More than a museum

Museums have changed in recent decades. From discos and food tastings to sleepovers and storytelling sessions, they now offer an entirely new experience. The transformation is the subject of today’s Louvre Abu Dhabi discussion, Nick Leech writes.

A visitor slides down artist Carsten Holler's 2006 installation entitled 'Test Site' at The Tate Modern, London. Peter Macdiarmid / Getty Images
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Last Saturday night a group of bearded revellers in frock coats and top hats gathered at the Hermitage Amsterdam, one of the city's more sedate museums, to dine with Russian royalty.
The banquet lasted until 2am but passed without incident, despite the fact that the diners were completely covered in cardboard and the royals were the subject of an exhibition of palace fine china called Dining with the Tsars.
Such incidents are not unusual in the Netherlands on the first Saturday in November, a date reserved not for Halloween parties but for Museumnacht, or Museum Night, an annual after-hours event that celebrated its 15th anniversary last weekend.
Museumnacht was started by a group of students, convinced that the prospect of dancing, playing, socialising and eating in the presence of Dutch landscapes, Delftware and dinosaurs would prove irresistible to partygoers and culture vultures.
They were right. The Netherlands' inaugural Museumnacht attracted 15,000 visitors in 2000, which almost doubled last year.
Museum nights have now become a global phenomenon, from Gabii Sa Kabilin, or Heritage Night, in the Philippines to La Noche de Los Museos, or Night of the Museums, in Argentina.
On a single night in 2005, Berlin's Die Lange Nacht der Museen (The Long Night at the Museum), one of Europe's oldest, attracted 150,000 visitors to more than 100 events.
With their crowds, discos, live performances, screenings, workshops, food tastings, sleepovers and storytelling sessions, museum nights shine a light on the expanded field within which museums and galleries now operate.
As with the increasingly interactive works they display and the international and diverse audiences who attend, museums have changed in recent decades.
It is a shift that is the subject of Wednesday's Louvre Abu Dhabi: Talking Art Series panel discussion, Museums as Sites for New Experiences.
Featuring Louvre Abu Dhabi's architect Jean Nouvel, Agence France-Museums' scientific director Jean-Francois Charnier, and the Brazilian sculptor Ernesto Neto, the panel will discuss the profound effects these changes are likely to have on museums of the future, their content and audiences.
Few artists have explored the limits of just what a museum visit might involve in quite the same way as Neto.
Born in 1964 in Rio de Janeiro, he uses materials such as sheer nylon, coffee, crochet and camomile to create immersive environments full of taut membranes, vaulted tunnels, womblike chambers and paddling pools that can be entered, experienced and even smelled.
"My work is always floating," he says. "There is an energy that is always about balance. If you cut something everything can fall, and we work at the limit with gravity and weight."
Neto has described his installations as "mammal architecture, only skin and bones with no stuffing", and "a place of sensations, a place of exchange and continuity between people".
His work uses every technique possible to reach out to its audience and, as a rarity in the world of contemporary art, its appreciation is accompanied by words such as play, joy, wonder and fun.
But for Neto and his many admirers, it would be a mistake to confuse the work's playfulness with a lack of seriousness.
"Many times, when you say something is playful, many people think that is less important than a 'serious' thing," he says.
"But when I think about my work in these environments, I think the playfulness is a very serious thing.
"The more we play, the more we learn and the more we can make it possible to learn things that would be much more difficult to explain if we did things little by little.
"We are constantly receiving information but I want this to be a place where we stop thinking, where we take refuge in art. I think that not thinking is healthy. It's like breathing life itself."
The desire to transport an audience to a place of more immediate sensation and experience is something Neto shares with the Belgian artist Carsten Holler.
Known for his signature work with flotation tanks, mirrored carousels, vision-altering glasses and psychotropic drugs, Holler's interactive experiments try to alter the mental state of his audiences while turning them from spectators to part of the spectacle.
One of his most notable successes was in 2007 when he installed Test Site in the Turbine Hall at Tate Modern.
Not only did the installation fill the cavernous space with sinuous, stainless steel slides but it also introduced the involuntary sounds of their users – joy, fear and laughter – with them.
Holler describes the effect using the words of the French writer Roger Caillois, as a "voluptuous panic upon an otherwise lucid mind".
If Test Site momentarily turned Tate Modern into a funfair, another of Holler's installations turned part of one of the world's most famous galleries into a hotel.
Revolving Hotel Room was developed as part of "theanyspacewhatever", a 2008 exhibition held at the Guggenheim in New York.
Launched two years after the American Museum of Natural History began hosting sleepovers for children, the Guggenheim show offered art lovers the ultimate backstage pass by hosting an adult sleepover that included breakfast in bed.
Revolving Hotel Room consisted of three separate, slowly turning discs fitted with a dressing area, a desk and a double bed, and just as with a real hotel room, the Guggenheim's guests paid for the privilege.
The American actress Chloe Sevigny was the first person to accept Holler's invitation to become part of the work of art.
As the Guggenheim's chief curator, Nancy Spector, said at the time: "We were very interested in it, because it does in many ways encapsulate the concerns of these artists to really stretch the parameters of what a museum can be."
Nouvel's desire to see Louvre Abu Dhabi as something more than just a gallery is already on record.
"For me, this project is a new, small neighbourhood of Abu Dhabi," he said last year. "The goal is to build a part of the city."
For Charnier, however, Louvre Abu Dhabi's mission will be one of the things that has the most profound influence on the visitor experience.
"The museum's vision is to create a universal perspective on things, not from a western or an eastern perspective, but from Abu Dhabi's position as a crossroads," he says.
Charnier says that change in perspective will be most visible in the way Louvre Abu Dhabi's collection is exhibited and interpreted.
"If you want to understand the links, for example, between ancient Egypt and the Near East in antiquity in other museums you would have to go to different departments, but in Louvre Abu Dhabi there are no more departments," the curator explains.
"We want to create something that, for the first time in museums, involves a dialogue between art objects from different civilisations. That's because we are working to create a new kind of museum.
"It's not a western museum and it's not a fragment of the Louvre coming here. Louvre Abu Dhabi will be a universal museum."
Charnier's colleague Hissa Al Dhaheri, the Louvre Abu Dhabi programme manager with the Tourism and Culture Authority Abu Dhabi, says there is no distinction between the museum's location and its universalist aims.
"I also see this as a national museum because it's telling our region's story of being connected, of being open to the world and of assimilating different cultures," Al Dhaheri says.
"Even if we talk about our Emiratiness or local culture, that is always something that was created through encounters and this museum represents that spirit which represents our identity."