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July 28, 2014 | by  | in Arts Visual Arts |
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Tomb or Battlefield

In April, the Delaware Art Museum announced plans to sell three of its collection pieces to cover a sizable deficit. Earlier this month, Northampton Museum announced the sale of an Egyptian statue in order to pay for a £13 million redevelopment. It happens all the time. Though it shouldn’t. There’s a widely held assumption that once an item enters a museum’s collection, it exits the exchange economy and enters the public archive. There are guidelines in place to ensure works stay put. The Association of Art Museum Directors in the US issued sanctions against the Delaware Art Museum, urging all members to suspend loans and collaborations. The British Museums Association have threatened to suspend Northampton Museum’s accreditation.

The museum is a tomb. Implicit in the assumption that the museum acts as a final resting place for objects is the assumption that the museum operates outside of a capitalist economy. That the museum acts only to document unrest, that it is never the site of it.

Suppose the modern museum is in a state of crisis. It isn’t difficult. The Detroit Institute of Art narrowly avoided having to liquidate its entire collection thanks to an $800 million endowment for the bankrupt city contingent on the collection staying in place. Closer to home, Te Papa just revealed an $8 million deficit. Devon Smith recently suggested in an article on Medium titled ‘We Should Allow Failing Arts Organisation to Die’ that allowing institutions that refuse to adapt to change to remain on life support is detrimental to the entire culture landscape.

Smith’s argument relies on the application of social Darwinism: “The healthy can’t stay that way surrounded by a crowd of the sick.” Smith attributes the growing sense of crisis among arts organisations as a symptom of changing tastes. She argues that patrons are more interested in “nontraditional” experiences, among which she lists: “appreciating the aesthetic design of an especially beautiful video game, the art of pulling a great shot of espresso, and the craft of a great pair of raw denim jeans.” What these experiences have in common is the necessity of currency. Smith seems to argue that the allocation of funding should be made by the individual, rather than the state. It seems utopian, naïve even, to argue that the museum is a public space not dependent on the purchasing of goods or services. It costs $25 to get into MoMA. Te Papa’s touring exhibitions cost up to $20. Not to mention the kind of acquisition of cultural capital certain institutions demand. But what is most significant about Smith’s argument is its transference of neoliberal absolute faith in the market to decide who sinks.

Smith writes generally. She considers only the institution’s ability to deliver content. Allowing floundering museums to fail would risk scattering collections across a range of private buyers. And, of course, the flooding of the market would affect the return. The first piece from the Delaware collection, William Holman Hunt’s Isabella and the Pot of Basil, was sold to an unidentified buyer, for $4.9 million, well below its estimate of between $8.4 and $13.4 million.

The state shrinks. Arts institutions turn to the private sector for funding. Sponsorship provides companies with a way of shaping their brand. Associating with the right kind of people. Transfield, for instance, has for two decades been the principal sponsor of the Sydney Biennale.

Transfield Services holds the government contract to operate Australia’s refugee detention centres.

The museum must be ethically compromised. Public funds are always precarious. Adapting means either accepting funds from questionable sources, or committing sacrilege by selling items to stay afloat.

These strands converge in Hito Steyerl’s stunning lecture Is the Museum a Battlefield?. Using the 1917 Bolshevik storming of the Winter Palace and the 1792 storming of the Louvre as points of departure, Steyer examines the death of her childhood friend Andrea Wolf – a member of the Kurdish Women’s Army who was killed in Turkey in 1998. Her investigation leads her to the battlesite to examine the detritus. She traces a bullet shell backwards, to its manufacturer, and it is here, in the lobby of General Dynamics, that she discovers something. “Imagine my surprise when I found my own artwork being installed there,” she said. “This artwork was actually showing the battlefield, which… I was following the bullet back from the place it came from, and I ended up in a sort of weird feedback loop, as if the bullet wasn’t flying straight, from one point to another, but actually it was flying in a circle.”

The image of the circulating bullet sustains Steyerl’s lecture. Until it stops. She concludes by calling for an acknowledgement of the museum as a site of conflict, stating that the only way to break free of the feedback loop she describes is to “storm the museum again”.

Hito Steyerl’s Is the Museum a Battlefield? is on display at Adam Art Gallery until 10 August.

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