An Approach to a Museum City



Artworks contain messages that can form powerful discourses, and art museums are sites where the public can participate in them, appreciating and reflecting on the work of great artists of all times. At art museums, visitors take in information related to history, sociology, anthropology and aesthetics, among many other subjects; they contemplate techniques, identify their lives in scenes that move them, feel pain, transgression, and other complex emotions while developing their understanding of socio-economic, political and religious contexts in different parts of the world at different moments of history.

What happens when we apply the concept of an art museum to the city in order to expand and improve our perception of our urban environments’ function in our daily lives? How can the metaphor of a museum help us define the relationship between policy makers and end users and show us how can they relate? The intention of this text is to suggest an approach to a Museum City, exploring the roles of governments and citizens, evaluating who plays the parts of artist and curator and their relationship to the exhibits and the experience therein.

If we consider the policy maker, the government, as the curator of the Museum City, its public policies are works of art: the tools it uses to intervene in the experience and general discourse of the population. This rather conventional application of the metaphor makes rather evident what kind of Museum City will result. I propose switching the role of the government, placing policy makers in the role of the artists and making citizens the curators, but leaving public policy as the works of art whose creation and implementation is a collaborative effort.

Urban innovation coexists in harmony with (and even manifests itself in) art. When potentialized by education, both can offer a message for every citizen, a provocation to act and think toward a better livable city. German-Uruguayan artist Luis Camnitzer says the museum is a school that explores studies its own relationship to education; his work is often directed toward the acquisition of knowledge through people’s ability to freely make connections between ideas. Camnitzer confronts traditional modes of art contemplation, opening them to the process of questioning created by a work of art, and showing us how the art museum can play the role of the educator.

Art has the capacity to change the public space and the way we live in cities, but it is essential to define how we intend art to function in urban life. One of art’s greatest potential contributions is how it can help make public policies more readable, understandable and engaging to the public. Looking at the issue of urban mobility, we should expect the government to offer good, functional public transportation for city inhabitants. They must encourage citizens to use it, without demanding or obligating us to do so—and one great way to bolster citizen acceptance and participation in public transit systems would be to employ the discursive possibilities of works of art along with the educational possibilities of the museum-city. When we look at the city as a platform for curated exhibits that provoke reflection and questions, we see how art can help change the way we perceive our environment. Curation, the decision of what is exhibited and how, is a crucial question that arises; decisions must be made about how to use the principles of beauty, change, function and the many other concepts that help deliver a curatorial message. For this reason, it is vital that the Musuem City be interdisciplinary and why design is fundamental to the project to help communicate the messages of the artworks shown. Imagine a contemporary museum in which a performance piece invites citizens to ride bikes, in the process showing us how to be more sensitive to the cityscape and making us aware of the emotions of car drivers.

Who participates in the Museum City, and how? In the creation of legible policies, it makes sense to view the government’s as curator of the city, but it is essential that citizens also engage in shaping the policies and discussions that affect life in the city. Citizens have a multi-faceted role in the Museum City: We are both co-curators with the government and students learning from the city’s “blackboards,” including the many offered by technology—online networks and public spaces to draw and express our ideas and opinions—voting, writing, posting messages, for example, requesting the expansion of public transportation lines so that we may get further without a car. We can even collectively work as the artists of the Museum City, participating in projects that deepen understanding of the city and its residents, such as making a great transit map by painting the tires of bicycles in colors that indicate the area of the destinations towards which we are heading, creating a collective artwork that also offers important information for city planners. In these ways, users can be the “artists of legibility” for policy and the example they set is the work of art that others will contemplate.

To further understand the potential of the city as museum, the example of Mexico City museum Sala de Arte Público Siqueiros is helpful. Its Proyecto Fachada (Façade Project) program focuses on public art and maintains a curatorial agenda that examines the complexity of contemporary artistic strategies related to the public dimension of the art, its social character and potential for political immersion. The program invites artists to intervene upon the façade of the Museum, which often translates into the extension of the façade to the street, with the aim of diversifying the concept of what is public in the surrounding neighborhood, employing a variety of media and exhibition formats to raise and debate questions about underlying social problems in the city’s cultural and public policies. The program, well established in its locale, is easy to replicate on a larger scale, and offers a beneficial and practical way for users to turn the city into a living, interactive museum driven by citizen engagement.

The Museum City promotes biodiversity in the general population, allowing the many “art movements” of different creeds, preferences and habits to help make the city more sustainable in aspects of mobility or ecology. Participation is key to citizens becoming artists in a Museum City, setting examples for others in order to promote, strengthen or disseminate a policy, using oral traditions and word-of-mouth to encourage legibility and engagement on the part of fellow citizens. Understanding the city as a museum can help individuals to overcome the expectation of personal benefit and place greater priority on social benefit, by looking at and understanding policy it in a creative way. Ultimately, rather than looking to determine which body within the city plays what role at the Museum, we should see the Museum City as the diverse ecosystem in which we would like to engage in a number of roles to ensure that our policies are dynamic, creative and legible to all.