Here we go: research residence in the National Museum of Contemporary Art in Bucharest

By Ursa Valic

Hi there! For a few months I will be writing you from Bucharest, the capital of Romania, a city with glorious and hmm… inglorious (communist) past. A city that has been home to more than 2 million of people of different ethno-cultural backgrounds and that in the past19th and beginning of 20th century was considered the Paris of the East. Yet now, I consider it as the New York of East – without trying to much to orientalise it, the city is now the magnet that attracts western capital on one hand, but on the other, a city of quite controversial social problems from low salaries for local workers to homeless people, forced evictions of Roma to mysterious disappearance of dogs from the streets that were for many years the terror of tourists (I was bitten by one 9 years ago, when I was here on a study exchange). However, hidden by the grey and dirty city facades, Bucharest is home to several gems of creative practices from the past and present – art venues, theatre, film and concert performances, wonderful museums and historical sites and many more.


So, what I am actually doing here, to attract your attention on the aMUSE(U)Ment blogBy the end of last year, I was awarded with an international research residence in 2017 at the National Museum of Contemporary Art in Bucharest for 6 months. My proposal to the museum was a participatory project with different groups of people, especially the ones from the margins, and considered vulnerable. I was not sure they will accept me – not being an artist, nor an art historian or theoreticianbut a cultural anthropologists and ethnologist and a museum curator and a passionate photographer. However, a museum of contemporary art (as any other museum) needs a mixture of different profiles and intellectual backgrounds, to broaden the margins of knowledge and maybe to have a different view on its work and especially when we are working on the collaboration with the public. I came at the right time: the museum is in vivid flow of changes from the physical space to the content. What a great adventure and how many challenges are therefore in front of me!


The National Museum of Contemporary Art (Muzeul Național de Artă Contemporană) was established in 2004 in the Parliament Palace or previously calleed the People’s House, the last of the foolish projects of the communist leader Nicolae Ceauşescu. The palace is one of the largest buildings in the world, but its history is a bit tormenting – it costed the leader head at least. After the earthquake in 1977, Ceauşescu wanted to reorganise and rebuild the area. The story is well known: a wast part of the city was demolished and more than 40.000 people were allocated. However, the building site gave work to many people, but is said that the costs were so high that the building impoverished the state and caused the political turmoil – the revolution of 1989. After the revolution, the building was still unfinished and under debate: either to demolish it or to transform it in something else. Today the building hosts the Parliament, the Senat, the Chamber of Deputies… and as I have already said, from 2004, the National Museum of Contemporary Art.

Photo: Iosif Király. (Photo from the MNAC web page.)

The establishment of the museum in the building that carries such a heavy historical symbolism related to vague and controversial memories and emotions, was debated since the beginning, starting with an international conference and exhibition Romanian Artists (and not only) love Ceauşescu’s Palace?! (curated by Ruxandra Balaci). One of the convenors, Ami Barak wrote in the museum/exhibition catalogue:

»When I heard the news of that quasi-Freudian choice of hosting the Museum of Contemporary Art inside the heinous People’s Palace, the fruit and symbol of former dictator Ceauşescu’s megalomania and crazy will for destructive and criminal grandeur, I said to myself, as did others, that instead of a beginning, this was rather a burial, an absolute closure enacted by the authorities. That it was, undoubtedly, a punishment and a buffling form of contempt towards contemporary art in general and Romanian creation in particular. While elsewhere the museums of contemporary art make room for daring architectural projects and devise modes of display that signal new trends in architecture, Romania has chosen a symbol of the past, with all the consequences for the collective unconscious that can be imagined. And that it was quite likely that this would contribute to the usual lack of understanding manifested by audiences anywhere towards today’s art, which the museum is called to protect and promote.” (Ami Barak, MNAC – National Museum of Contemporary Art, catalogue, 2004: 49)

The burdens of the past are still vivid in some sense, and can be described as a mental barrier between the museum and the community. The barrier is also materialized in the street and the wall surrounding the building with police controls that add a heavy notion of social power and inaccessibility. That is a real challenge for a project based on participation and accessibility…


However, the museum staff is full of fresh ideas that are reinforced by five floors of exposition space filled with a good program. On 27th April 2017, the grand Spring opening with five excellent exhibitions presenting mostly Romanian artists and also in a dialogue with the international art space (the program) was seen by quite a good number of visitors, looked like more than thousand. And one month later, on the 20th May, the Romanian Night of Museums, a broad number of people was still discovering the contemporary art in the museum half an hour before closing at 2 in the morning. The museum has also a good accompanying program with theater performances, talk shows like Artist Talk, workshops for children and a new program with music-based events is going to follow in the summer months.

So, what else can be add to the already long introductory presentation? Maybe, that I am happy to be here, to gain more knowledge and experiences in the field of the contemporary art museums and of course to add some other, different perspectives on museum work, especially in the filed of collaboration with the public.