if the museum was…

Scene 1: If the museum was a bourgeois museum

Imagine a museum that owns or maintains a collection of objects considered to be exceptional, those to which we assign a cultural and economic value, objects that the museum intends to present for the (or a) future. A museum that, as an institution, believes that it must preserve itself to preserve what is inside of it. A museum that demands of its visitors a certain cultural capital, an attitude, a bodily behaviour. A museum that employs people with different functions, responsibilities and capabilities (and types of contract and scales of remuneration).

Now imagine a museum housed in a temporary place, where a group of objects arrived for a process of dislocation, with violence (theft, expropriation) as a key factor. These objects have, in the museum, a specific value, one that is certainly economic, but they are also the objects of another type of appreciation. They are still in the hands of a group of people who share a common objective but are perhaps motivated by divergent individual interests – people with a temporary relationship that however has with potentially irreversible effects on the destinies of these objects. Of course, this fate is by and large uncertain.

The first image is a cliché, a typical simplification of critical discourse. But perhaps, also, a basic characterization of what the bourgeois museum (or, simply, the museum) is. The second image describes a painting, by Lukas Duwenhögger, entitled Persual of Ill-Begotten Treasures (2003). But it could also be a basic characterization of what the bourgeois museum (or simply the museum) is. The two images, together, in their contradictions, create a portrait that is less simple, more truthful, and more productive, of what the institution of the museum is, and perhaps, beginning there, of what it can come to be.

The most intense contradiction between the two images is, probably, the opposition between a positive duty (the duty of the museum as an institution, its task of conservation, of contribution to the “public good”) and a negative transgression (the museum as a result of an originally illegitimate action). The notion that the bourgeois concept of a public good is founded in a primitive accumulation (colonial and class expropriation) is not new. And the modern museum participates in this accumulation in a double manner: as an institution, it is possible thanks to the primitive accumulation of capital, both in the case of “Republican” museums of the European model as the sponsored museums of North America. The second type of accumulation, perhaps more tangible, easier to understand, serves as a mirror to the first, in the origin of the collection of objects that make up the collection.

What type of work can museums do, today, aware of this history, without making abstractions of the violence that made and makes the museum a possible institution? What are the consequences for the ability of the institution to connect that what was dislocated, disappropriated, with the former owners, with those that have an historical or political relationship between the objects in the collection? And with those that have no relationship whatsoever?

Scene 2: If the museum was a museum of the periphery

Imagine a museum that escapes this double primitive accumulation. A museum that is the result of a personal investment – active, intellectual, emotional, laborious– of an individual surrounded by a small group of people, with the impulse to conserve and present the art and culture of the periphery – not as an act of preservation and representation, but for its potential as the tools in the process of cultural construction of a periphery and of a culture of the periphery.

This museum could be the Acervo da Laje, in the Plataforma neighborhood of the city of Salvador, Bahia. Created and developed by José Eduardo Ferreira Santos, the museum is a collection – of paintings, sculptures, objects, images, books… – collected from his own domestic space. A space that became, as such, public (but be aware that any sharp distinction between the private and the public is a theoretic chimera, or a political imposition, coming from the North). The elements of the collection in constant growth are artistic objects by artists of the periphery, from Salvador and other places, acquired by José Eduardo with his resources, identified thanks to an exercise of demand and care. Originally there is no accumulation, only the result: rooms full of pieces, of individual or serialized objects, of works of art that share the rooms and hallways. And they all appear accompanied by oral histories that are the result of an intellectual and emotional involvement of José Eduardo, and that, in turn, result in involvement – with the works, with the institution – of those who encounter them.

As a museum, the Acervo da Laje cannot exclusively be understood as a collection, but as a place of education and trade, a place for a community to see (itself), understand (itself), make more (of itself) than what is already there. In the Acervo da Laje there is no separation between what was or is collected and what is exhibited. There is no problem to resolve in the connection of the collection with the public. It is a museum that transgresses the rules of the bourgeois museum – in the artists and objects that it collects, in its social positions and in the (absence of) hierarchies of those who are involved, in their passion and goodwill, in the scale and methods. And, with them, it also transgresses the original illegitimacy of the bourgeois museum, that which makes bourgeois culture something exclusive, for (only) a part of the community.

Scene 3: If the museum was an archaeological museum

Imagine a museum that houses archaeological pieces, stone figures, stamps, stelae, gourds, dioramas, vases, masks… of people who occupied an American territory before the Spanish invasion. A museum that shows these objects in wooden and glass display cases, organized chronologically, showing their origins, and speculating on the ways in which they were used. The Museo Comunitario del Valle de Xico, in Mexico City, is one among many other archaeological museums that can correspond with this characterization. What differentiates it is its history, and its attitude. Located in the eastern periphery of the city, the museum and its collection are the result of a collection, made by residents, of pre-Columbian objects found in the area – objects that are shown in the old mansion, today in ruins, of the Spanish cacique who was “owned” the area during the colonial period. As an horizontal organization of volunteer work, the museum is responsible for the objects (under the authorization of the national archaeological institute), and has developed a program that also goes beyond preservation and dissemination: xerox publications on historical, political, and archaeological themes… workshops in painting, nahuatl, printmaking, graffiti, sculpture, local geography… activities that, together, make the Museo Comunitario del Valle de Xico a center of construction of the community and political battle.

