Claudia Contu Short Essay For Imd2019

Claudia Contu, Short Essay for IMD2019

To help celebrate International Museum Day, Claudia Contu, ICOM UK Student Member and a graduating MA student from the Curating Contemporary Art course at the Royal College of Art London, has written a short piece that expresses her thoughts on the future of tradition – the theme of this year’s event. To find out more on International Museums Day and the events planned see  


We are definitely facing “interesting times” – as Ralph Rugoff (Director, Hayward Gallery) would put it – whilst living in the aftermath of a global crisis that compromised our understanding of the world.

To mark the occasion of ICOM’s International Museum Day 2019, which responds to the theme “Museums as Cultural Hubs: The future of tradition”, I want to introduce the Middlesbrough Institute of Modern Art (MIMA) as a case of best practice in contemporary museology and as example of a shift that has brought museums from being places devoted to the exhibition of art to institutions that encourage social change by hosting art in formats that overcome traditional exhibition-making and public programming. MIMA is part of Teesside University, and calls itself a useful museum with a civic agenda, “to reconnect art with its social function and promote art as a tool for changing the world around us”[1]. Encouraging artists and audiences to meet in its galleries and out, in the town of Middlesbrough (UK), MIMA seeks to favour the emergence of a conscious political agenda in the local community.

Photography courtesy of Middlesbrough Institute of Modern Art

MIMA’s programme of engagement and learning offers the possibility for its visitors to meet and interact in the galleries of the museum. The gallery is conceived as an extension of the public square, where the audience can feed into the museum’s activity and core programme. For its tenth anniversary, for instance, MIMA opened its first collection gallery. The choice of artworks and their layout was decided after a series of conversations between the curators and the local community of Middlesbrough[2]. Thus, a number of acquisitions eventually addressed certain gaps in institutional representation previously felt by members of the local community – i.e. women artists, artists of minority ethnic backgrounds, and international artists addressing issues which are of interest to the Tees Valley.

Photography courtesy of Middlesbrough Institute of Modern Art

MIMA speaks of its audiences as constituencies, allowing individuals to directly inform the museum’s agenda through the responses collected via workshops, walkatives and other activities. With a long–term perspective informed by ideas of social change and empowerment, art is seen as a tool for everybody’s action. The challenge for this institution is to go beyond the concept of ‘public engagement’, which is highly charged with managerial and marketing forces, and the proximity to the Teesside University seems to play a vital role in enabling such a fruitful dynamic. By taking over the local art school – now called the MIMA School of Art – MIMA offers a considerable contribution to the debate around the future of museums. If cultural institutions will be grounded in artistic research and develop research through art, we might be able to nurture a sustainable cultural environment that reflects the needs of local communities whilst supporting the work of cultural practitioners.

[1] last accessed on May 14, 2019

[2]–on/single/middlesbrough–collection–2/ (last accessed on May 5th, 2019).