Collections in Transition - Decolonising, Demodernising and Decentralising?

Installation view THe Making of Modern Art, Van Abbemuseum, 2017. Photo Peter Cox

Collections in Transition Decolonising, Demodernising and Decentralising?

A symposium organised by L’Internationale

A symposium organised by museum confederation L’Internationale on collecting art in a time of Globalisation and mass migration. Part of Demodernising the Collection: Opening weekend (21-23 sep)

The symposium will be English spoken  

Time Schedule

printable programme (pdf) 

9:30   – 10:00 Registration and coffee at the Van Abbemuseum. Entrance via the Museumcafé, Stratumsedijk 2
10:00 – 10:30  Deviant Practice, research presentation by Kuba Szreder, Meg Down and Sebastian Cichocki
10:30 – 11:30  Guided tours through the collection exhibitions The Making of Modern Art and The Way Beyond Art 
11:30 – 12:00  Artists and deviant researchers Brook Andrew and Michael Karabinos talk about their exhibitions on display
12:00 – 12:20 Coffee
12:20 – 12:30 Introduction
12:30 – 14:00 Part 1: Keynote speech by Rolando Vazquez, plus presentations by L’Internationale directors Manuel Borja-Villel and Meriç Öner 
14:00 – 14:45 Lunch
14:45 – 16:15  Part 2: Keynote speech by Geeta Kapur, plus presentations by L’Internationale directors Zdenka Badovinac and Charles Esche
16:15 – 17:45  Workshops: 4 parallel sessions
17:45 – 18:00  Mini break
18:00 – 19:00  Panel discussion
19:00 – 20:00  Plenary discussion moderated by Chris Keulemans
From 20:00  Drinks.


A lot is at stake for European museums in their attempt to deal with the consequences of economic, political and cultural globalisation. Values of colonial, western-centred modernity are being challenged from many sides: climate change, the millennial generation, participatory society, digital commons, rising global levels of education, mass migration, decolonial reparation, and more. In these transitional times, museums have a renewed responsibility to position themselves within today’s multi-facetted and multi-polar world and to think together how to construct public platforms that are adequate to deal with current social, ethical, and aesthetic challenges. Museums across Europe are already rethinking their programming, collecting and archiving of artistic forms of expression, both contemporary and historical. They strive to be transdisciplinary, experimental and accountable, and to come to terms with their pasts, ongoing power structures and reconsider what, how and for whom they are collecting. In this symposium, L'Internationale* reflects on ideas stemming from the recent discourses around decolonising, demodernising and decentralising to see how museums are responding and what can be expected of them in the years ahead. 

Part 1: Decolonising Public Art Institutions in Times of Transition? 

The day is set-up to understand better how the structural analysis of immanent colonialism inside modern societies permeates into its institutional infrastructure and ‘common sense’. As the European art museum is rooted in nineteenth century thought, it holds a complex position of being a public place for educational emancipation whilst simultaneously being firmly embedded in a mind-set defined by colonialism. For example, the process of considering certain art canonical while other arts and art forms are marginalised implies an uncomfortable categorisation that reveals power relationships between the coloniser and the colonised, or the rich and poor. In response, “decoloniality opens up spheres of conversational and communal healings, reorienting thinking, sensing and doing in the/our praxis of living”, to quote Walter Mignolo. In the light of such decolonial thinking, unresolved colonial histories from the past are being reassessed by a new generation in the global south. These rewritten histories then combine with contemporary mass migrations, religious revivals and identitarian movements in Europe to pressure public art museums to change. But what does a decolonial museum look like? How can museums welcome a public that has become both fragmented and more demanding? What is to be done with modernism once a relationship between coloniality and modernity is established? How is this manifest in museums and what type of changes are happening on the ground? How do their programmes, collections and archives address a pluriversal world? Is a ‘museum of the commons’ possible? These are some of the questions that will be addressed in this panel.
Confirmed speakers: 

Rolando Vázquez (more about Vázquez and his keynote), assistant professor of Sociology at University College Roosevelt of Utrecht University, coordinator of the Decolonial Summer School Middelburg.
Manuel Borja-Villel, director Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía, Madrid
Meriç Öner, director SALT, Istanbul 

Part 2: Towards Demodernising Art History?

