"In the future, museums will have to reflect the complexity of our times"

22 January 2020

Mami Kataoka_Photo Ito Akinori. Photo courtesy Mori Art Museum, Tokyo_SQUARE.jpg
Photo: Ito Akinori. Photo courtesy: Mori Art Museum, Tokyo

Interview with Mami Kataoka by Federico Giannini, Director of Finestre sull’Arte, Italy. Originally published at Finestre sull'Arte, 20 January 2020.

At the end of 2019 an important edition of the CIMAM annual conference was held: this year's theme was "the museum of the 21st century": what are the main topics of discussion that emerged on this occasion? What should a museum look like in order to be called a "museum of the 21st century"?

MK: In the 2019 ICOM Conference, the proposed draft for a new definition of the museum was not adopted by the members. Our world today is very complex with multiple perspectives and value systems, and naturally the museum sector should also reflect that complexity in a creative manner.

The definition of the museum or 21st century art museum would continue to be discussed.

One of the aims of the Conference was to deal with the museum narrative and the indigenous perspective. In the last months museums have been heavily engaged in discussions about cultural decolonization (in the first issue of our review we also focused on this theme). How are museums dealing with this topic now? Are there countries that are going more quickly than others? Is the debate going to be polarized or are there some spaces to develop the discussion around this issue?

MK: The discussion on decolonizing museums was started rather recently. In 2017, French President Macron declared the temporary/permanent restitution of African patrimony to Africa over the coming years. This indeed marked an important beginning to the discussion of realizing his intention and sharing this idea around the museums of the world. In the meantime, ideas of diversity and inclusion are being reflected in modern and contemporary museum collections and exhibition programs. There are, of course, different perspectives and opinions, but instead of thinking of it as polarization, I would like it to be thought of as a way to equilibrate multiple levels and issues, more as a key to achieving optimal equilibrium.

At the end of this year’s Conference, you have been appointed as CIMAM President. What should we expect from your three-year period as CIMAM President?

MK: As an affiliated organization of ICOM, CIMAM would like to work closely with ICOM, particularly on the issues that entire museum sectors should be discussing together, such as sustainability and the ethics of the museum.

As for CIMAM itself, given that more museums of modern and contemporary art are being built and their constructions planned around the world, CIMAM should function as a truly global organization and an important common platform for professionals in this field. Under more organized working groups, the board members would work on the different topics respectively and it would all be shared among the members.

And, by the way, should a museum be involved in current events, in politics...?

MK: Since contemporary art reflects our contemporary society, it is inevitable that current events in the world would appear in museum practice. However, there should be a line between pure political action and the museum, as I consider the museum as a place for diverse perspectives to meet and have dialogue instaed of leading the world into a certain political or ideological direction.

During the Conference there has been discussion about a result gained by CIMAM last year: the creation of the Museum Best Practices for Managing Controversy. Which are the main controversies that a museum could face in the 21st century and how could these controversies be solved?

MK: I would assume that the different controversies would arise under different socio-political contexts in respective parts of the world. Yet, what is different from the 20th century is that we are in a time of complexity, with a set of diverse value systems, such that communication and dialogue for mutual understanding are both key elements. In terms of communication, with the unprecedented growth of social media, while the clarity/transparency of museum practice – including the sources of funding – is increasingly required, it is important to make an effort to understand the wider context of the incidents rather than reacting to fragmental information.

Let's talk about contemporary art. A topic that many are discussing, above all in Italy, is the transformation of the art critic into curator. By now we have plenty of curators, but art critics are becoming rare. Is the art critic going to disappear? What could contemporary art museums do about this?

MK: Following your earlier point, today there are different communication methods and tools from those of half a century ago, and the curatorial professions have become more established in the last few decades. I don’t think the profession of art critic is disappearing, but certainly the new definition of the profession is being questioned, since there seems to be a problem in finding a universal standard for valuing contemporary art.

Having said this, the museum is a place where professionals and the general public meet, and museum professional should look toward the new languages for the museum platform.

In many countries, people are more and more interested in museums, but governments have little inclination to make investments. Often, it is the most important museums that are attracting the majority of visitors, while many small museums are in crisis. What do you think the near future holds for museums?

MK: Museums should never be rigid but rather, fluid and changing as the world is changing. While one has a responsibility for sustainably managing one’s collection and programing, there is a need to seek out the best funding and operating business models at different times.