The 21st-century Tate is a commonwealth of ideas

Museums must widen the ways in which they serve their audiences to reflect new forms of social interaction

by Nicholas Serota  |  5 January 2016
The 21st-century Tate is a commonwealth of ideas
Tate Modern © Hayes Davidson and Herzog & de Meuron
As Tate prepares to open the new, extended and rehung Tate Modern in June, this is an important moment for us to consider how museums have changed so far this century, and how they might continue to develop in the future. In the past 20 years, there has been a profound shift in the expectations and behaviour of audiences in museums. For me, this first became evident in the response to Olafur Eliasson’s Weather Project installation in the Turbine Hall at Tate Modern in 2003. People took over the space and used it as an arena for their own experience, so that the work gained an unanticipated performative aspect. Similar unprogrammed responses were prompted by Carsten Höller’s Test Site in 2006 and by Doris Salcedo’s Shibboleth in 2007, both also in the Turbine Hall.

A different kind of public engagement came into play when we introduced comment cards at Turner Prize exhibitions in 2002, inviting visitors to leave their views. The responses ranged from the banal to the profound, but this opportunity to express a view and to comment on those of others prefigured the kind of online debate that is now commonplace. These phenomena reflect changes in society: a willingness to challenge, to exchange views and to be a participant through social media and digital platforms.
How should we as curators react to this appetite for new forms of exhibition and for debate, discussion and dialogue? Can we respond without abandoning the commitment to traditional curatorial endeavour and scholarship?

The concept of the museum is in constant evolution, driven forward by a combination of curatorial vision, artistic innovation and the demands of audiences. The first challenge for the museum of the 21st century is to create spaces that accommodate the way in which artists wish to work, and to develop programmes for these spaces that reflect the public’s desire for a more active engagement with the art. The new Tank spaces at Tate Modern occupy the former oil tanks of the power station and now form the foundation of the new extension that will open in 2016. The Museum of Modern Art in New York (MoMA) has announced plans for its new building that will also include a grey box designed for performance. Tate and MoMA now have curators with responsibility for performance art and are engaged in historical research and on the task of re-presenting historic performance works.

This new respect for performance has encouraged Tate to develop a form of commission that occupies a completely new space: the virtual. Since 2012, Tate has been commissioning performance works under the rubric Performance Room, presented through live web broadcast with no audience present but with thousands viewing across the world in real time. These are the first performance works commissioned by a museum purely for the online space. Among the performers have been Jerome Bel, Joan Jonas, Cally Spooner and Ragnar Kjartansson.

But an even greater challenge is to recognise that the museum is increasingly not simply a place for observation, instruction and experience, but also one for personal development and learning through participation. We seek to reflect on our identity, on our relationships with others and with the world. In this respect, the museum becomes more like a laboratory or a university. Digital communication enables us to enrich this experience through the use of apps and personal mobile phones on site; it can precede or follow a visit, or be undertaken independently of the physical location. This requires new approaches, new kinds of publication and new quiet spaces within the institution for listening and response. At Tate Britain, we have created a new Digital Studio to complement more conventional workshop spaces, and at Tate Modern, we plan to use spaces at the heart of the new building for visitor engagement in a programme that will offer possibilities for learning, debate and creation.

Digital technologies enable us to engage with art in both casual and profound ways. This may simply be as one of the millions of people following Tate on social media or commenting on our blogs and YouTube videos. In recent years, we have given visitors a chance to put their questions directly to artists such as Ai Weiwei, or to create digital drawings and see them projected on the walls of Tate Modern. We are now planning an app to help visitors explore the new Tate Modern when it opens in June, and we will be building dedicated spaces within the collection displays to enable further digital interaction and debate.

Museums have become places where we take part in social as well as learning activity. It is easy to be cynical about the impact of the café, restaurant or shop spaces on the culture and character of museums, but such facilities have made museums less daunting, more welcoming and more open to general visitors. However, such democratisation needs to go deeper than the provision of opportunities to purchase or to consume.

The digital age

Open exchange is different from formal instruction in which experts debate with their peers and pass on accumulated knowledge to the next generation. It is closer to the spirit of shared ownership and experience implicit in the term “commonwealth”, an idea that has particular significance for museums at this moment. A digital age obliges us to respond to the needs and expectations of our audiences in new ways.

So what might this new commonwealth entail? The “wealth” that we might share is the easiest to imagine. It is founded on the objects in our collections, animated by the knowledge of our curators. It extends to our buildings, which provide safe spaces for congregation and debate. But how do we give effect to the “common” in commonwealth, the spirit of belonging to the community, of belonging equally to more than one person and free to be used by everyone?

We have to recognise that knowledge about the collections is not confined to the experts who work in the institution. In recent years, we have become more open to collaboration with university colleagues, though the easy flow of staff between academe and museum life is still an ideal. We might also appeal for expertise—the research equivalent of crowdfunding. Some years ago, Tate invited the public to help us identify subjects within the corpus of 30,000 sketches and drawings that constitute the Turner bequest. The result has given greater definition to our understanding of Turner’s methods and travels but has also given a greater sense of engagement and ownership to our public.
Recently, we appealed for help in identifying photographs of buildings and landscapes taken over 20 years by John Piper. We must be more provocative and take greater risks in engaging partners and individuals. And if we bring in people from disciplines that do not share our language or assumptions, we will have to address questions about the nature of art and its role in society, rather than confining our enquiries to the history and practice of art.

At Tate, we are developing a new programme to examine the contribution made by the visual arts to society’s wider cultural and economic framework. We want to explore in depth, but also from conflicting and contradictory positions, some of the bigger questions and themes of our age: living in cities, migration, issues of sexual and social identity, the consequences of globalism. We see art as a catalyst for a programme of debate, discussion and creation that will explore a given theme in depth over the duration of an academic year.

We will bring together artists, writers, performers and thinkers from different disciplines to create a framework that will be tested and amplified by public engagement, discussion, dissent and creativity. Artists will lead and activities will include conventional lectures, seminars and workshops, but also the creation of clusters and conceivably microsites, through which each group will work on particular topics. We will explore these ideas in new forms of partnership with a wide variety of groups in the community, building on the experience of our existing young people’s group, Tate Collectives. Our aim is to stimulate new kinds of less passive visitor experience and a more open, participative and creative learning.

I believe that we have to adapt to the new demands and opportunities in order to claim a larger place in society for the visual, and therefore for the importance of visual literacy for everyone. I will always argue for the value that can flow from intimate personal engagement with a work of art in a museum.
But if the museum is to flourish in the 21st century, it cannot afford to be solely a place of retreat from society. It must stimulate, provoke and engage, as well as offering a place for contemplation or consolation. It must be a place in which we can share in a commonwealth of ideas.

• A version of this article was given as a speech at the Leeum Samsung Museum of Art, Seoul

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