The Metamorphosis of Museums


Having worked in a few and visited countless others, Sam Hurn explores the ideological transformation of museums in post-socialist Central and Eastern Europe.

Having worked in a few and visited countless others, Sam Hurn explores the ideological transformation of museums in post-socialist Central and Eastern Europe.

Museums are dusty, stuffy palaces where historians place the objects which prove their competing views of history. The overwhelming idea is that the Truth (with a capital T) is preserved in these cathedrals to the past. Yet, Truth is changeable. Truth is constructed. I’ve worked in museums and visited countless others, I wouldn’t even trust a museum to be dusty anymore!

Although apolitical, museums are tied to the political and social atmosphere of the country they reside in and they cannot ignore the fact that they mirror larger societal issues. Issues such as the interpretation of history, especially recent history, which remains politically charged and can arouse great public attention within and across borders. Museums are well aware of their power to transform society. If museums across Central and Eastern Europe went into a cocoon during the Soviet period, they are now beginning to spread their (architectural and ideological) wings. 

The Church of St. Catherine in Vilnius, built in 1743. During the Soviet period the church was part of Vilnius Art Museum. In 1994, restoration works began and was only re-opened as a church in 2006. Image: WikiCommons

During a talk at UCL’s School of Slavonic and East European Studies in February, Dr Katarzyna Jagodzińska of the Jagiellonian University in Krakow argued that the museum has taken on the role of a church as the new destination for contemplation in the modern world. The very definition of a museum as put forward by ICOM (International Council of Museums) 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 an ‘intangible heritage of humanity and its environment for the purposes of education, study and enjoyment’. For me, this definition holds all of the ancient functions of a church. Whereas the venerated bones of a saint were collected, preserved and exhibited according to the learned knowledge of priests, now art historians are the guardians of paintings (and much more besides) by venerated artists of their choosing.

Indeed, as religion was cracked down upon during the Soviet period, many churches were put to use for other purposes and a common transformation was of that into a museum. This knowledge is then transmitted to an often unquestioning society, representing current cultural and political Truth. Here I would direct you to the excellent The Keeper of Antiquities by Yurii Dombrovskii. Based on the author’s real experience of exile in Soviet Kazakhstan, it fictionalises the struggle that Soviet era museums endured in ever-changing political times and how museums were educational weapons in the transmission of Socialism. Pre-Soviet museums therefore underwent a period of dormancy, cocooning themselves away and lying dormant whilst the world around them changed.

Stalinist Palace of Science and Culture, Warsaw – Image: WikiCommons

Following the Soviet collapse, these museums began to re-emerge and they were suddenly something new. Old museums were renovated and new museums were created to adequately venerate the modern approaches to history and art. In Central Europe, development started in the early 21st century, not in the 1990s as had been the global trend. But the desire for modern art was immense. In Hungary, even before 1989, the process of initiating a modern art museum had already begun and this enthusiasm has been taken further in the Czech Republic and Poland. The Czech Republic now hosts the largest museum of 20th and 21st Century art in the region and one of the largest in the world, while Poland has built 20 new contemporary art spaces between 1999 and 2015.

Architecturally, museums are one of the most prized commissions for architects but can also be the most troublesome. The Museum of Modern Art in Warsaw announced its architecture competition in 2005 and one of its stated aims was to create a counterpoint to the Stalinist Palace of Culture and Science. The Stalinist symbol of oppression was rallied against by politicians and reporters as well as museum workers, who called for a cultural turn to modernity and for a new iconic architectural museum as was the fashion in the West. This highlighted the cultural break with the Soviet Truth of History and the societal appetite for a more national statement from all levels of Polish society. This ideological break generated the framework that most museums now aspire to, a veneration of national achievement and how this connects to the international stage.

Design for the Warsaw Museum of Modern Art. Image: Studio Nicoletti Associati via e-architect

The competition was won in February 2007 by Swiss architect Christian Kerez. Chosen from 109 designs, the idea was to hold the symbolic message of freedom. The glass structure made up of two overlapping thunderbolt structures was to disrupt the urban skyline and break out into space in a flourish of modern confidence and idealism. The design can be seen here However, the plans for a modernist museum polarised Polish society between traditional values and the liberal development of society to such an extent that the plans were constantly altered until the construction was cancelled in 2012. A new competition was started in 2014 and the museum is planned to be opened by 2019, until then the art will remain in a temporary space.

