chapter  6
32 Pages

Open air museums as an urban phenomenon

ByJ. Pedro Lorente

A museum is, primarily, a concept, not an edifice housing a collection within its walls; this is a truism often repeated by museologists, though the common use of language tends to identify museums with buildings sheltering cultural treasures inside. Ever since its creation in 1946, the International Council of Museums (ICOM) has considered botanic gardens, zoological reserves and archaeological sites as proper museums on the grounds of a concept developed from 1961 to 1968 which comprises any permanent facility where a series of cultural items are managed for the common interest. After the approval of the new ICOM statutes in 1974, the definition was further expanded to encompass open air heritage. In the ensuing decades, extending the museum notion beyond the walls of a building would become a favourite claim. Radically opposed to traditional institutions created by political or social élites to display opulent collections, the nouvelle muséologie emerging then supported the groundbreaking social concept of an expanded museum, called ecomusée by French activists Georges-Henri Rivière and Hugues de Varine Bohan. Their proposal consisted of replacing authority-created collections of items removed from their original locations with the musealization in situ of an entire human ecosystem upon the community’s initiative, who would take charge of its management. It was a fascinating experiment, about which much has been written, especially by experts in ethnology and archaeology, disciplines more prone to that territorial socialization of heritage. Yet far from remaining unencumbered, the arts sector went through a parallel phenomenon: the proliferation of permanent ensembles of modern sculptures outdoors, sometimes termed sculpture parks, while in other places they would be proudly called open air museums, even though they were often created from the bottom up by artists and their friends, with no institutional character. Like the ecomuseums, they were frequently located in rural environments as well, but similarities end there because they would never become the hobbyhorse of either the New Museology or the so-called New Art History, both developed during the 1970s and 1980s. However, the present trend for in situ musealization of street art is changing our perspective; therefore, this chapter focusses on retracing some urban antecedents in the history of open air art museums.