"An institution without an audience is like a person without a soul"

18 July 2023

Suhanya Raffel Portrait_Landscape - 1.jpg
Suhanya Raffel, Museum Director, M+, Hong Kong, Hong Kong

Written by Roberta Bosco. Originally published by Il Giornale Dell' Arte, Barcelona, 17July 2023.

Born in Sri Lanka and raised in Australia, in Sydney, where she arrived with the diaspora of her people, art historian Suhanya Raffel lived ten years in England and then returned to Australia, this time in Brisbane, where for 19 years she worked at the Queensland Art Gallery (QAG), creating one of the most important collections of contemporary Asian art in the world.

In 2016 she joined the M+ Museum in Hong Kong, to bring to life the collection and structure of an extraordinary project that opened its doors to the public at the height of the pandemic, in November 2021, and currently welcomes 3.6 million visitors a year (its webpage reaches 70 million users).

Last November, Raffel was appointed president of CIMAM, an organization founded in 1962 and affiliated with ICOM (International Council of Museums), the network of more than 35,000 museum workers created in 1946.

We caught up with the newly appointed president in Barcelona on her return from Malaga, where she participated in the Symposium on Cultural Ecosystems in the Digital Age, with a talk on adopting new technologies to support resilience in the museum.

What are your main goals as president of CIMAM, and how would you define your specific contribution?

CIMAM is an institution of great importance to our museums. In this world full of division and conflict, museums are places to reconnect, to recognize our history and remember our diversity, to reflect on our immediate past and our future. I embody what I want for CIMAM: a more inclusive and diverse body capable of encouraging institutions to think about a broader definition of the meaning of history, the indispensable programs of decolonization, and the complex interrelationships between nations and their impact on people's lives. CIMAM offers a fabulous platform for bringing creative expression to the world. I would like my legacy to be increasing inclusion and strengthening the connection with Africa and Asia Pacific and of course with local communities.

She is not the first Asian president....

Mami Kataoka, Director of the Mori Museum of Art, preceded me. CIMAM was originally a strongly Eurocentric institution, but in its 60 years of existence, it has changed a lot, aiming to reflect the multifaceted contemporary reality. We focus on what is happening and how it affects people. We are more agile and dynamic, we have expanded our reach, and even the board members demonstrate diversity, inclusion, and the increasing presence of women.

Regarding inclusion, diversity, and sustainability in modern art museums, can you tell me about the "Toolkit on Sustainability in the Museum Practice"?

It is a practical tool that is of great use to our members. We want to offer practical help in the form of methods, strategies, and tools that can be adapted to the differences of each institution in relation to its geographical and social situation. The museum must respond to the specific needs of its community, and the Toolkit can be translated, transformed, revisited, and adapted to each context. I think it is one of the great successes of CIMAM because it can be used by any museum, not just art museums. Sustainability is fundamental in relation to how we think about our future; museums have so many works that deal with this issue that it is obvious what its importance and impact is in all aspects of our lives. I think creative solutions are primal because they offer another form of problem-solving. Another very important aspect is to pay attention to the voices and profound knowledge of indigenous First Nations (First Nations); listening to them is indispensable.

What is your opinion on digitization in relation to art museums? Do you think new technologies will help strengthen their resilience and adaptability to a changing world?

Digitization is transforming our world with positive and negative aspects. Positive is the connection between people. Digitization of collections is key to spreading them, sharing them, and making them known to those who cannot see them live. In the 1960s, Nam June Paik called them information highways, but like him, we must not forget the shamanic and magical point of view they imply. In the Malaga congress, we talked about the metaverse, artificial intelligence, and virtual and augmented reality, but I would like to emphasize that we have not forgotten biological intelligence. Our intelligence is intrinsic to artificial intelligence.

I never see artists involved in CIMAM's initiatives. Do you intend to strengthen the relationship with contemporary artists?

CIMAM deals with artists, but it is a body created for museum workers to deal with issues that affect all aspects of the institution. We are including artists in our meetings because they have a provocative attitude that challenges us to evolve, the artists' voice is always there, but CIMAM is a professional organization. We need to think of the museum as a space for co-creation.

What measures will you take to promote public access to and participation in modern and contemporary art museums, both locally and globally, virtually and in presence?

CIMAM has grown a lot, and at the same time, the public is increasing like never before. An institution without an audience is like a person without a soul. The audiences are very diverse, ranging from art experts to children. We should not forget that there are still many places in the world where technology is not available to everyone, so we need to focus on more creative and imaginative solutions. I believe that the eagerness to share every moment of our lives partly reflects the need to feel connected and to be part of a wider community than our usual environment. Change is life; the challenge is to embrace that change.

What do you think is the role of the museum in today's society?

The museum has different roles both on an immediate level and in terms of research, collaboration, knowledge sharing, capacity building, and education, but it is also a place for recreation, observation, learning, selling, and dining. The museum offers different experiences; it is a place to slow down, look, reflect, learn, and have fun. We have an important responsibility because it is clear that people do not believe politicians, do not believe the media but believe museums.