The Tumblr Museum

November 7, 2022

This is an old idea I used to tout around discussions with institutions which I may or may not have written about before, but has recently developed some new shades… The original version goes something like this:

In order to shake up a collection, bring focus onto specific objects and/or stories, and stoke audience attention, create an offsite exhibition venue that shows a single object for a short, fixed period of time. Ideally, change it as often as possible: daily would be great, weekly or monthly; fine. Show as diverse a selection of objects as possible, and don’t think about it too much. Mundane and random selections are as valid as considered, thematic ones (and possibly more so).

I just like the idea of a thing you can encounter outside the space of a museum. There have been some good digital versions of this, either as Twitter bots (I think; can’t find any now) or the Science Museum’s brilliant Museum in a Tab (or a least it was brilliant, but the current version demanded a bunch of permissions and although I emailed them the SciMus never addressed this. Most likely, as usual, someone got fired / moved jobs and it died.)

Basically, I want Wikipedia’s Random Button for museums, but more than that, I want the actual thing, in a box if necessary, somewhere I will just bump into it.

That was the original pitch, but I’m wondering about a further version. A lot of the arguments – specious ones, mostly – against repatriation of objects from institutions to the original locations from which they were trafficked/looted/”discovered” etc is because the museums claim a duty of care and the requesting bodies cannot prove that they can “care” for these objects properly.

(This is specious because it’s an excuse, but also because what counts as “care” differs culturally. Many claimants of objects want to return these objects to communities, to use, to sacrality, or to the earth. ‘Preservation’, on Western academic terms, is not the point. But that’s not what I’m addressing here.)

So: what would the minimum viable museum look like? The Mmuseumm in New York is the smallest I know, but that’s not what I mean. I mean a space which would satisfy all museum requirements for security, humidity, environment, insurance etc, in order that no excuse could be made not to loan an object. I’m imagining a single vitrine, big enough to house a decent range of objects, with its own power (solar!), environmental controls, theft- and smash-proof, and so on.

I’m not suggesting for a moment that this would magically produce agreements on the part of reluctantly decolonising institutions. I am interested in reverse-engineering the legal conditions of material objects in order to allow them to travel and be seen and interact with cultures outside of institutions.

Picasso in Palestine was a successful endeavour to exhibit a painting by Picasso from the Van Abbe museum in the Netherlands in Ramallah: “an art project that aims to probe mechanisms, procedures, obstacles and requirements in getting a painting of this kind to Palestine.”

So the Tumblr Museum (needs a better name) would try and do the same thing for legal, institutional space: to set up tiny territories which would extend the ability to show cultural objects outside institutions (like Freeports, but for everyone, obvs) while also, you know, questioning some of those museum credentials, authorities, and practices of ownership and title. Writing the accompanying texts would be fun too.

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