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The Critical Museum Debate Continues

Venue: Birkbeck 43 Gordon Square, Keynes Library

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The project of the Critical Museum – the art institution which uses its own resources, including its collection, its range of activities and its “auratic” space, for encouraging and hosting the debates on the issues that are crucial for contemporary societies – was one of the boldest and socially most significant battles undertaken by Piotr Piotrowski, when invited to run the National Museum in Warsaw in 2009. The Critical Museum project, underscored by the transnational attitude of the engaged intellectual, formed part and parcel of Piotrowski’s long-standing campaign against the prevalent discourses of contemporary art history and, in particular, against the hierarchical artistic geography, eulogising masterpieces, and marginalising the arts of East Central Europe. However, it was not just the art historical canon which was the target. Piotrowski’s museum was devised, first and foremost, as a forum, as an active agent in the public sphere, the venue for exhibiting art and discussing society, deliberately contributing to the process of defending democracy and its values, digging up difficult memories, juxtaposing conflicting narratives, empowering the disempowered, with a special attention given to the rights of minorities. The programme led to a seismic shake-up, far beyond the corridors of Polish museums. As stressed by Piotrowski, the realisation of the Critical Museum model was not only the most desirable, but indeed solely possible outside the realm of the West, in East Central Europe. Although the project was aborted, the field has been realigned and the discussion about the Critical Museums continues. The paper will discuss the origins and the premises, as well as the aftermath of the Critical Museum project.

Dr Katarzyna Murawska-Muthesius teaches art history at Birkbeck College, University of London. Before her arrival in the UK in 1993, she was Curator of Italian Paintings (1981-90) and Chief Curator of The National Museum in Warsaw (1992-93). She returned as its Deputy Director in 2009-11. Recipient of the Henry Moore Institute Research Fellowship, and the Leverhulme Trust Research Fellowship, she lectured in various universities and art institutions in Europe and the US, including Institut für Kunst- und Bildgeschichte at the Humboldt Universität Berlin: she was Guest-Professor there in 2009, and Rudolf-Arnheim Professor in 2013/14. Her publications include: Europäische Malerei aus dem Nationalmuseum Warschau (Braunschweig 1988); Trionfo barocco (Gorizia 1990); Borders in Art: Revisiting Kunstgeographie (Warsaw 2000); National Museum in WarsawGuide: Galleries and Study Collections (Warsaw 2001, with Dorota Folga-Januszewska); Jan Matejko’s “Battle of Grunwald”: New Approaches (Warsaw 2010); Kantor was Here: Tadeusz Kantor in Great Britain (London 2011, with Natalia Zarzecka), From Museum Critique to the Critical Museum (Farnham, Ashgate 2015, Routledge 2017), co-edited with Piotr Piotrowski. Her current research is on imaging Eastern Europe.

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