with the odds and legitimacy of artists. On the other hand, not as many artists have demonstrated their social conscience, nor have shared their thoughts in favor of the environment or of solidarity. Groups of artists especially dispute the fact that some major museums are funded by oil companies for example. From this point of view, things are changing. In addition, one of the latest trends is the giving places to artists in museum Boards. The situation is paradoxical and complex.

I think – and we write about this in our last chapter of the book: “Thirty-two ways for museums to activate their soft power” – that museum Boards must become reflections of the city that hosts them, not armchairs for the most powerful.

  • What impact does globalisation have on museums?

On the one hand, we are witnessing the proliferation of identity museums, museums developed to analyze local and regional identities and catalyze research on topics that are arising – influx of migration, an individual history, human rights, etc. This is the case of Mucem in Marseille, in France, or of the Canadian Museum for Human Rights in Winnipeg. These museums are really museums at the forefront of this idea of soft power.

Besides this, many museums gather under the banner of the Declaration on the Importance and Value of Universal Museums– including the British Museum, the Getty Museum, the Metropolitan Museum, etc. Through this declaration, the museums are placed against the repatriation of stolen objects in their countries of origin and for a universal conception of the museum.

There are two camps: the first model- from the consequences of hard power and whose idea was built during colonization-, which aims to promote a universal and international culture; a second model, which stands for the repatriation of objects and their reinterpretation in the light of their identity and their original context. This change is particularly carried by the Greeks, following their austerity cure.

  • Should all Picasso’s be in Spain?

Except those produced in France! The free movement of artistic objects is one thing. However, these historical collections have been stolen. The question is different.

  • What we must remember, is that there is a polarisation of the debate proposed about what a museum should be today: a place stretched towards identity or universality?

The tendency of biennales is exciting in this regard. According to Okwui Enwezor, the biennales are an antidote of colonialism. They are useful to globalisation, but at the same time they are firmly attached to a territory.

  • What about the “Bilbao effect”? Is it behind the belief that museums can be places of soft power or a symptom of a pre-existing trend?

Both. Bilbao suffered from de-industrialisation and its leaders felt the need to conform to the knowledge economy- the economy of knowledge. Well before 1997, the municipality had realised this and acted knowingly. In the economy of knowledge, culture plays an important and unifying role.

Today, it is often said that Guggenheim Bilbao is the best museum of the 20th Century and everyone is looking at the Bilbao effect. But don’t forget that before the “Bilbao Effect”, there was a “City Opera House effect”!

Today, we must mark the difference between “landmarks”- location pins- and “place-makers”, institutions which instil a general trend in the city which surrounds them. Landmarks distinguish the city; they give it an identity. “Place-makers”, like Bilbao, are real locomotives.

“Place-makers”, this is what we seek today.

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