After 1989: The Museum of Modern Art – Responses to the Art-Historical Past in East Central Europe

01. Dec 2013

Piotr Piotrowski is professor ordinarius at the Art History Department, Adam Mickiewicz University, Poznan, Poland, and Research Fellow of the Graduate School for East and South-East European Studies, Ludwig-Maximillians-Universität, München/ Regensburg Universität. He was director of the National Museum in Warsaw (2009-2010), as well as Visiting Professor at Humboldt University (2011-2012), Warsaw University (2011, 2012-2013), the Center for Curatorial Studies, Bard College USA (2001), and Hebrew University in Jerusalem (2003). He is the author of a dozen books including (in English): In the Shadow of Yalta (2009), and Art and Democracy in Post-Communist Europe (2012).

Author: Martin Jung

You no doubt know that there was no single model of communism in post-World War II Europe. On the contrary, the communist past was experienced differently in almost every country. There is no time in this workshop to explore this issue in detail, but just let me say that the history of art in former Eastern Bloc states was just as varied as the political history of those states. The knot between socialist realism, modernism and neo-avant-garde that existed everywhere in this region, was untied in different ways. While political and art history proceeded differently in different countries, the socialist past was traumatic to a greater or lesser degree. That means that when we look back, we are remembering trauma. We live, therefore, in post-traumatic times, at least in Eastern Europe. Paraphrasing Roger Luckhurst's concept of trauma culture,[1] we can call post-communist culture a post-trauma culture. And if Luckhurst views trauma culture as a symptom of traumaphilia, we can also see post-trauma culture as a symptom of traumaphobia. In short, in this paper art museums are seen in the context of traumaphilia and traumaphobia, where both are expressions of a negative heritage,[2] albeit - once again - to different degrees.


I would like to focus here on the National Museum of Contemporary Art in Bucharest (MNAC), which opened in 2004. However, I will compare it briefly with KUMU Art Museum in Tallinn, which opened in 2006, and the National Art Gallery in Vilnius, which opened in 2009.[3] But let me first say a few words about the locations of the three museums. The MNAC is situated in one wing of the former People's Palace, a gigantic building (reputed to be the third largest building in the world after the Pentagon and CCTV Headquarters in Beijing) erected by Nicolae Ceauşescu in the 1980s. The Lithuanian National Art Gallery is located in the former Museum of the Revolution, one of the most important ideological institutions in the past. By contrast, KUMU has no direct link to the communist past in terms of its location. It is in a park outside the city, in a brand new building designed by the Finnish architect Pekka Vapaavuori. 

I will look at the permanent and temporary exhibition programme of all three museums and ask whether and how the locations of these museums are significant in terms of their relationship to the past. In other words, I explore the meaning of the hidden relationship between museums of modern art in post-communist Europe and the communist past.

The National Museum of Contemporary Art MNAC in Bucharest – an Exhibition Hall, not a Museum

As I have said before, the MNAC in Bucharest was opened in the former People's Palace in 2004. Its director Mihai Oroveanu wrote in the introduction to his MNAC. The National Museum of Contemporary Art that the museum of contemporary art should be a platform for steering the negative heritage, i.e. the Palace, a symbol of the communist regime in Romania, towards forgetting.[4] Ruxandra Balaci, the museum's chief curator and the curator of the first exhibition "Romanian Artists (and not only) love Ceauşescu Palace?!" added: 

"The exhibition treats of the way the iconography and the symbolism of the 'big monster palace' has changed: from the official paintings during Ceauşescu's time - an oppressive totalitarian symbol, nomina odiosa - via established contemporary references such as Ion Grigorescu, SubREAL, Kiraly, Călin Dan, artists of the 90s, up to the young generation that have come to refer with a lot of irony to the Palace as an even sympa/absurd symbol of Bucharest. It is about relocating negative memories and feelings into oblivion, it is about a whole new generation that do not feel bound to assume the past of their parents, it is about moving toward the future about forgetting [...] a disastrous past, it is about blame and shame and the need to reconvert those frustrating feelings into something more positive. [...] Museums of contemporary art have tend increasingly to become dynamic laboratories open to the latest creations, as places of creative criticism and lively visual innovation, thus anticipating developments in social realm. [...] MNAC in Ceauşescu's Palace could be indeed an ultra-contemporary challenge."[5]

The MNAC wants to be a platform for contemporary culture, presenting what's going on in the art scene nowadays, rather than a museum looking back to the past. The gallery is guided by the principle that the past, as a negative heritage, should be forgotten rather than celebrated or even analysed. Thus, MNAC operates as an exhibition hall rather than a museum, even if a large part of its collection comprises socialist realist paintings (including hundreds of Ceauşescu portraits).

