Hans Ulrich Obrist: The Museum of the Future

The following text is from a paper presented at the Zooming into Focus symposium  “Envisioning the Future of Contemporary Art from Different Glocal Positions”, China Art Academy, Hangzhou, China, March 2004

One of the most important possibilities for the museum today is to think about how bridges can be made between fields of knowledge. On the bridge you have points, two ends (Huang Yong Ping). Normally we think a person should have only one standpoint, but when you become a bridge you have to have two. This is also kind of an explanation for the concept of crossing the border of the self: as one person, you should have many standpoints. Between these two points, there is one that is more stable, your original personality and another point which is less stable, floating. This bridge is always dangerous Huang Yong Ping: for me, the notion of danger is not negative, but positive – it creates the possibility to open up something else.

The art, architecture and design exhibition shows that architecture and design and art in China today have increasingly intense and frequent collaborations, as Yung Ho Chang wrote: “Architecture is more than a monument, the visual value of the work is often exaggerated and its practical function ignored in daily life, architecture provides public spaces to make public.  Architecture, art and design are relevant to Chinese society. Architecture, art and design are changing. Design improved living.” A whole series of Weissenhofsiedlungen pop-ups, model houses built by architects and artists in a one-to-one scale to be visited as real houses, but at the same time as an exhibition – also all over China, there will be a huge number of more than 1000 museums built in the next decade.

There is a great deal of potential, for example, that could be exploited by linking art institutions at universities with other fields and other institutions of learning and research- including science, architecture, design, etc. Museums for their part could invite people from various disciplines to take on an active role in the museum’s production of cultural meaning. The enduring impact of Jean-François Lyotard’s exhibition, Les Immateriaux, is a perfect example of the potential that lies in such unexpected curatorial ventures. As another way to collaborate, the museum could work more actively with artists to develop exhibitions, programs, permanent displays, and other museum structures. Some of the most far reaching and experimental of exhibitions of all time were organized by artists, including Herbert Bayer, Walter Gropius, Marcel Duchamp, Lazlo Moholy-Nagy, El Lissitzky, or architects such as Frederic Kielser, Mies van der Rohe or Lilly Reich.

Dorner saw this potential in the 1920s. More recently, inspired curators and museum directors including Willem Sandberg, Pontus Hulten, Walter Hopps or Johannes Cladders worked closely with artists at a moment when museums were otherwise increasingly disconnected from the actual producers of culture. These curators developed collaborative artistic projects, but also pushed the exhibition’s form, and made sure that their respective institutions collected some of the most difficult or thought-provoking works of their contemporary period.

To return to the notion of the museum as paradox that I began with, let me mention that another way in which museums can attend to the interior complexity of exhibitions is to incorporate the possibility of change at the very heart of the institution. The museum has indeed been long defined by its monumental immobility and by its historical roots, but the late visionary architect and urbanist Cedric Price (from whom I learned much about redefining the museum) offered another possibility for the institutions of culture. In his Fun Palace project from 1961, he responded to the necessity of preventing institutions from sitting permanently and concretely in place. He proposed a building that would, by definition, not last forever-it would disappear after a limited life span of ten to twenty years. But more than simply disappearing, it was to be a flexible structure in a large mechanistic shipyard which, according to changing situations, would be continuously built from above. Radical in its implications, Price’s proposed Fun Palace was a building that could be responsive, it could be altered whilst it is occupied. Price’s ideas envision a new kind of cultural centre for the twenty-first century, one that utilizes uncertainty and conscious incompleteness.

Museums should consider Price’s urgent message and conceive their exhibitions as complex, dynamic learning systems with feedback loops, so as to renounce the paralyzing homogeneity of exhibition master plans. An exhibition thus might be under permanent construction.

Price was extremely present in the concept that I developed with Hou Hanru for Cities on the Move. Rather than producing a transportable, repeatable exhibition-as-product, we thought of the exhibition as a process, as a laboratory. The result was what you could call a three-year ongoing dialogue in the form of a traveling show. The show would not only change in every city it went to but it learned from every city in which it took place. The show became a procedure of sedimentation: building up in layers with each edition. It thus resisted the too common tendency to either send a show to travel exactly the same way no matter its context or, conversely, to put up a show and then erase it with a tabula rasa once it is over. Here, there was never a fixed artist list, fixed exhibition architecture, or fixed number or kind of works, so that each version of the show reflected something of the new situation (cultural, institutional, geographic, social) in which it was presented.

