Historically, museums have played an active role in civic life by cultivating dialogue and prompting action around critical issues, at times creating impossible diplomatic bridges even in the midst of long-standing international conflicts. In 1979, for example, the National Museum of Modern Art in the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris staged Paris-Moscou, 1900–1930, an exhibition highlighting the cross-fertilization between French and Russian avant-gardes. A critical stance in its very existence, the exhibition was exported in its entirety to Moscow in 1981, and put on display at the Pushkin Museum despite the Cold War—a time when censorship and political surveillance was at its height. This form of cultural mediation is only one example of the capacity of museums to act as conduits for cultural diplomacy, bridging divergent political systems, and making elbow room for intellectual and cultural exchange.
At MoMA—a museum founded on the modern ideal that sees the arts as a path to progress, freedom, and equality—curators have likewise exhibited interest in and support for social and technological growth. Examples abound, from an international design competition for low-cost furniture for the booming middle-class after World War II (1948), to an early analysis of the impact of media technology in art in the exhibition Information (1970), to an exploration of the manifestation of violence in contemporary society in the online curatorial experiment Design and Violence (2014), to a debate about the habitability, or lack thereof, of megacities in the exhibition Uneven Growth: Tactical Urbanisms for Expanding Megacities (2014).
Research & Development is conventionally considered to be the purview of science, technology, and business, while the role of culture and the arts in the process of innovation, inspiration, and production is considered supplemental. Yet, we are convinced that museums—as trusted institutions that host a range of visitors across race, gender, and class boundaries, offering tools to make sense of the world around them—provide fertile opportunities for confronting the critical issues of our time. In light of a number of recent socioeconomic upheavals that have cast a doubt on the trustworthiness of other sectors and of financial and political institutions, this voice has become even more meaningful.
We envision arts and cultural institutions reclaiming their position as public actors at the vanguard of social innovation, agitating for meaningful developments across disciplines and institutions. We believe that the cultural sector—including artists, institutions, and the public—collectively deserves a more relevant position in discussions on policymaking and social innovation.
To walk this talk, we launched MoMA R&D in 2011 to explore the idea of museums serving as R&D centers for society. Part internal think tank and part external incubator, MoMA R&D is guided by “existential” questions such as, “how can museums be sustainable and relevant?” and, “what can museums do for society?” To tackle these questions and more, we have cultivated opportunities for cross- and anti-disciplinary encounters and other meaningful exchanges.A cornerstone of MoMA R&D is a series of salons that are emblematic of our simultaneously inductive/deductive process, in which a topic that is crucial to MoMA’s own existence becomes a way to discuss crucial issues in the wider world. We have come to number 13. Previous salons have examined, among other topics, the role of curators; the ongoing tension between high and low culture; how to measure cultural impact; the trend towards immersive experiences; taboos; how museums can be better citizens; the object, online and offline; the changing nature of copyright; and most recently, how shifts in the focus and mechanisms of philanthropy pertain to arts funding. Because of the limited capacity of our auditorium, these salons are invite-only events. However, in the spirit of openness and access, we welcome you to keep abreast of the salons via our website, which features videos of almost all the speakers (some discussions were meant to remain as intimate as they began).
We invite you to share your thoughts on the role of museums in society—and on their value as centers of humanistic research and development—in the comments section below.