30 Apr 2020
What seemed unimaginable until recently became reality on March 14. The Kunstmuseum Basel closed its doors because of the Corona Pandemic. It is still uncertain what kind of activity will be possible after the opening. For me it is clear: our collection belongs to the public, and our house must be an open space for as many different people as possible. Nonetheless, the Kunstmuseum should continue to do sustainable work even when it is not in direct contact with the public.
Sustainability has to be linked to objectives such as achieving stability, the best possible use of available resources and, in connection with this, a natural ability to regenerate. Our most important resource, the capital that is entrusted to us – but does not belong to us – are our collections. It is our core mission to take care of the objects entrusted to us. Works of art form a kind of memory or archive of humanity. Without knowledge of our past, a better future for our species and the planet we inhabit and have brought to the brink of collapse is not conceivable. At least that is my conviction.
Museum work is fundamentally oriented towards long-term behaviour, it is always based on tasks of care and preservation. Museum activities are not limited to a temporary event; they produce results (growth in knowledge, relationships, etc.) that continue over the duration of the event and are directed towards continuity and long-term thinking. This work is not an end in itself, but an offer to the whole of society. Many departments in a museum are concerned with different aspects of sustainability. The example of conservation/restoration is particularly plausible: the preservation and preservation of artworks that are very fragile depending on their age and origin is an everyday museum practice and per se a "regenerative" (or, in other words, sustainable) activity.
In my view, sustainable museum work should have different aspects or fulfil different conditions: First and foremost, it concerns our content and intellectual work and its objectives. This includes a creative, dynamic approach to our collections. Works of art do not exist for themselves, they were created for people. Our task in the museums is to "revitalize" them again and again. An important contribution to sustainability lies in creating new "ecologies" of exhibition and communication. Many exhibition projects are conceived from within the museum's own collection and are used as an opportunity to re-examine objects, some of which are familiar, but also forgotten, by presenting them in an unusual context, for example. Sustainability is created above all through the discovery of the unknown and the mediation of the knowledge that has grown in this way, as well as its analogue and digital publication. Especially digital offers for our visitors are of central importance during the current closure. Just like other institutions, we at the Kunstmuseum are learning more every day.
However, sustainability also always contains a social component. Museums are not only places of perception and contemplation, but also public places for encounters and social debate. Museums basically exist at the interface between the past (what should be preserved) and the future (for whom these objects should be preserved). Sustainability is a category that particularly includes the dimension of the future: What is considered valuable today should be available to future generations. In my view, art and cultural objects in the broadest sense, which we keep in our museums, are a public good that should be available to all people – just like the natural resources of our planet, water, our soil, the air or sunlight. Above all, however, museums are not only preserving institutions with one or the other specific performance mandate, but also places of "humane thought and action", as my colleague Bernhard Maaz said in Munich. In this respect, they also fulfil the postulate that true sustainability must always include added value for the future, even if this added value cannot be quantified mathematically and is perhaps more intangible.
And finally: Our thinking and acting can only take place together with the audience. With this in mind, I hope that we will soon be able to open our doors again for you, dear readers.
Josef Helfenstein, Director