06 April 2009

What the G20 could mean for museums

What could the outcomes of the recent G20 meeting mean for museums, aside from perhaps easing the financial strain that all are feeling? Most would say, "Nothing really". However, there was a very significant change at the last G20 summit which, if nothing else, should serve as both a warning and a model for museums. The significant change was what George Soros calls a "Turning Point". This turning point was that the core nations of the G20, the G7 or what we could even call the G1 (the United States), gave up much of their power which they held in the form of special voting rights. In particular, from 2011, the US will no longer have its veto rights. More power has been shifted to the "developing" countries - in particular India, China and Brazil - not only on the G20, but also within the IMF, the World Bank, and perhaps even onto the UN Security Council.

The significance of this, from museums' point of view, is not only the shift in financial power that this will certainly create (that is the point of it), but the shift in political power and the possibility of real multilateralism.

I do not need to go into any detail here about the colonial foundations of museums, especially those of the Euro-American museum tradition. It is not only that our museums were founded during the height of the colonial period, to support colonial ideals and ends, and that we hold vast colonial collections. It is also that our whole tradition of practice sits on colonial foundations. Of course I also do not need to go into detail about the enormous amount of work that museums have done over the past 20-30 years to transform these colonial foundations, what was at one time called the New Museology. Nor do I need to cover here, again, the work of many museums over recent years to incorporate deep forms of collaboration with source communities and stakeholders (see Peers and Brown for a good recent summary). The important thing to realize here, and the relevance of what has happened this time at the G20, was that the same thing could have been said of the world's financial governance over the past 30 years. That we could have gone to the IMF, the World Bank and the even the G20 and found ample evidence of a greater degree of collaboration and consideration of the needs and concerns of "developing" nations over the past 20 years. The point is that despite new levels of inclusion, of collaboration, of a shift from institutional concerns to those of other stakeholders within the IMF, the World Bank and even the G20, these institutions remained colonial - or rather neo-colonial.

These institutions remained neo-colonial despite new levels of collaboration and dialogue because their primary goal, and their primary source of authority, was preserved through their control of resources. The IMF, the World Bank and the G20 remained neo-colonial because the handful of ex-colonial countries retained the power to define what the resources were, how they could be accessed and how they could be distributed. This was the fundamental change heralded at the last G20 summit. For the first time in its history, for the first time in several hundred years, the process of real multilateralism was begun. Not finished, not implemented, but at least begun.

This is the wake-up call for museums. What we are seeing, or what I hope we are seeing, is a fundamental shift from a neo-colonial control - a benevolent paternalism that acts for the good of its public, but retains how its resources are used and even what they mean - to a situation where those effected by these resources, those who have a major stake in these resources, have a major say in their definition, allocation and use. Museums as a neo-colonial institution, in the sense of Julia Harrison, have a history, even contemporary history, very similar to these financial institutions. Not as powerful, that is certain, but just as superintending. The wake-up call for museums is that their world of privilege, of having the sole right to define, describe, and determine use of their collections, is coming to an end.

No longer will cries for the primacy of preservation for a global good hold sway - cries similar to the foundation of both the IMF and the World Bank for the preservation of the global economy. No longer will the claim of institutional nor professional rights take precedence over the rights of local patrimony and use. We have all seen that the foundations of the world markets are crumbling. They are crumbling because they are rotten to the core. The new consensus is being driven by a new multilateralism which is far bigger, far more diverse, far more distributed than every before. Museums too are build on similar foundations, with similar materials, and similar ideals. Is it time that museums consider giving up their special voting rights before it is too late for us too?


  1. Hello Robin
    I finally had the opportunity and time to read this thoughtful and complex commentary. I agree with you in that the primacy of preservation for a global good can no longer hold sway in a participatory global economy. My concern is that we, as institutions, have not addressed the evolution to guardianship that such a paradigm shift suggests. In Australia our institutions are government funded and therefore the impetus to change or evolve practice is relatively small. Until governing bodies attach innovation to funding lines I really can't see how it will change. Perhaps there is a better chance of this discussion occuring in the UK? My understanding is that some of your funding is competitive -through the lotteries? Does this have the potential to drive evolutions in guardianship?

  2. Angelina,
    Thank you for your thoughtful comment. I agree with you that as long as funding is linked primarily to preservation and dissemination, rather than collaboration and innovation, we aren't going to get very far. Of course, we both agree that preservation and thoughtful dissemination remains important, but funding here in the UK also remains fundamentally tied to the status quo. No chance of improvement here.