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The social relevance of the museum

Politicians and administrators increasingly question the social relevance of cultural institutions. It is good that this idea from the 1960s is back on the agenda. At that time, if I recall correctly, it was mainly the scientists who were challenged to demonstrate their social relevance. In the 1970s the subject retreated into the background, I think because the great protest movements ebbed away and we became accustomed to prosperity. From a cultural point of view, in those years there was great scope for experiments and innovations that were not required to filter down to the public at large. Their social relevance resided in their value as pioneering cultural work and the possibility that the results would be picked up elsewhere. The achievements of the protagonists of the time – artists such as Andy Warhol or Joseph Beuys and museum figures such as Harald Szeemann or Rudi Fuchs – are still trickling down to the general public. In essence the cultural world was then supported by a layer of specialists, connoisseurs and experts, and cultural disciplines were ‘practiced’ as a sort of science. The general public was not involved.

Now, some thirty or forty years later, the situation is very different. Prosperity has turned into opulence and consumerism. We are so attached to our achievements that we want a permanent guarantee of our safety and certainty. Now the market regulates culture and the general public does indeed play a role. The guiding function of the expert is no longer taken for granted. There is a reluctance to allow governments to subsidise cultural events for a small market. The government still contributes a large sum of money to culture but, unlike forty years ago, it is now split between so many more parties that it seems to bear less fruit. The measure of social relevance now appears to be determined by quantifiable results such as visitor figures, economic spin off, the number of sponsors, media interest or income levels.

What do I think about the social relevance of the museum in this context? There are so many kinds of museums that I do not have space here to deal with ‘the’ museum in the asbtract. After all, a historical museum that reflects upon a nation’s identity derives its social relevance in quite a different way to a museum devoted to the diversity of world cultures.

When considering museums for the visual arts, and the Kröller-Müller Museum in particular, I must conclude that they derive their raison d'être from art itself and are twinned with its destiny. For more than two hundred years museums have propagated the belief that, through visual means, art helps us to explain the world, to gain an insight into our existence on earth and to give meaning to life. Art contributes to the formation of our personal convictions about the world because it can disregard the existing codes for interpreting reality. The more unpredictability is banished from the world, the more art can contribute to independent interpretations (and the more subversive the experience can be). This means that art is not always popular with the general public.

In the museum one can see visual art’s role as a permanent broadening of horizons. In this sense the museum is, first and foremost, a memory bank. By drawing subtle distinctions and placing things within a historical perspective, the museum can show the other side of a viewpoint or suggest alternative interpretations. The museum can also establish norms by, for example, building a collection on the basis of particular principles, by making well-considered selections of contemporary art or by articulating and propagating a vision. The modern museum is culturally enterprising, listens attentively to its visitors and responds to their wishes and questions without losing sight of its mission. In this way the museum contributes to the quality of life and is thus socially relevant.

At the Kröller-Müller Museum we give form to this principally through the link between visual art and nature. Over the last hundred years Helene Kröller-Müller and her successors have selected works of contemporary art and assembled a coherent collection with respect for the decisions made by their predecessors. By making history tangible and legible in the sculpture garden and the museum we have created an environment conducive to reflection, contemplation and putting things into perspective. It is obvious that history must be kept alive. We attempt to achieve that through respect for the old and new, the margins and the centre, by maintaining cohesion between all elements and an open mind for new developments. That is expressed, for example, in the museum’s displays in which recent works are combined with historical examples and through the establishment of a dialogue between recognised masterpieces and works by artists with less-established reputations. In the past our museum was operated by and for experts; now the situation is different. By adhering to our historical perspective and by engaging with contemporary art, our programme is certainly defined by a professional approach, but is nonetheless led by the demands and wishes of the public. In visitor surveys in recent years the museum has, on average, scored eight out of ten, which encourages us to continue on our chosen path.

In summary: the social relevance of the (our) museum manifests itself through several points in which we seek to marry the achievements of the ‘old’ avant-garde sensibility with the new cultural awareness: belief in the value of modern and contemporary art’s ability to give meaning to existence, listening to and communicating with the public, professional methods, insisting upon the importance of quality and transparent policy and management.

Evert van Straaten 
November 2007