TrAIN Open Lecture by Bojana Piškur: ‘Museum of the Workers’

Open Lecture


‘Women's Antifascist Front’ exhibition, Moderna galerija, Ljubljana, 1948. Courtesy: Moderna galerija, Ljubljana

This event is now fully booked, however if you would like to attend please contact Alice Clark on to go onto the waiting list.

The focus for this talk will be socialist museums, looking at case studies in the former Yugoslavia and also, for instance, in Chile – specifically the Museum of Solidarity associated with Salvador Allende. I will touch upon working-class or proletarian culture, such as the Proletkult of the early 1920s in Russia and the writings of its main protagonist Alexander Bogdanov. The main importance of the Proletkult was the idea that the struggle on the cultural front was of equal importance to the struggle on economic and political fronts. According to their ‘doctrine’ the proletariat should, in order to emancipate itself from the culture of the ruling class, create its own culture. All these ideas had a far-reaching influence in other socialist countries after the second world war.

Socialist Yugoslavia in the 1950s adopted an economic and political system based on self-management and it was one of the core members of the non-aligned movement. Subsequently these circumstances had a strong impact on Yugoslavia’s cultural politics as well. The emphasis was placed on the educative function of culture rather than on artistic functions, and museums were encouraged to address the entire working population ¬– that is, the spheres of economy, education and culture were transferred to the people themselves. One of the main museological tasks was to make a bridge between museums and workers ¬– which sometimes meant literally bringing art to the factories. Educational or didactic exhibitions were mounted with the intention of actively engaging workers in culture-making. In other words: art museums and their contents were opened to the workers with the purpose of rethinking the museum’s role in the new socialist society.

In 1972 an important event was organised under the auspices of UNESCO, a seminar in Santiago – capital of a socialist and non-aligned Chile – debating a new type of museum, one that would link cultural rehabilitation with political emancipation. This museum would follow social and cultural changes closely and be socially progressive without being ideologically restricted by any political representation. An example, observed from today’s perspective, might be the Museum of Solidarity, as already mentioned. While inaugurating this institution in May 1972, Salvador Allende, seemed to understand the new museological vocation of the era, announcing: ‘This is not just a museum anymore. This is a museum of the workers!’

After the 1990s the humanist ideas of socialism, socialist cultural policies and the topic of non-alignment seemed to become obsolete and were widely forgotten; however, in recent years there has been a renewed interest in these issues. The following questions arise: What progressive socialist cultural policies, museum models and directions – as well as their emancipatory utopias – could be applied to the new models of museum of today? What are the elements, traditions, references from those past experiences that can be extracted or recuperated in times of neoliberal capitalism in the sphere of culture? And most importantly: how do we actually translate these ideas into praxis?

Bojana Piškur is a curator at the Moderna galerija in Ljubljana. Her focus of professional interest is on political issues as they relate to or are manifested in the field of art, with special emphasis on the region of the former Yugoslavia and Latin America. She has researched topics such as ‘post avant-gardes in former Yugoslavia’, ‘absent archives’, ‘radical education’, ‘new kinds of institutionality’, ‘politics of curating’, ‘relationships between art forms and politics of resistance’ and ‘politics of affect’, always in relation to the wider social and political environment. She was a member of Radical Education Collective between 2006 and 2014.

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