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Speech of Minister for Cul​ture Myrsini Zorba at the international conference “The Co-Museum: Synergies, Cooperatives and Collaborations among museums, cultural initiatives and civil society to name but a few”​, 30 November

We are in the habit of speaking about museums and their function almost exclusively in terms of cultural creation and promotion. What exhibitions they are organising, what educational programmes they are running, what is the narrative each of them upholds. In recent years we have been gradually included the financial parameter, acknowledging the importance of sustainability and development in the field of culture. All of this is as it should be. What, however, we tend to leave outside the scope of the discussion is their political aspect. Since the 19th century, museums as institutions organised their collections to include acquired knowledge and fulfilled a deeply political function, both in terms of the ideology which provided them with cohesion and the performativity connected with visiting them. It is necessary that we keep this political dimension in mind in order to be able today, in the 21st century, to discuss effectively how we envision a new, contemporary museum.

Up to the Second World War, the basic organising logic of the museums of the then major industrial powers was the diffusion of the dominant ideology, whether that referred to national ideology or state ideology and the model citizen. This influenced the organising logic of the museums of smaller nations as well. While they forged collective identities, they also introduced exclusions at the same time. It was the flipside of the same process. The prevalence of the human rights discourse, especially after the 1960s, contributed to a gradual reevaluation of this state of things and a greater receptivity on the part of museums to the subjectivity of human experience. This trend coincided with the recognition of the need to formulate a public cultural policy, starting with the Anglo-Saxon world. Since the 1990s, this policy was incorporated with particular vigour in the social policies of Blairism, although not without resistance and criticism. 

What is the key requirement today? What does a contemporary cultural policy for museums amount to at a time when we have moved past the notion that museums are vehicles of the official ideology which normalise representations of knowledge and history, to the admission that museums imbue the subjectivity of human experience with a physical aspect and, as such, comprise a public cultural good? 

At the heart of this matter lies the renegotiation of relations between politics and culture and the way power is depicted in these representations. In other words, what is included in a museum, and in what manner, is a deeply political choice that encompasses the power relations present in the social and political field. In that sense, it is a deeply political choice which does not merely flow into the field of culture but exerts a formative effect on it.

What kind of museum do we want? One attractive to the public and friendly to visitors, one to which they will return either to renew their knowledge or to be entertained, a museum that will be a point of reference in the everyday life of the city and the network of its cultural practices. A museum with a multiple audience, one attuned to the crucial matters of contemporary life. A museum that is alive. 

Such a goal presupposes meeting a number of parameters: the museum ought to be sustainable, development-oriented and integrated into local societies; it ought not to downplay its educational role but, at the same time, should respectfully incorporate the multiplicity of the different representations that coexist within society. 

Regarding sustainability and development, it is crucial that the discussion about the financial parameter in the operation of cultural institutions is rid of guilt. There was an old position that argued against including the financial parameter in programming, for fear of massificating culture. However, this very massification is what we aim for today. Not with any negative connotation; quite the contrary in fact. A museum hospitable towards all. Besides, it was the development of the culture industry which in recent decades has contributed to the pronounced rise in the interest in museums and monuments, whether these concern ancient civilisation or contemporary culture; this was what placed museum visits within the field of cultural practices as a regular occurrence rather than an exception.

What does this mean in practical terms? It means that there is nothing blameworthy in museums stepping down from the pedestal of sanctity where conservative thinking have placed them. In fact, this fits in well with the overall trend of their democratisation. Visitors coming to museums both for educational purposes and for a relaxed afternoon with friends or a Sunday outing with the children, to take part in an educational programme, see a new exhibition, buy a gift for a social engagement, attend an afternoon event or have a business lunch: these are developments on which we look favourably. It does not mean that culture has been massified but that it has become more democratic.

Yet, the coming into being of the contemporary museum is not limited to guaranteeing its sustainability. Sustainability is a precondition for the next step, which is inclusivity and a connection with the community. 

Countering social exclusion and promoting policies of social incorporation are high on the agenda of the collective values of contemporary societies. What is critical, nevertheless, is seeing how the idea is put into practice. What does countering exclusion and inclusivity mean when it comes to museums? At one level, it means countering exclusions of a technical nature that have to do with availability of access. In this regard there truly have been commendable efforts, through targeted social and educational programmes, and the optimisation of technical infrastructure. But these are not enough. A further step is needed. The critical issue is for museums to be able to include representations of communities that feel not just that museum culture is of no relevance to them but that its narrative is not either. That way, they will help boost the self-esteem of those communities and consolidate their feeling of belonging. Simultaneously, they will instruct dominant population groups on the importance of coexistence and, hence, reinforce a sense of equality. They will impart, in other words, representational substance and legitimacy to cultural pluralism and contribute decisively to the democratisation of culture and the promotion of social cohesion.

The other point is the connection to the community. Regardless of the fat that museums can be oases in the sometimes relentless pace of everyday life, they should not be islets cut off from it. The only way for cultural agencies, including museums, to be vital and sustainable is to exist in an organic relationship with the community. And this is an area to which we, as the Ministry of Culture, ascribe special weight. Planning for a participatory peripheral cultural policy is among our basic priorities. Our goal is for the peripheries to become centres of cultural creation, with the establishment of cultural networks with multiple hubs and the greatest possible engagement between the agents and the public. We need to envision this engagement in the widest possible terms: a diverse multitude of agencies, organisations, movements, with their dynamic presence and local impact as a criterion, with no preconceptions regarding the institutional dimension, historicity, public or private character, formal or informal presentation, so that all regional living cells are assured of an equal part in the dialogue.

In concluding, just a reminder about our point of departure. Namely, that museums and their development are only one sector of the wider effort to redefine cultural policy. The real challenge is in the connection of that policy to the broader manifestations, quests and stakes of everyday life as it unfolds and, as a case in point, its connection to the capturing of conflicts taking place at the social and ideological forefronts of public space. The goal is the conversion of these conflicts into programmes and actions of intervention, the aim being the strengthen​ing of social cohesion and the implementation of cultural democracy. ​