And, little by little, very interesting things started to occur which go beyond the scope of the display of finished works. Artists involved in the various editions started to collaborate with other artists.

Many projects were triggered that existed beyond the exhibition itself. And the exhibition in this sense truly became “on the move.” I mention this project just briefly here to underline the lesson Cities on the Move learned from Cedric Price, which also suggests the radical potential of the museum: to, in destabilizing itself from within, inspire new artistic practices from without.To envision the museum of the twenty-first century, we thus must urge it to be less stable, more open, more collaborative, and less definitive in its articulation of history. We must use different models and allow disparate conditions to co-exist so that it can, as Price so eloquently said, “thrive through both protection and exposure.”

The following notions play an important role for the future the museum: access, broadcasting, circulation, dissemination, distribution, infiltration, mutation, network, portability, stories, templates, translation, transmission. One recent example to take into account is a show I co-curated for the Schirn in Frankfurt compressed narratives in three minutes clips. “3” investigates how a new modus of cinematographic narration – which could be described as a condensed or concentrated – has developed recently through the filmic genre such as advertising films, music videos or movie trailers, and to locate where and examines how productive and meaningful the intersection between this new trend and the work of contemporary artists can emerge. This research is linked to the practice of contemporary artists who have developed new modes of making films within the changing public media and cultural landscape and the new “perceptual plateau” where viewers have been taken to. It relates to what Doug Aitken identifies as a “quiet revolution in perception” that has started to take place in the late 20th and early 21st-century leading to an extremely fragmented experiential way of viewing and obtaining information, or to what Philippe Parreno describes as the process of forming “narrative clouds”: how a polyphony of voices and stories and ideas and images can produce a more or less apparent structure.

These ideas also echo the pioneering efforts of Alexander Kluge, the great German filmmaker, storyteller, one of the great cultural critics our time, who, since the late 1960s, has consciously aspired in his various roles as filmmaker, theorist and activist to develop new modes of constructing films that will in turn provide the spectator with new and more active ways of engaging with films, what is the activating the spectator’s own capacity to make a connection between vastly disparate images and narratives.

In trying to imagine the future of the museum we cannot ignore the past history of museums and exhibition practices except at great peril. For museums have always been paradoxical things: at once solid, immobile, historically rooted, preoccupied with the seemingly moribund acts of collection and preservation, and in the best of circumstances (as a handful of visionary curators and museum directors have shown us over the decades), potential laboratories for experimentation, bastions for reflection and change, loci of dynamic memory, and vital archives for the future. Looking closely at the paradoxes of this institution-which also means countering the prevalent amnesia about museum and exhibition history-allows us to reconnect the museum’s possible futures to its past at the threshold of the present.

My own interest in art and artists has developed hand in hand with an interest in the experimental history of museums. I often mention Alexander Dorner, and I think his example bears repeating- and repeating again-not only because his writing inspired my own interest in art and exhibitions, but because Dorner’s work at Hannover Museum in the 1920s suggests that from the very beginning, museums of modern and contemporary art (they did not bear that name then, but the Hannover Museum did already show the work of living artists) were places where radical experimentation was possible, even central. Dorner invented radical display features for the museum, collaborated with artists such as El Lissitsky and Malevich on exhibition rooms, and also developed extremely innovative models for mobile exhibitions and exhibitions of facsimiles. The fact that he envisioned the museum as a place where artists intervened and re-thought the displays was radical for its time. He defined the museum in terms of the process possible within it; he saw it as laboratory, as a “Kraftwerk,” and emphasized in his writings The Way Beyond Art that he intended to dynamize the traditionally static museum and to transform the supposedly “neutral” white cube in order to help construct a more heterogeneous space.

Collaboration was one of the things Dorner already understood as vital to the museum decades ago. “We cannot,” as he wrote in The Way Beyond Art, “understand the forces which are effective in the visual production of today if we do not have a look at other fields of modern life. “His lesson has not much been heeded in an epoch when the exterior spectacularity of museums (what has been called the “Bilbao effect”) too often overrides an attention to the more subtle interior complexity of an exhibition. This interior complexity is the result of different elements, one of them being the openness to collaboration.


