In Europe’s troubled times, museums can offer hope
Source:The Art Newspaper Author:Martin Roth Date: 2015-12-09 Size:
It is rare for the British media today to use the word “European” without immediately following it with the word “crisis”……

Refugees queue to enter a camp after crossing the Greek border into Macedonia in October.

It is rare for the British media today to use the word “European” without immediately following it with the word “crisis”. Whether a possible British exit fr om the European Union is viewed in such terms depends on one’s politics. However, couple the raw brutality of last month’s terrorist attacks on Paris with recent scenes on Mediterranean shores, at the continent’s eastern borders and at Calais, the gateway to Britain, and the word “crisis” feels restrained. As people move across nations on a scale not seen since the Second World War, Europe’s compassion, ability to act and confidence in what it stands for is being deeply and seriously tested. Europe is under stress—both in terms of the contemporary European economic project and with regards to our personal and collective cultural identities as Europeans.

Against this backdrop, discussing a role for museums and our wider cultural sector might seem indulgent. Is this really a moment in which the art and objects of centuries past have relevance when today’s lives, livelihoods and futures are at stake? It will perhaps surprise no one that I think it is. Furthermore, I believe that European museums have an obligation to be a model of collaboration, to demonstrate what cultural exchange and understanding achieve and, perhaps most importantly, to offer a hopeful view.

Age of Enlightenment

If one wishes to understand European history, there is no better focus of study than the founding

concept of our greatest national museums—nothing else can depict in such vivid detail what states and nations are trying to accomplish and achieve. The child of the Age of Enlightenment, the British Museum, clearly describes the world views of the British Empire, the Louvre puts the Grand Nation in the centre of its universe and one cannot find any place that better explains the Austrian monarchy than the museums of Vienna and Budapest. Catherine the Great laid the foundation for the State Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg, in which she assembled collections from all over Europe, including the Walpole collection and the Brühl’sche collection from Dresden. During the 19th-century revolution in Germany, the term “museum”, meaning a public space, played a major role, not least because the national museum in Nuremberg anticipated the 1871 unification of the German Empire as early as the 1850s. Walk into any gallery of Old Masters on the continent, in Madrid, Prague or Warsaw, and Europe is presented before you.

A common identity

Look at any moment of great peril or change in Europe and there is a museum that tells its story close by. There were never as many museums founded in Europe as in Italy after Italian unification in 1871, in Germany during the Weimar Republic and in Central Europe at the end of the Cold War. Eachwas born of an urgent need for a strong and common identity as part of Europe.

The Victoria and Albert Museum in London is no different. With our large collection, we act as the grandchild of Enlightenment. And it is by journeying through objects that we learn yet more about the European narrative.

The characteristic influence of Versailles is reflected in numerous objects throughout Europe, whereas the original works in Versailles have been swiped away by the Revolution. Museums have contributed to the European identity and to the constitution of the European thought. The phrase that is commonly attributed to Jean Monnet, the founding father of the European Union, “should I be able to start again with Europe, I would begin with culture” can only be a beautiful invention, whereas the fact that our common and diverse European identity is reflected in museums cannot be denied.

However, without their European—and indeed global—contexts, the contemporary meaning of objects cannot be faithfully interpreted. For us to successfully remain relevant and communicate our objects and collections to the world, our scholarly communities must be as diverse and international as our collections. Furthermore, it is imperative that the stories we tell be marketed far beyond those who are able to visit us in person and in voices other than our own.

As a German, I have always felt European. Because of Germany’s 20th-century history, I refused military service as a young man and never really felt as German as I do European. When I speak to British nationals of my age, they use the term “Europe” interchangeably with the words “economy” and “business”. When I speak to my French friends, they have no doubt that Europe is a fabulous concept, as long as France is the main focus point. Our museums are wh ere we see that all these

views have currency but that no single one can be definitive or considered in national isolation. They help us to appreciate Europe’s depth, its variety, its continual evolution and, ultimately, its potential as a confident and positive entity.

Shared tragedies and triumphs

Walking through our new Europe 1600-1815 galleries as they are prepared for opening, I see Italian, French and British colleagues preparing technical installations, hear German and Portuguese spoken as cases are built, find curators and a conservator inspecting a Russian fireplace (etched in steel in 1800 near Moscow in thepan-European Neo-Classical style; cleaned and conserved in London in 2014) and see a sculptural installation by a Cuban artist collective that works in Madrid. An examination of 215 of our most turbulent years as Europeans can only work as an endeavour that is truly and broadly representative of today’s Europe and the wider world too. Museums are places of and for migrants and the fresh perspectives, ideas, questions and skills that they bring.

The answers to the toughest political or economic questions are clearly not to be found fully formed in the collections of Europe’s museums. But the tools for cultural understanding, for appreciating another’s worldview and for uncovering the historic nuances behind the headlines certainly are. Perhaps most importantly, our museums—which draw on our rich, shared histories, tragedies and triumphs—are a powerful reminder that we will only find the answers together.

• The V&A’s Europe 1600-1815 galleries open tomorrow (9 December). Martin Roth was joined yesterday (7 December) by Polly Toynbee, Kasper Holten, Kurt Huebner and others at the V&A Europe Roundtable: Crisis as Opportunity

Voices of Europe

The great European Union referendum debate urgently needs to connect with public emotion. The “in” side risks relying on a dull avalanche of trade figures, while the “outs” offer an artificial romantic nationalism, a false history and a false future of our island in splendid isolation. Museums remind us of two history lessons: the centuries of fruitless European wars now ended with this remarkable 70-year peace. And they tell of our intimate cultural roots embedding us in a European artistic heritage of deep influences flowing both ways, our past and future richly intertwined across the channel. Polly Toynbee, columnist, The Guardian

We need art more than ever before. We live in a time when we try to deal with our problems and try to describe our world through words, figures and logic. But to understand humans and to look at the bigger shifts—the tectonic plate shifts in the human condition, so to speak—we need to rise above, or go below, the 24/7 news cycle, and we need art to give us a different language to understand the human condition. Kasper Holten, Director of Opera, Royal Opera House, London

The project of European integration was always at its best when it came with a narrative that allowed actors across all sectors of society to participate, actively or passively. Today it seems that Europe has lost such a narrative. Rather, Europe moves back to a cacophony of national narratives that are competing with each other, often on the grounds of narrow economic interests. Art, culture and museums by nature are transcending forces that generate and communicate narratives beyond and above the nation state. It is for this reason that the project of European integration today needs decisively more cultural interventions, which might result in a new and energising narrative. Kurt Huebner, Chair for European Integration and Global Political Economy, Institute for European Studies, University of British Columbia, Vancouver

[Editor] 张艳