This story is emblematic of the situation in Central and Eastern Europe. Many museums languish in temporary locations or remain in their Soviet homes as new purpose-built museums are erected, amidst disputes between the modernising political elites and sections of the populace who embrace the new national culture against conservative forces which prolong the process. On the other hand, those museums that are successfully constructed or renovated face the larger issue of ideology. The DOX Centre for contemporary art in Prague is not only an excellent example of contemporary world-class architecture but thanks to its ‘independence of state institutions and a programme based on international cooperation, the Centre’s opening has become a fundamental and pioneering enterprise on the Czech cultural scene’.

DOX Centre, Prague – Image: WikiCommons

The DOX Centre is a prime example of the new museum that highlights not only contemporary national (in this case Czech) but international art within the context of important social topics that are shaping and transforming today’s world. Art focusing on the self, mental illness, disability, satiring authority, freedom and sexual liberation is a clear break from Soviet ideology, whose dependence on Socialist Realism ironically developed the ‘degenerate’ modern art which now has pride of place in the DOX Centre’s exhibition space.

However, not all ideology is as easy to develop as in the case of the DOX Centre. In the former Soviet republic of Latvia, recent history is still highly volatile in politics, society and culture. This is largely due to the fact that during the Soviet period, ethnic Russians often relocated to the Baltic country for a better quality of life and as a reward for military service. Combined with the falling birth rate of ethnic Latvians, the result was that between 1934 and 1989, the proportion of ethnic Latvians had fallen from 75.5 to 52% and the creation of a considerably large Russian population within Latvian territory. This large diaspora has failed to be assimilated, for many reasons not able to be discussed here, and often remain attached to the former Soviet Truth of history and culture. The tensions this causes in politics and society is reflected in museums in several ways.

The Latvian National Museum of Art, designed by German architect Wilhelm Neumann and built in 1905. Image: WikiCommons

At the positive end of the spectrum lie museums such as the Latvian National Museum of Art (LNMM). Since independence in 1991, the LNMM has restored its co-operation with Western European museums and galleries and the permanent display was changed to have a greater emphasis on the interwar period when Latvia was first an independent nation. LNMM’s mission is to educate society and stimulate its interest in the ‘historical and artistic manifestations of Latvian and global visual art’ while ‘placing an emphasis on the national school of art and its place within the context of world cultural history’. In line with Latvia’s political re-orientation to the West, the LNMM is consistent with other Central and Eastern museums in focusing on previously forgotten national artists and new national styles. Yet even here are hints of more politically volatile museum exhibitions, such as Soviet Mythology in Latvian Art, with the use of the word ‘mythology’ typical of LNMMs subtle rejection in the Soviet Truth of history, power and legacy in art.

More overtly volatile is the Museum of the Occupation of Latvia (OML). The OML specifically aims to educate the Latvian public and visiting tourists (its main source of footfall) about the Soviet and German occupations between 1939 and 1991. This relatively young and temporally specific museum has quickly become one of Latvia’s most important cultural attractions, research centres and since 1998 has been included as part of protocol visits by visiting heads of state by the Government of Latvia. Ironically housed in the Museum of the Latvian Red Riflemen, the famous shock troops who played a pivotal role in the Bolshevik seizure of power in October 1917, the museum tackles recent history head on.

Beginning of the permanent exhibition at OML – Image: Sam Hurn

Whilst acknowledging that some Latvian citizens were complicit with Nazi and Soviet atrocities in the country, the Russophone section of society often voices its disapproval of the version of history the OML presents. Often in accord with current views of history prominent in Russia, views such Latvia’s ascension into the USSR as a voluntary act and its subsequent legality are often the focus of research and exhibitions which state the real ‘Truth’ – force, oppression and illegality of Soviet power. The Truth which is politically backed and the basis of modern ethnic Latvians and their identity may be dominant, but it continues to cause tension with Russia.

Paradoxically, the Soviet Ministry of Culture deposited degenerate and/or modern art in repositories all over the USSR and the Eastern bloc and it is these works which are becoming the centre of new cultural identities in post-Soviet nations. The emergence of these new museums in Central Europe has been relatively straightforward, though lack of funding and squabbles over architecture has slowed the development on occasion. Further East, Baltic museums have braved icier winds in a volatile region which sees frequent clashes between Russia and NATO in the wake of the Crimean annexation of 2014. Fear of history repeating itself or a desire for history to repeat itself is subjective. The Truth in museums is but one battleground.

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