At the recent Merzbau Conference and the Cabaret Voltaire in Zürich, which Stefano Boeri, Adrian Notz and I organized for Domus magazine, Italian critic and writer Pierluigi Nicolin noted that the world of architecture has recently been taking an interest in Merz architecture and attributed this to the new and irresistible fascination of the incomplete – the act of assembling a multitude of plastic forms and materials, found objects, spoils and relics that were enclosed and partly walled up so that they could serve as records of previous states. Incomplete on principle, growing, changing constantly, the theme of the assemblage has become a basic condition of the new globalized world. Taken as components to be assembled rather than designed from scratch, the various frames, curtain walls, escalators, elevators, ceilings, floors, etc., and sometimes even prepackaged models of buildings, represent an archive of solutions for the designer of metropolitan megacomplexes composed of accidental patterns, lateral motion, three dimensionality, emphasizing horizontal structures creating symbols of centrality rather than aiming at a converging point, the new Merz architecture emphasizes tangents, vanishing points, twists and crossings, without renouncing the expression of a certain Piranesian drama in the predisposition of its new figures.

At the Merz Conference, the work of Gregor Schneider, Gabriel Orozco, and the late Reto Flury (in homage to Thomas Hirschorn), and also Thomas Demand with his new visionary grotto piece, were displayed as new aspects of Merz architecture. A very noble aspect is the continuity and persistence with which artists follow certain projects throughout their lives. Schwitters worked for more than a decade on his Hanover Merzbau and in 1937 when he emigrated to Norway, he started a second Merzbau there. Just before his death he started a third Merzbau in England, where he was living in exile. The urbanist Yona Friedman shows that individual inventions are the principal means for building Merz structures: Merz structures are unique; they do not follow the rules of geometry. As Nicolin showed us Schwitters anticipated the end of the distinction between private and public spaces and Mertz proliferates with a pervasive and comprehensive diffusion, rendering space traversable by flows. These flows can be found in many recent museum projects such as Zaha Hadid’s model of variety, the variety of space where complexity opens up many different leads and connections. The question of the Merzbau in relation to museum spaces also leads us to a condition of smallness in the “age of museum extensions.” I think it is important not to forget the notion of house museums. Smallness can also be related to homes or museums with very interesting examples of a “house museum” where the actual experience of the work is enriched by very different circumstances, where the situation is more like a conversation than a singular viewing experience. Here I am referring to the Sir John Soane’s Museum in London or the Barragan House in Mexico – to both big and small.

So obviously this whole idea of bringing up small museums for consideration doesn’t necessarily mean any opposition to big museums, but it does raise the question that, if we have big museums, how can we preserve within them the conditions of house museums discussed earlier? How can we actually introduce,  reintroduce, or really inject the notion of smallness into bigger conditions? And that leads to the question of complexity, which I would like to address here. After having had a long discussion about the exterior aspects of museums, which were all about the facade, I think it is also relevant to talk about interior complexity, a new Merzbau condition, which will bring up urgent questions in the next few years about the future of museums. This situation of museums is obviously exceedingly complex and I think when you try to work out how to deal with this complexity, it is important not to reduce our reflections to a single model of museum space but to study several different ones, both historical models and contemporary models, and to take an experimental approach with regard to this complexity.

One of the problems of globalization is the spatial and temporal homogenization of the world of museums, and it is urgent to actually generate a situation which is receptive to kind of interlocking of spaces or bridges between old and new  – as exemplified by Rem Koolhaus’s work Hermitage – while also keeping in mind notions of acceleration and deceleration, moments of speed and moments of slowness, where there should be zones of noise and zones of silence, where they are also notions between private and public space.


This future of the museum also raises the issue of memory. It has to do with what Eric Hobsbawm calls a “protest against forgetting.” In a BBC breakfast with Hobsbawm, he said: “ I mean our society is geared to make us forget. It’s about today when we enjoy what we ought to; it’s about tomorrow when we have more things to buy, which are different; it’s about today when yesterday’s news is in the dustbin. But human beings don’t want to forget – it’s built into them.”