As a reference for assessing contemporary art globally western art history has become inadequate. Its underlying hegemonic and colonial structures, its hierarchical categorisations and its linear, progressive thinking are no longer able to explain the art world and its products. The questions that this crisis of the tradition raises are manifold. While colonial modernity remains one of the main departure points for curatorial research, exhibition concepts and collection formation in many institutions, its historical legacies are very different, depending on where you stand in the world. This session will set out to exchange ideas about the various options and to see how they can coexist in new entangled versions of art histories. Should “modernism” perhaps completely disappear out of the vocabulary because of its ties to colonialism? Or, on the contrary, would it be desirable to construct multiple modernisms, or, if at all possible, a kind of global, cosmopolitan or postcolonial modernism? This session explores, amongst others, how recent scholarly insights and proposals for transnational and cross-cultural understandings of modernism can be translated into museological practices. The speakers are all committed to historical analysis as a valuable tool to map relationships between different artistic practices and to museums as sites where new narratives can be told. They differ widely in terms of their geographic locations and on how to address the legacy of modernity as a concept and a still living tradition.
Confirmed speakers: 

Geeta Kapur (more about Kapur and the keynote), art critic, historian and curator  
Zdenka Badovinac, director MG+MSUM, Ljubljana
Charles Esche, director Van Abbemuseum, Eindhoven

Part 3: Collections in Transition: Potential Tools for Decentralisation?

This part of the day will look at museum practice, exploring potential tools for decentring collections which can be seen as both the treasury and the burden of public art institutions. They are the most tangible evidence of past and present value assessments; after all, acquisitions entail long-term financial commitment (management and conservation), the conviction that the work of art is a significant contribution to the existing holding, the tradition of art as well as valuable for future generations (hence the expression ‘museum quality’). While collections are always incomplete, selective and inter-subjective, their quality is often measured against hegemonic international museum standards. At the same time, museums increasingly want to appeal or be relevant to a local public or situation. This tension is not easily resolvable, especially in a world of increasing art prices and extreme private wealth.

Deciding on how, what and for whom to collect raises the core museum questions of value, gatekeeping and mediation. It is clear that collections are powerful tools to tell stories and to imagine past experiences. Artists and museum visitors are inspired by these narratives and use them to make their own work or place themselves within an artistic tradition. There are also local stories and national narratives for which every museum feels responsible, yet they also want to be part of a bigger artistic family. The workshops aim to explore various ways to reuse, reactivate, remediate and revisit museum collections.

Four separate workshops will be organised to encourage greater exchange and discussion. Each session will be led by a moderator and include 2-3 prepared short statements or case studies. 

I. Constituencies: museum as a social tool 

While museums seek an ever greater popularity, they want to work not only with tourists but also with locals that can make use of the art institution in their own ways. Concepts such as: “museum of the commons”, “the useful museum”, “participatory art”, “shared ownership” or “constituent publics” are increasingly found in museum policy papers. There is a joint desire to change expectations around the museum or art institute and develop different and more active relationships with diverse publics and the kinds of experiences they can access. How can be dealt with mechanisms of inclusion and exclusion underpinning presentations and collections of canonical art works by networked relationships?

II. Common knowledge: joint research initiatives 

As art museums are main narrators of art histories, they seem to be in need of new perspectives and knowledge on multiple, parallel and intertwined stories of art in order to provide productive contexts for new interpretations as well as acquisitions both enriching and complicating existing collections. How can museums and archives (re)gain relevance as places of collective memory and shared heritage in contemporary culture? How can (inter)national research collaborations within ánd beyond art institutions bring about new insights and help to meet the challenges of today’s world? 

III. Mediating the collection: language, authorship and hierarchy 

If modern society needs to decolonise and/or demodernise itself structurally to come to terms with the past, it also needs to decentralise its narratives and open-up new ways to manage its institutions. What would be the consequences of this for current collections, both in how they are composed and how they are mediated? The institutionalised artistic infrastructure seems a good place to start given its experimental traditions for, despite many people’s best efforts, the concept of the museum of the commons has yet to be given real concrete form. Can relationships to publics be rethought to allow for different forms of exchange and representation that are less hierarchical or didactic but allow decisions about public heritage to be taken in common? These and related questions structure this workshop. 

