Soft power and emerging museology

Text: Serge Renimel

Resplandor y Soledad de Cai Guo Qiang
Resplandor y Soledad de Cai Guo Qiang. Photo : Carlos Alcocer by-nc-nd – flickr.com

How long further the new lords of the world will need our talents?

Since the end of the past century, museum professionnals witness, and sometimes take an active part in a kind of ‘museological conquest of Asia’ which is unambiguously moved by our cultural imperialism. Since a half millenium, the world conquest by the four major imperial powers of Europe launched and consolidated globalization, and financed their golden ages. Today the faithfully cloned historical pattern of trading and cultural colonization of the mid- and far-eastern areas stays, although on a much more symbolic scale.

Presently, european expeditions no longer roam the Indian Ocean onboard of kraekships or of galions, as their modest avatars ‘don’t rock the boat’: nowadays, they fly in business class and enjoy substancial fees, but they are still focusing mainly on the same continental areas. In the field of exhibitions and museums, the occidental governments or big institutions delegate museum professionals as diplomatic agents, mainly to facilitate the globalization of our cultural stereotypes. From China and the East Indies, up to the Arabian Gulf, many european freelance adventurers are hunting business profits as a first priority. They attempt to negociate deals for art exhibitions which were initially produced for a very restricted fraction of european and north american audiences, but whose financial balance on their domestic markets is increasingly risky now.

We watched them and we did better.
(Chinese wisdom)

Is the supremacy of our museum models final?

Thus, behind the european scene of the museums, leaders and professional actors still demonstrate quite often our great difficulty to overcome stereotypes regarding emerging economies and societies. They are still largely ongoing among our public commonsense. For sure, many exhibitions and museum new projects financed by the ‘nouveaux riches’ of the world contribute to endorse the idea that they would tie up a bit slavishly our cultural models, due to their supposed excellence (… or supremacy?). They would adopt them to take immediate advantage of prestige, touristic attractiveness, and – if at all – for urban marketing. All-in-fact looking like the attitude of political leaders in our european communities for the last thirty years …
No one could deny that the conservative vision of museology ruling the european microcosm of culture takes a great advantage of the supposed inability of rising economies to develop their own cultural patterns and museum expertise. Mainly for the ‘the tip of the iceberg’, i.e. exhibitions concepts and design. By the way, emerging powers of the planet won’t be supposed to innovate in that field, nor for the form of the media, and neither for the cultural contents. In other terms they would fail to incubate the creative strategies of their own cultural development, and the most appropriate set of tools to serve it, which are not necessarily consistent with ours.

National Palace Museum in Taipei
National Palace Museum in Taipei

Innovative soft power for a genuine cultural policy in emerging countries

Last summer, two U.S. scholars published a column entitled ” How the humanities support economy “. Coming from intellectuals who campaigned long for culture, this paper anyhow avoids plea pro domo, as well as the usual simplicities on the virtues of culture acclaimed as an economic lever. The paper deals especially to reveal the apparent paradox of some major emerging countries – and not among the most democratic – convinced of the interest of developing their potential of soft power. And endorsing the real social and political risk that involves such a bet for the rulers of these potential democraties.
The authors recall that research in the field of social sciences is now declining in our democracies. Conversely, big emerging countries, deemed to be reluctant to tolerate the free expression of their citizens, would appreciate the advantageous competitive potential in an increasingly interconnected world.
Ziegler and Zimmermann note that Russia and China now consider as economically fundamental investment in humanities and social sciences. This is relevant for the field of research, as well as of education or cultural achievements. The leaders of these countries would therefore understood that, since the middle of the last century, the US world leadership in industries and technologies did not exclusively took roots into their imperialism and military power. Russia and China would have learned the lessons of long-term cultural investments that have consolidated the base of creativity and innovation in the US; and allowed to drain to the U.S.A. the most talented, and to incorporate them.

On our side of the Atlantic, let us recall that the cultural lever for economic and social development has already been obvious to some of us 30 years ago, at least. Since then, we know how to enhance the virtues of social sciences, mainly in order to improve their budget allocation. Museums and exhibitions are showcases of excellence for these sciences, and therefore directly involved. Some of the major emerging countries seem now ready to develop a forward-looking vision and policy that transcends the cash profit or the simple quest for prestige, and that they prefer the more profound and complex implications of soft power.
As in the field of ecology, setting up new social organization and a real quality of life appears as a reasonable target for the elites and leaders of emerging countries, in the absence of a real strongest civic faith. Now, the new lords of the world for the short-term are setting up the basics of legitimization of their future social patterns. They will not be only based on military, technological or financial supremacy, but perfectly integrated into a sustainable model of development. Here, one cannot avoid a deep and versatile understanding of all cultures and a permanent opening to art and creation. Also there, cynicism and realism are in such a good household…

In these prospects, there is no doubt to interpret the geostrategic translation of the so-called ‘museomania’ which spread worldwide from the end of the last century. And demonstrates a spectacular boom now in Asia, first and foremost.
In any case, it would be a misinterpretation to translate that huge wave as a sudden frenzy of tourist attractiveness or access of arrogance of ‘nouveaux riches’. For less than a decade, thousands of new museums projects and expos arised from sands or started their building in the heart of the metropolis in India or Asia. Most of these programs take part in a strategy of mesh dense and perennial of institutions primarily devoted for local nationals. And it is also there that are invented and structured social patterns for tomorrow on paradigms that – beyond appearances – have best reasons not to clone ours, as servile replicas. Ours, which are so largely obsolete for the background as to the form.

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