In terms of the future the museum I would like to end/open with some reflections on the future. I have asked some artists to send a sentence on the future, here they are:

-The future will be chrome

Rirkrit Tiravanija

-The future will be curved

Olafur Eliasson

-The future will be “in the name of the future”

Anri Sala

-The future will be so subjective

Tino Sehgal

-The future will be bouclette

Douglas Gordon 

-The future will be curious

Nico Dockx

-The future will be obsolete

Tacita Dean

-The future will be asymmetric

Pedro Reyes

-The future will be a slap in the face

Cao Fei

-The future will be delayed

Loris Greaud

-The future does not exist but in snapshots

Philippe Parreno

-The future will be tropical

Dominque Gonzalez-Foerster

-The future? You must be mistaken

Trisha Donnelly

-The future will be overgrown and decayed

Simryn Gill

-The future will be tense

John Baldessari

-A future fueled by human waste

Matthew Barney

-The future is going nowhere without us

Paul Chan

-The future is now – the future is it

Doug Aitken

-The future is one night, just look up

Tomas Saraceno

-The future will be a remake

Didier Fiuza Faustino

-The future is what we construct from what we remember of the past – the present is the time of instantaneous revelation

Lawrence Weiner

-The future is this place at a different time

Bruce Sterling

-The future will be widely reproduced and distributed

Cory Doctorow

-The future will be whatever we make it

Jacque Fresco

-The future will involve splendor and poverty

Arto Lindsay

-The future is uncertain because it will be what we make it

Immanuel Wallerstein

-The future is waiting – the future will be self-organized

Raqs Media Collective

-This is not the future

Jordan Wolfson

-The future is a dog

Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron

-On its way; it was here yesterday

Hreinn Fridfinnsson

-The future will be an armchair strategist; the future will be like new snow on the broken bridge

Yang Fudong

The future always flies under the radar

Martha Rosler

-Suture that future

Peter Doig

-‘to-morrow, and to-morrow,  and to-morrow’ (Shakespeare)

Richard Hamilton

-The future is overrated

Cerith Wyn Evans

-Future = $B!g(B

Hector Zamorra

-The future is a large pharmacy with a memory deficit

David Askvold

-The future will be bamboo

Tay Kheng Soon

-The future will be ousss

Koo Jeong-A

-The future will be – grains, particles, and bits

The future will be – ripples, waves, and flow

The future will be – mix, swarms, multitudes

The future will be – the future we deserve but with some surprises if only some of us take notice

Vito Acconci

-In the future… the earth as a weapon …

Allora & Calzadilla

-The future is our excuse

Joseph Grigely and Amy Vogel

-The future will be repeated

Marlene Dumas

-Okay okay I’ll tell you about the future but I am very busy right now; give me a couple of days more to finish some things and I will get back to you

Jimmie Durham

-The future is instant

Yung Ho Chang

-‘The future is not’

Zaha Hadid

-The future is private

Anton Vidokle

-The future will be layered and inconsistent

Liam Gillick

-The future is a piano wire in a pussy powering something important

Matthew Ronay

-In the future perhaps there will be no past

Daniel Birnbaum

-The future was

Julieta Aranda

-The future is menace

Carolee Schneemann

-The future is a forget-me-not

Molly Nesbit

-The future is a knowing exchange of glances

Sarah Morris

-The future: scratching on things I could disavow

Walid Raad

-The future is our own wishful thinking

Liu Ding

-The future is now

Maurizio Cattelan

-The future has a silver lining

Thomas Demand

-The future is now and here

Yong Friedman

-The future?

See you there!

As artist you want to help to form our tomorrows.

We have always believed in the past, present and future.

It’s going to be marvelous

Long live the future

With lots of love

Always and always

Gilbert & George

-Future is without you

Damien Hirst

-By lack of interest, the future has been canceled

Pierre Huyghe

-The future is a poster


-We have repeated the future out of existence

Tom McCarthy

-The future has two large beautiful eyes

Jonas Mekas

-Less and fewer tours in my future

Stefano Boeri

-Future is what it is

Huang Yong Ping

-The future is the very few years we have remaining before all time becomes one time

Grant Morrison

-Future must be here today

Jan Kaplicky

-The future is a season

Pierre Huyghe

-Future is more freedom

Jia Zhangke

-My art is very free, I don’t know what to do in the future but I am positive

Xu Zhen