IV. Collection ontologies: decentring the canon

Despite their different identities, histories and priorities, almost all European art museums share a common root in the western canon. This workshop aims to reflect the nature of the historical relations between artists, modernity and colonialism, which form the basis for art history and as a result define many art collections in western Europe. This art historical frame of reference is nowadays under scrutiny and must question the cultural, social and political value of the institution. What are the consequences of changing the referential framework for acquiring new artworks or archives and remaking the collection displays?

Part 4: Panel and plenary discussion

Concluding the day, scholars, colleagues from other museums, together with senior officials of the European Union, are invited to reflect on the day’s findings and speculate on possible strategies to re-design the future museum.
Panel members, amongst others:
Ferran Barenblit, director MACBA, Barcelona 
Bart de Baere, director, M KHA, Antwerpen
Annie Fletcher, Head Curator, Van Abbemuseum, Eindhoven
Bart Rutten, director, Centraal Museum, Utrecht
Mirjam Shatanawi, Curator Middle East and North Africa, Tropenmuseum | Afrika Museum | Museum Volkenkunde.
Chris Keulemans, writer, journalist and teacher.

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Keynote Rolando Vázquez: The Museum, Decoloniality and the End of the Contemporary

Can modern and contemporary art institutions stand to the interpellation of their own modern/colonial history? Can the museum fulfil its public responsibility in an ethical way, considering that the formation of its narratives, its collections and publics is deeply embedded in coloniality? Can the museum respond to the question of the impossibility of leading an ethical life when our well-being depends on depletion of earth and the denial and suffering of other peoples and their worlds?
There is no modernity without coloniality. In our troubled times the colonial difference can no longer be denied. We are confronted with the daunting task of relinquishing the complacent place that is afforded to us by 'Eurocentrism' and its arrogant ignorance.
Modernity, the 500 years old Eurocentric project of civilization, has meant the radical reduction of worlds and the consumption of earth. Modernity can be seen as a historical condition towards worldlessness and earthlessness. Paradoxically its cult for novelty has foreclosed the future.
Decolonial thought raises the question of the 'End of the Contemporary', as a way to overcome the reduction of experience and open up to the possibility of relational temporalities. The hope of decolonial aesthesis, including decolonial curatorial praxis and public formations, does not lie in a competition to take control over the field of enunciation. The hope lies in enabling possibilities for listening to the pluriversality that has been relegated to oblivion under the modern/colonial order. The decolonial task of listening calls for the humbling of modernity.
Can modern and contemporary art institutions confront the task of listening to what exceeds their frameworks of intelligibility? Can the museum forego the privilege of controlling the locus of enunciation, overcome its epistemic enclosure and listen to the pluriversal?

Rolando Vázquez belongs to the movement of Decolonial Thought and Aesthesis. He teaches sociology at UCR University of Utrecht. He curated the workshop: 'Staging the End of the Contemporary' for MaerzMusik at the Berliner Festspiele. Together with Walter Mignolo, he has coordinated for eight years the Middelburg Decolonial Summer School and co-authored the seminal article Decolonial Aesthesis: Colonial Wounds/Decolonial Healings. In 2016 with Gloria Wekker et al. he wrote the report of the Diversity Commission of the University of Amsterdam. His work seeks to transgress the dominion of contemporaneity, heteronormativity and modernity/coloniality. Through the question of precedence and relational temporalities he seeks to contribute to decolonizing institutions, epistemology, aesthetics and subjectivity.

Keynote Geeta Kapur:“Demodern: Why?”

Throughout  the decolonization movement and across three generations of postcolonial thinkers, critiques of the modern have been mounted by those who  suffered  the exploitative nexus between the colonial and the modern; broke the pact through decolonization; counter-formulated their ideas and strategized distinct styles of anti-imperialist struggle – from Gandhi’s non-violence to armed revolutions to the peasant war of resistance in Vietnam. This history has produced a consciousness that must always problematize the modern. 

Postcolonial investigations confirm that while colonial modernization served the purpose of gross exploitation, modernity was co-produced by the west and its colonized subjects. Our shared modernity bears the wounds of history, and like many in the postcolonial world, I would rather that this wounded body survive through good nurture.

With some irony we might say that the crime of colonialism is, if anything, alleviated by the project of modernity. This was the case with many third world countries who developed their modernity in conjunction with Marxist-socialist  tendencies, deploying contradictions to defetishize canons; to calibrate modernist language in relation to their communitarian ethos and to their emergent contemporaneity. 

