Our STEP trainee Christine Pungong talks about her vision of building a 21st - century museum

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As a trainee on STEP, my first placement was working on the V&A East project – an ongoing development that will see the V&A open two new interconnected sites in Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park.

My placement was a unique opportunity to work on a project that had not yet come to fruition and to get direct insight into both the operational and curatorial aspects of creating a museum from scratch. It made me begin to think more critically about not only the purpose of museums but how we can design a museum for the 21st century – one that is ethical and accessible to everyone, including the most marginalized and disadvantaged.

I didn't visit a museum for the first time until I was 15 years old when I saw a Yayoi Kusama retrospective at the Tate Modern on a school trip.

The exhibition prompted a revelation that art and museums are not just activities for the elite but can be an engaging experience shared by all. It gave rise to my belief in the power of art as a resistive and transformative tool that can reinvigorate communities, bring people together and creating opportunities for learning.

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YAYOI KUSAMA: INFINITY MIRROR ROOMS at the Tate Modern

The role of any museum, regardless of its specialisation, is to create a dialogue between the past and the present. I see museums as serving three distinct but intertwined purposes:

  1. To be instructive and/or educational
  2. As social institutions for building community and support
  3. Preserving legacy and memory

Central to all these functions is facilitating a diverse public appreciation of art and history. In my opinion, an ideal 21st-century museum would not only be dedicated to fulfilling all of these functions but would have ethical care (of its audience, objects and workers) at the centre of its mission.

Here is how I envision their potential for evolution in the future of museums:

Education

A key purpose of museums is to educate the general public; I firmly believe that museums are not just places where art is kept, but powerful pedagogical institutions. As such, museums should strive to neutralise and bridge unequal cultural gaps by bringing ‘high culture’ (although a problematic term) to the masses.

However, education is not inherently without bias, and the classroom is not an ideologically neutral space. Museums should not only interrogate their role in knowledge production but also how their collections and exhibitions might reproduce or contribute to dangerous narratives and prejudices.

Lots of museums have historic ties to slavery and colonialism, and rather than shy away from or attempt to obfuscate their problematic pasts, museums should be transparent about their histories and most importantly, direct their efforts towards reparations. This means not only repatriating stolen objects, but also an overhaul of employment practices and workers rights, as well as rethinking outreach and educational efforts. In a 21st century museum, it is imperative that everyone has the opportunity to meaningfully engage with art.

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Community and support

Museums also function as social institutions for building community and support and therefore, should transcend the boundaries of race, class, nationality, and gender in order to bring together all people in the enjoyment of art.

I believe museums have a duty to actively create opportunities for learning and community engagement through mentorship, inquiry-based teaching strategies, and discussion. Many marginalised people feel alienated by the serious, quiet, reflective atmosphere that inhabits most museums, and any museum in the 21st century should try to put a stop to this altogether.

Moving forward museums should create opportunities for audiences to be loud, and interactive, to undo all the “rules” that museums have historically encouraged. On top of this, museums should support local communities and artists through funding opportunities, commissions, acquisitions and platforming grassroots organisations and groups.

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Legacy and memory

The museum is an experiential site and therefore should facilitate deliberation about the past and how it resonates with current socio-political phenomena.

In museums, historic events do not have to stay static and fixed but have the ability to remain alive through their representation in art and visual culture. Museums should be a place of celebrating untold legacies, histories, and memories.

Once again, this involves a process of decolonisation – reflecting on whose stories have historically taken precedence and making a concerted effort to highlight important histories that might have been lost, forgotten or even purposefully erased. A 21st-century museum should showcase a cross-section of narratives through objects and artworks that acquired in an ethical, consensual and non-exploitative way.

Going forward, we must ask ourselves how museums will respond to the needs of an increasingly digitised and rapidly changing world. The emergence of complex digital technology has been positive in that it allows greater reach for museums through online collections, social media platforms, apps and more.

I think museums should be at the forefront of funding research, providing accessible learning technology and practising innovative teaching methods. In the future, I would like to see museums re-thinking what the arena of “the museum space” looks like and reinvigorating the physical museum experience for all.

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