“from the encyclopedic museum to the societal museum”

Barcelona. A year after his departure from Madrid where he was at the head of the Reina Sofía Museum for fifteen years, Manuel Borja-Villel returned to his source, Barcelona, ​​where he was director of the Antoni-Tàpies Foundation (1990-1998), then from the Museum of Contemporary Art (Macba) (1998-2007). He will coordinate a cultural advisory program for the region of Catalonia in order to rethink the public museum system.

What does your new position involve?

My mission is to move from the “encyclopedic museum” to the “societal museum”. In so-called “encyclopedic” museums, collections are cataloged according to temporal and thematic periods defined in the 18th century, in a patriarchal society reflecting a modern era where the approach was Eurocentrism and colonialism. We must now change the paradigm to establish a social narrative, where this same colonial history is called into question in favor of other themes obscured by history, while renewing the mediation mechanisms. More than the museums themselves, it is the relationships between institutions that must be valued, to create real synergy.

How to move from an “encyclopedic museum” to a “societal museum”?

We have very precise documentation which makes it possible to change the approach to constructed stories and to adopt a new point of view which is no longer Eurocentric. When we see all the issues of restitution (of works of art) that are emerging, the permanent wars, it is clear that the cultural system is cracked, because we are following models that no longer work. We must succeed in creating a model that can be developed by all institutions, not just on the scale of Catalonia.

Do you already have plans?

Yes. In 2024, a major exhibition will be held in November, addressing a series of themes from the 15th century to the present day, such as identity, history, artistic precarity. The exhibition will be presented simultaneously in different locations, in Barcelona but also in the region, and in an extended format, with not only works on the wall but also artistic performances, events. A series of debates, seminars and workshops will be organized from September around the exhibition. They will be extended in 2025, the objective being that in 2026 a “letter of principle” can define the guidelines of what a “societal museum” should be in the 21st century. My mission is planned to last only three years, then it will be continuous work that will have to be carried out from this first model.

Will you work with local artists?

Local and international. If we talk about the idea of ​​borders, territories, identity, we must talk about Palestine, the African and Maghreb diaspora. The museum is by nature locally located, but it must relate to the outside world. Promoting only Catalan art while thinking about its internationalization goes against the paradigm shift that we are putting in place and which consists of strengthening exchanges between different cultures. This is particularly necessary at a time when two very problematic antagonistic forces are imposing themselves, on the one hand globalization and on the other hand ultra-nationalisms.

Do the museums concerned not see this as an interference in their work?

This work was entrusted to me by the region (Catalonia), because there is already a collective desire for transition towards this type of museum, which is included in the museum plan. In addition, the institutions are autonomous in their management, there is no direct intervention in their programming. I am already working with the Tàpies Foundation, (the art center) Santa-Mònica, la Virreina, the National Art Museum of Catalonia (Mnac), I am entering into discussions with Macba, everything is going well.

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