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The Places of History

The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the minds of the living.
—Karl Marx, The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte

Since Baudelaire’s time, the artist has been imagined as someone rooted in the tradition of overcoming tradition. Artists have been obliged to keep abreast of fashion and spend their time in endless flânerie, thus resisting being stopped or captured in space. In the twentieth century, the public figure or activist was primarily a revolutionary, an adherent of the tradition of combating tyranny—at the extreme, an adept of permanent revolution. He or she fought against the limitations imposed by time, by specific historical periods, and this struggle was waged on behalf of a utopian future. The Bolshevik Trotsky wrote that he was always rooted in a tradition, but this tradition was called revolution.

The museum of the revolution and the museum of modernist art are meeting places for the politician and the artist fighting against the limitations of time and space; they are heterotopias that have paradoxically retained their importance despite the radicalism of certain twentieth-century thinkers who were opposed to any spatio-temporal capture. From this perspective, it is very important to study the transformations undergone by the Soviet museums after the victory of the proletarian socialist revolution. Their status cannot be reduced either to the modernist narrative of art history or to the avant-garde breakthrough into a future life free of social antagonisms. It would be even more inappropriate to interpret the museum experiment of the young Soviet state exclusively as a part of the propaganda policy launched by the Bolshevik party in the 1920s and ’30s. Rather, we are dealing with a paradoxical phenomenon of avant-garde museology, a boundless museum rooted in the dreams of the radical Russian thinkers, starting from the cosmist Nikolay Fyodorov, who viewed the museum as a scientific launching pad for the future resurrection of dead generations and for space expansion, and continuing to the Marxist museologists of the ’30s, who developed the concept of travelling museum laboratories for workers and peasants that were meant to help build the future socialist society as quickly as possible.

The discourse around the museum’s status in the twentieth century was essentially a discussion of the limits of emancipatory projects. It simultaneously pointed to the possibility that an imaginary future could exist in a special way in the “here and now” of museum space, which resembles other heterotopias identified by Foucault, such as the cemetery. And indeed, it is still assumed that capturing or recording any phenomenon (whether an event of public life or of art) in words or by placing it in a museum is tantamount to its death.

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