Coming to terms with the past is a precondition for forging a humanitarian future. Such a development involves not merely for understanding “our” history but also for how the other understands our history. James Baldwin once said that the reason white Americans should learn something about Black culture is that this is the only way in which they will ever learn anything about themselves. He meant that the critical and meaningful evaluation of a national culture, the impact of political decisions and the experience of social reality, calls for making reference to those who most clearly suffered its effects. Whites who have benefited most from American history find it impossible to imagine the price paid by people of color. Judgment of what we have become, how we might improve, requires a multiplicity of views brought into contact with one another. Only with such a cosmopolitan engagement is it possible to compare and evaluate. In this regard, the museum – or, better, the museum of tomorrow – has a role to play.
Such an engagement is often disturbing: it generates guilt and, potentially undermines, basic assumptions legitimating our society. Better perhaps to deflect such feelings. Thus, while the United States has a superb holocaust museum in Washington DC, there is nothing remotely equivalent with regard to slavery. The other is internal to a society as surely as it is external. Encounters with foreign cultures often generate new perspectives and possibilities for developing one’s own. “Paris-Berlin 1900–1933” was the first exhibition the supposedly antithetical cultures of two neighboring and rival states into contact with one another: it became a sensation and contributed to building a European consciousness. Even on a much broader level, indeed, cultural interaction can build a new outlook. Modernists like Picasso or Klee and Macke, who integrated the technical achievements of what were then considered “primitive” cultures provide a case in point. They also helped facilitate the recognition of African art as “art”. Creating museums dedicated to illuminating the interpenetration of cultures in an increasingly global society is a goal worth pursuing.
Just as the social world is growing larger, however, we have been witnessing a cultural retreat into the ever smaller world of the self. Identity is the catchword: it can take insular or hybrid form, but its existential meaning derives from a preoccupation with subjectivity and the experience of particularity. An explosion of museums dedicated to the history and culture of this or that group, always privileged in relation to other groups, is taking place in all the cultural capitals of the West. Elsewhere similar trends are in operation. Identity and community can provide empowerment. But they usually rest on idealizing the past through which feelings of empowerment turn into feelings of superiority. The result is an inward turn, a willingness to sanctify tradition because it exists, and a refusal to engage the larger world. The museum of tomorrow rests upon the engagement of the other. When Israel offers some museums solely dedicated to Islamic art, and its Arab adversaries offer nothing equivalent, a notion of separate but equal permeates the cultural vision of the former while existential isolation defines the outlook of the latter. Past moments of cooperation between modern adversaries simply fade into the mist: a museum committed to retrieving those moments could only work to the good. The issue is not the currently fashionable concern with how cosmopolitanism is “rooted”, which is always selfevident, but with how the refashioning of diverse cultural products can produce new traditions capable of multiplying our experiences and challenging parochial understandings of community. The museum of tomorrow would make the cultural contributions of the other both available and salient for an increasingly diverse set of publics today.
Written more than a half-century ago, The Voices of Silence by Andre Malraux sought to confront the great masterpieces of the world with one another in what would become a kind of cosmopolitan interrogation. His idea of a “museum without walls” was intended as an alternative to the traditional museum whose rooms were like a row of ghettoes bordering one another – each with its works of a particular painter or a particular period or a particular period nation. The “museum without walls”, by contrast, would exhibit a constantly shifting canon of works and evince the relevance of each to contest the arrogance and deficits of the others. Few ideas of our time speak to the new communicative possibilities of the Internet in quite the same way – and with quite the same implications. Here, in this imaginary museum, it is possible to see what brings people together – and what keeps them apart. The result would prove an exercise in pluralism: the core assumption of a liberal society. Introducing the new, however, should not mean simply obliterating the old. The museum of the global society also requires its physical space. Cosmopolitanism should have its own geographic sites, its material instantiations, and the museum of tomorrow might provide that – the new symbol for a new age.