The need to decathect from the modern arrives in Europe at the crest of a  crisis. It is a global crisis, produced by a self-perpetuating capitalism – the subterfuge of neoliberal ideology still successful in camouflaging the potentially self- destroying systems at play. The politically sensitive art institutions in Europe wish to testify against the west’s continued expropriation of global resources and, concomitantly, against the subjection of the political to corporate command. They wish to recognize that Europe is unravelling: EU diminished by Brexit and by the  betrayal of its southern partners. They mark the loss of a socialist future. They rethink culture and citizenship in relation to ‘illegal’ migrants and fresh waves of refugees coming across borders.

The European desire to demodernize is iconoclastic, rhetorical. Elsewhere in the world, the modern may play out differently. As India regresses into right-wing Hindu authoritarianism, democratic rights, secular and rational epistemology positioned in modern institutions – this become a political imperative. And it becomes our task to position the aesthetic in a way that its proposed autonomy  works through a distributive arrangement of sense and meaning premised on  radical subjectivization and an emancipatory politics.

As a non-European critic, I suggest that it is not for the west to withdraw the modern – from hubris or humility – as if it were a gift, franchise, or curse. I move from the modern to the contemporary and name sites of conjuncture: the Biennales that  produce a breach in the economy of the modern museum and re-set the ground for contemporary art; and globalization, that disingenuously claims the badge of  transcultural goodwill. I argue that we need to historicize contradictions, gain traction and, rather than censor the modern, make the historical constitutes of contemporary culture more properly agonistic.   

Geeta Kapur is a critic and curator. Her essays are extensively anthologized; her books include Contemporary Indian Artists (1978); When Was Modernism (2000); Critic’s Compass: Navigating Practice (forthcoming). A founder-editor of Journal of Arts & Ideas; former advisory member, Third Text; trustee and advisory editor, Marg. Curatorial projects include: ‘Dispossession’, Johannesburg Biennale (1995); ‘Bombay/Mumbai’, Century City, Tate Modern (co-curation, 2001); ‘subTerrain’, House of World Cultures, Berlin (2003); ‘Aesthetic Bind’, Chemould, Mumbai (2013-14). Jury member: Biennales of Venice (2005), Dakar (2006), Sharjah (2007). Member advisory board: Tate Research Centre (Asia); Asia Art Archive; Asian Art Council, Guggenheim. Visiting Fellowships include: Institute of Advanced Study, Shimla; Clare Hall, University of Cambridge; Nehru Memorial Museum and Library, Delhi. Awarded Padma Shri in 2009.  


Over the past seven years, the European museum confederation L'Internationale has aspired to analyse the current state of the museum and experiment with alternative modes of practice. These activities are currently framed by the five-year EU-funded programme The Uses of Art - The Legacy of 1848 - 1989. Joint acquisitions, collection exchange, collective research, new audience strategies, the whole institution has been addressed from various sides to come to terms with the contemporary condition.

L'Internationale is a confederation of six modern and contemporary art institutions. L'Internationale proposes a space for art within a non-hierarchical and decentralised internationalism, based on the values of difference and horizontal exchange among a constellation of cultural agents, locally rooted and globally connected. It brings together six major European art institutions: Moderna galerija (MG+MSUM, Ljubljana, Slovenia); Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía (MNCARS, Madrid, Spain); Museu d'Art Contemporani de Barcelona (MACBA, Barcelona, Spain); Museum van Hedendaagse Kunst Antwerpen (M HKA, Antwerp, Belgium); SALT (Istanbul and Ankara, Turkey) and Van Abbemuseum (VAM, Eindhoven, the Netherlands). L'Internationale works with complementary partners such as Grizedale Arts (GA, Coniston, United Kingdom), Liverpool John Moores University (LJMU/LSAD, Liverpool, United Kingdom), Middlesbrough Institute of Modern Art (mima, Middlesbrough, United Kingdom), Stiftung Universität Hildesheim (UH, Hildesheim, Germany) and University College Ghent School of Arts (KASK, Ghent, Belgium), along with associate organisations from the academic and artistic fields. The confederation takes its name from the workers' anthem "L'Internationale", which calls for an equitable and democratic society with reference to the historical labour movement. More about L'Internationale

Organisation seminar

Mariska ter Horst, Steven ten Thije. 

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  • L'Internationale