The official recognition of the Museo’s ability to care for and preserve the pieces contrasts with the “illegitimacy” of the occupation of the place, of the fragile – even insecure – systems of display, of the programmatic instrumentalization of archaeological material, of the relativization of the competencies of those involved… Opposition is based in an urgent complaint: the archaeological materials of the collection (and, by extension, any archaeological material) only make sense as tools for making and unmaking micro-and macro-politics. It is not a question of history, of the past and future, it’s a question of the fights that need to be taken up today.

Scene 4: If the museum was a trans museum

Imagine a museum that is a “work of the life” of an individual. An itinerant museum, that rewrites the whole history of a country – and, by analogy, of neighboring countries, all the former colonies. A museum of objects, but also of images, histories, events, memories that, since ancestral times, show that which official history does not want to, and how this story is the legacy of the colonial project – as the very museum institution.

The Museo Travesti del Perú, this one by Giuseppe Campuzano – an institution that transgresses history with acts of transvestism: the transvestism of the author, a revealing saint of ignored truths and martyr of a process of concealment; the transvestism of events ignored by official history, protagonized by all that is trans, that which is neither man nor woman; transvestism, finally, of a history that presents itself as an apparently “poor” alternative, but that is in its insistence and in its consistency, an undeniable and surprising result, for its capacity to provide evidence of the manipulations of “History” (colonial, modern, European).

If the Museo Travesti del Perú is able to do this it is perhaps thanks to another transvestism, a presentation of “what is not”: its formatting of linear historiography, a critical modern inheritance (of the museum), hidden behind a dogmatic and “innocent” “simplicity” of history as progress, a narrative pump that runs like an arrow.

Scene 5: If the museum was an Indigenous museum

Imagine a museum dedicated to the victims of the process of colonization of the Americas, the indigenous peoples. A museum that is the repository of ancestral objects, a museum that works with individuals of these peoples to record and disseminate their cultures, but at the same time a museum of the state (and, consequently, one that is white). Imagine this museum occupied by members of a neighboring indigenous people, in protest of a housing crisis caused by the state. Imagine that the museum expels them to ensure their function of preservation and installs barbed wire to prevent future occupations.

This museum is the Museu do Índio in Rio de Janeiro – a Funai institution that has as its goal “to contribute to a greater awareness of the contemporaneity and relevance of indigenous cultures” – continuing with the idea of the museum with which we began: preservation, promotion, and the public sphere. Furthermore, as with the museum with which we began, based on roles, functions, possibilities and distinctive skills. The museum does research and culture, and, in engaging political questions, this should happen from specific forms of research and cultural production, with a separated framework of creation. The museum, like the university, is directed and protagonized by those with administrative competencies certified by the (white) state, by those who are able to integrate themselves within the modern system of knowledge production. The museum, as a public institution, cannot be used “illegitimately,” against its functions, or for those that are not authorized to occupy them following specific interests. The museum, as an institution of the state, can (should) request aid from the forces of the state in its defense, when it becomes aware that its functions and mechanisms of functioning are at risk.

Coda: Bow and arrow

Imagine a more optimistic perspective.

Weeks before the occupation of the Museu do Índio, in the winter of 2016, the shaman Toninho Maxakali ended his own life, using the string of his bow. Among the Maxakali, as among other indigenous peoples on Brazilian territory, the objects that belong to a person must depart with them after their death, at risk of persisting as a reminder of the absence of who passed away, a source of never-ending pain. When Toninho died, his property was destroyed, with the exception of the bow, of another bow that he was making, and various arrows, objects that the family donated to the Museu do Índio in Rio.

As with the foundations of the bourgeois museum, here there is also a contradiction, perhaps even more intense. In the acts of Toninho’s relatives are at play two incompatible logics: on one end, a Maxakali logic of the co-presence of bodies and their things, or things and their bodies; on the other, a modern logic of history, one that is accumulative and projective. The donation seems to suggest that objects can navigate different worlds; and that they can be sacrificed, for they escape from the very logic of their place of origin in inserting themselves within the logic of the museum. But, while being sacrificed with their entry into the museum, they don’t cease to be bows and arrows, weapons for fighting. If the museum was true to this nature, in choosing them, they recognize not only the necessity of utilizing them as tools for fighting, even if, outside of the logic of legitimacy, this would imply imagining the possibility of what the museum can eventually cease to be.


This text was originally published in the book the autobiography of monalisa (museu do louvre pau-brazyl, 2016) and revised in June, 2021.