The exhibition programme is symptomatic of such a traumaphobic approach to the past.[6] In recent years the MNAC has held dozens of exhibitions. The first one, to which I referred above, was very striking and bode well for the future. "Romanian artists (and not only) love the Palace?!" had nothing to do with traumaphobia. On the contrary, it sought to work through the communist trauma. The invited artists from Romania and abroad engaged in a kind of game with this spectacular symbol of the Ceauşescu era, a game that was sometimes very ironical and even absurd. The exhibition gathered not only artworks, but also artistic and cultural positions on the social, ethical, architectural implications of locating the new museum on this site. By interrogating the history and symbolism of the building, the exhibition engaged the viewer-participant in a dialogue about the post-communist condition.[7] That was something that one could and should have expected from the new museum. The exhibition tried to set the tone for future exhibitions, even if it was somehow contradicted by what both the director and the chief curator said at the opening. While subsequent exhibitions did include artists who attempt to analyse the post-communist condition, including some representatives of the Romanian neo-avant-garde such as Horia Bernea, Geta Bratescu, Roman Cotosman, Ion Grigorescu and Paul Neagu, most exhibitions were rather traumaphobic. A glance at the programme reveals many events that had nothing to do with post-communist condition: "Art Digital Video" (2005); "Europe in Art - a HGB Group Project", a presentation of the bank's contemporary art collection (2005); "Kunstraum Deutschland" (2005); "Deposit", a sometimes arbitrary gathering of very different contemporary art works (2005); photographic experiments from the collection of the Institut d'Art Modern in Valencia (2006); "Dutch Installation Art" (2006); "Trough Popular Art" on Chinese art (2006); Scandinavian video art (2006); contemporary Japanese architecture (2006); some French collections from FRAC (2007); Brazilian videos (2007); works from the collection of the Société Generale in Paris (2007), and others, all of which look like the results of the museum curator's tourist itinerary. Of course it is quite easy to understand why the museum organises these kinds of shows. The question why it has abandoned the critical perspective promised at the inauguration show is more problematic. Forgetting the trauma and/or refusing to analyse the post-traumatic (post-communist) condition are symptomatic of traumaphobia.

As you can see from the aforementioned list of exhibitions, the MNAC focuses on international, mainstream culture. Some of the exhibitions have even been borrowed from the corporate world, which as everyone knows is very active in the contemporary art world. I guess that for this rather cash-strapped institution - by international museum standards - the option of borrowing the collections of rich corporations is very attractive. Unfortunately, to do so in the Peoples' Palace in Bucharest, perhaps the most historically significant place of memory (Pierre Nora) in Romania, points not only to financial problems, but also to an attempt to escape from history and its traumata, to avoid taking a critical stance on the past. One could say that the gallery's programme is strongly oriented towards contemporary, global art and there is nothing strange about imitating the mainstream art world, since - as Walter Grasskamp has argued - museums are the most successful global institutions.[8] However, the fact that a museum like the MNAC focuses almost exclusively on the global art scene, while ignoring the past, has an added significance. I argue that this is a kind of compensation for Romania's traumatic history.

Using Homi Bhaba's term, we can call this kind of practice "mimicry." If the colonised imitates the coloniser they actually colonise themselves. If they look like the coloniser, or even "better" than the coloniser, this difference or surplus shows that they are colonised or self-colonised. Of course in terms of power, this is one of the coloniser's strategies. The MNAC wants to be more international, cosmopolitan, global, in a word more Western than the West, something that might, paradoxically, make it more provincial, the colonised province.

MNAC a Local Museum?

