Museums Bridge Civilizations
The China-Europe-America Museums Cooperation Initiative was established in 2021 amid a unique trend of museum expansion.
That year, we explored how technology was transforming museums, which certainly remains an open question in the age of mobile devices, cyberspace, AI chatbots, and quantum physics. Last year, we focused on the role of museums in preserving cultural heritage. In 2023, we decided to consider how museums serve as cultural intermediaries between civilizations.
The economic dimensions associated with museums are well known. The ecosystem of art galleries, art fairs, cultural foundations, auction companies, and art museums generates economic value and jobs. In 2022, the global art market was estimated at around US$68 billion. And the documentary The Art of Making It reminded us that the relationship between art and finance is not always harmonious.
The Guggenheim Museum Bilbao has been a symbol of the transformation of an entire city through culture since its establishment in Spain in 1997. True art is always an elevation.
From the perspective of urban revival, Hong Kong’s ambition to become Asia’s art metropolis is another ongoing story to follow. At the moment, the West Kowloon Cultural District is one of the world’s largest cultural infrastructure projects. Flanked by the Hong Kong Palace Museum and the M+ Museum, Hong Kong’s global museum of visual culture, the district is an illustration of China’s cultural renaissance fusing an ancient past with projections into the future.
Whether in arts, humanities, sciences, or technologies, museums also create communities, which is quite obvious at the local or national level. A nation is partially built through its domestic museums. The Louvre Museum, for example, opened to the public during the French Revolution (1789-1799).
Beyond, at the global level, museums can be seen as unifying factors. Cultural tourism fosters better understanding between cultures, and the internationalization of museums facilitates dialogue between civilizations. By some estimates, around 104,000 museums operate globally today.
In his trilogy Museum, a World History, European scholar Krzysztof Pomian associated the notion of “museum” with that of “world history.” Trying to make sense of the act of collecting shines light on human nature and mankind. Links certainly exist between our capacity to collect objects, specimens, and data and our power to understand and, therefore, make progress. Here, we should reflect on the significance of the Global Brain Museum in particular, a digital archive for the history of brain research worldwide.
Alongside art trafficking and restitutions, another problem has plagued the development of museums—uneven distribution. Indeed, let us not forget that 61 percent of museums are in Western Europe and North America. More than 33,000 museums are in the United States, which hosts a museum industry estimated at more than US$11 billion. Only 18 percent of the world’s museums are in the Asia-Pacific, and less than one percent are in Africa, where more than 17 percent of the global population lives.
The China-Europe-America Museums Cooperation Initiative is a community composed of experts, practitioners, collectors, artists, designers, entrepreneurs, and educators. One would hope that such an open circle could raise awareness about museums’ significance, stimulate research on a global phenomenon, and incubate cooperation projects.
As Henry James (1843-1916) noted in A Small Boy and Others, museums can overwhelm people with a “deafening chorus” filled with more “visibilities as one could directly deal with.” They are, at the same time, indispensable to individual education and civilization.
Museums create more cohesive communities. They can also be paths to fraternity. In 1927, the year of the first publication of the prestigious journal Mouseion that ran until 1946, French art historian Henri Focillon (1881-1943) stated that “museums were the first means towards the world’s awareness.” Today, they stand as catalysts incubating a community with a shared future for humanity.
This article is adapted from David Gosset’s opening remarks at the third dialogue of the China-Europe-America Museums Cooperation Initiative.
The author is founder of the China-Europe-America Museums Cooperation Initiative and editor of China and the World.