The strategy pursued by the MNAC is at odds with one of the basic characteristics of the museum: its local setting. As Hans Belting has pointed out, "[m]useums are by definition local, and they ultimately live from the expectation of local audiences"; they are "subjected to the comprehension of a local audience" and ultimately represent more "the worlds" in the plural, than the "art world" in the singular.[9] In the case of the Bucharest Museum, understood both in terms of the statements of its directors and its exhibition programme, it tells us quite a lot about the local, even if it does not want to. Of course, the situation there is much more complicated. The museum policy, which I have suggested is a kind of "mimicry", a non-critical approach to the imagined, rather than the real art world, is rejected by many local artists and intellectuals. Their critique raises a broader question about the locality of contemporary art, something Hans Belting has also written about. The museum could also be recognized as local, due to the particular, historical contexts created the interpretative frame, which by definition refers to the local culture, local audience, also in the case when the artists would like to escape from it. Thus in the age of globalization the museum of contemporary art should be seen from a local perspective. This local character, however, does not refer to the representation of a particular heritage, which right-wing politicians would like to see. Belting understands it rather as a dynamic relationship between the two dimensions: "local art cannot mean arbitrary definitions that change from one place to another; the local must and will acquire a new meaning in the face of a global world."[10]

Finally, we have two seemingly contradictory points of reference, particularly in terms of the audience. On the one hand we have the local audience, where the museum is rooted, and on the other hand we have the global audience, particularly that which has emerged in the context of the powerful tourist industry. Of course, not all museums face this problem to the same extent. The MNAC is not on the mainstream contemporary tourist trail. This is the case with the major Western museums, such as the Louvre, the British Museum, the Metropolitan Museum, the Prado, MoMA, the Tate Modern, etc. Each of these institutions has its own local, historical origins. Yet each of them plays a very important role in global artistic culture, or consumer culture, because of its collection and its programme of huge "blockbuster" exhibitions. They compete with biennales, a typical product of global culture. However, in comparison with biennales, museums are more important. While biennales are organised in particular places, presumably to raise their profile on the art world map and promote local culture, museums are curated by international curators and, as such, represent international, global artistic events with little local character (with few exceptions). Their audience is also international. People from the art world and tourists come to see particular shows, but do not care for the local culture. For the local audience, on the other hand, if it means anything at all, then the biennale is a kind of "window" on the art world, a kind of global fiesta, with no relation to the local culture and social structure. Thus, the museum of contemporary art is double faced. It reveals its locality, even when it strives to be as global as possible; it has been created in particular place, with its own local history and audience. This kind of museum has the potential to be a forum for political debate on the contemporary condition of the world, defined as global, post-colonial or post-communist.

KUMU in Tallinn and the National Gallery in Vilnius - Traumaphilic Museums of Art

Let's come back now to the main topic. While the MNAC's traumaphobic approach to the past is understandable if we consider the local context, its traumaphobic character means that it forgoes the opportunity to be a political forum. Let me now draw your attention briefly to two museums that play that role: KUMU Art Museum in Tallinn and the National Gallery of Art in Vilnius. Let's call them traumaphilic or at least acknowledge that these museums are trying to work through the trauma of the past, rather than suppressing it.

Both the location and the architecture of KUMU are not significant for our considerations. As I mentioned above, KUMU is located in a new building outside the city surrounded by a park. It is the exhibition itself that is important from our point of view. The curator of the permanent exhibition of the 20th century Eha Komissarov decided to show socialist realist art, which used to be perceived in Estonia as the art of "colonisers", the Soviets. Her decision provoked heated discussions, with opponents accusing the curator of promoting the occupants' culture. That, of course, was not Komissarov's intention. She sought rather to highlight a historical point of reference for 1970s independent art (after Moscow, Estonia was the second most important centre for this kind of art in Soviet times) and contemporary Estonian culture.[11] Without such a framework, Komissarov argued, both developments could not be fully understood and seen in their proper historical context. Her approach was akin to a classical psychoanalytical therapy where the trauma is repeated in order to recover the subject. In other words, Komissarov was quite aware that suppressing the past, i.e. traumaphobia, would lead to the "discourse of absence" to use Dominick LaCapra's term,[12] and could create a state of disorientation, even confusion. This is why working through the traumatic past, symbolized here by socialist realism, is so important for reclaiming the historical position of Estonian culture and orientating that culture in today's world, in other words, finding its identity.

I will now turn to the National Gallery in Vilnius. As I mentioned above, it is located in the reconstructed former Museum of the Revolution of the Lithuanian Soviet Republic. Formerly a division of the Lithuanian Art Museum, the gallery was created as a museum of 20th-century art (including contemporary art) in 2002. Since then the National Gallery (Museum of Contemporary Art) has also incorporated the Contemporary Art Information Center into its structure, previously part of the George Soros network. The gallery collects modern art and also hosts temporary exhibitions that include or focus on contemporary art production in Lithuania and abroad.[13] The collection of mostly local art, which the gallery brought from the Lithuanian Art Museum, has been extended. It includes examples of local art produced under the Soviet occupation after 1945, including the "art of the occupants", socialist realism. Similar to the socialist realist paintings in KUMU, here the examples of both independent and official art production are a historical point of reference for contemporary art. Unlike the MNAC in Bucharest, which is an exhibition hall, the National Gallery in Vilnius is a museum and an institutional art collector. The National Gallery's location is particularly interesting. On the surface the gallery does not seem to care very much about the origins of the building. However, on a deeper, semantic level the site and the architecture cannot neutralise the past and cannot avoid connotations with it. What's more, given that the gallery's collection and permanent exhibition includes examples of the official art produced under Soviet rule (there was no significant independent art scene in Lithuania at that time) we have to conclude that the gallery's approach to the past is more traumaphilic than traumaphobic.


Eastern European communism was a very claustrophobic system. People were not allowed to travel freely. This precluded them from participating in the global art scene fully and freely. Nicolae Ceauşescu's Romania was a particularly restrictive prison for the whole nation. Now that Romania is a free country and a member of the EU, interest in the global art scene is a quite understandable reaction to the past. If, however, this interest dominates and if it is not accompanied by a critical approach to the past, as one would expect in such a place, it is indeed a symptom of traumaphobia. There are, however, some former Soviet republics that lost their national sovereignty under communism and are currently in search of a kind of historical identity to fill a historical gap. As an approach to the past, traumaphilia seems to be very useful for them, since as Dominick LaCapra has said,[14] it can help to avoid "the discourse of absence", to avoid a state of disorientation, even confusion, and at the same time create the historical memory necessary to build national identity.


  1. See Roger Luckhurst, Traumaculture, New Formations 50 (2003): 28-47.
  2. See Lynn Meskell, Negative Heritage, Anthropological Quarterly 75, no. 3 (2002): 557-574.
  3. For more, see Piotr Piotrowski, Art and Democracy in Post-Communist Europe, London: Reaktion, 2012, pp. 202-221.
  4. See Mihai Oroveanu, MNAC: The National Museum of Contemporary Art, Bucharest: MNAC, 2005, pp.20-21.
  5. Ruxandra Balaci, Romanian Artists (and not only) love Ceauşescu Palace?! in Oroveanu, 2005, pp. 36, 40, 41.
  6. See the official Website of MNAC, retrieved 23 January 2015, URL:
  7. See Oroveanu, 2005.
  8. See Walter Grasskamp, The Museum and other Success Stories, in Cultural Globalisation: CIMAM 2005 Annual Conference Museums: Intersections in a Global Scene, URL:
  9. See Hans Belting, Contemporary Art and the Museum in the Global Age, in Contemporary Art and the Museum: A Global Perspective, edited by Peter Weibel and Andrea Buddensieg, Ostfildern: Hatje Cantz Verlag, 2007, pp. 30-32.
  10. Ibid., 37.
  11. See: Eha Komissarov, The Era of Radical Changes: Estonian Art from the End of the Second World War until the Restoration of Estonia's Independence, in Art Lives in KUMU: The Main Building of the Art Museum of Estonia - KUMU Art Museum, edited by Anu Allas, Sirje Helms and Renita Raudsepp, Tallinn: KUMU, 2006, pp. 97-143.
  12. See Dominick LaCapra, Writing History, Writing Trauma, Baltimore, London: John Hopkins University Press, 2001, p. 46.
  13. See Lolita Jablonskiene, Lithuanian National Gallery of Art, a paper delivered at the international conference Problems in displaying communist second half of the 20th century art, State Art Museum and Goethe-Institut, Riga: 2005. I am thankful to the author for giving me access to her own paper and Elona Lubyte's paper, quoted below.
  14. See LaCapra, 2001.

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Related Links

Official webpage of the National Museum of Contemporary Art in Bucharest (MNAC)

Official webpage of the KUMU Art Museum in Tallinn

Official webpage of the National Art Gallery in Vilnius

Photo gallery permanent exhibition National Art Gallery in Vilnius


The Ceausescu Palace in Bucharest

The Ceausescu Palace in Bucharest

Art Project at the National Museum of Contemporary Art in Bucharest

Art Project at the National Museum of Contemporary Art in Bucharest