Playful Curator: Daniel Birnbaum

The Director of the Moderna Museet Gives NOWNESS a Tour of its Modernist Laden Archives

Photographer Mikael Olsson documents works by Yves Klein, Robert Rauschenberg and Niki de Saint Phalle taken from the priceless collection of modern art that lies hidden away in the archive of Sweden’s Moderna Museet. Appointed in 2010, Museum Director Daniel Birnbaum initiated a complete rehang of the Rafael Moneo-designed institution, located on Stockholm’s beautiful island of Skeppsholmen, following the unconventional decision to stow away the museum’s permanent collection in favor of a gallery-style photography-only show. Inspired by distinguished Swedish curator Pontus Hultén’s 1960s “Dream Museum” of sculpture gardens and soccer field-wide foam-pool installations, Birnbaum is remodeling the Moderna into an experimental playground for contemporary artists. “I have done interesting things in the art world, but I’ve never been a director before,” says Birnbaum, who has curated the Venice and Moscow Biennales and written for Frieze and ArtForum for over a decade. “I’m new [at Moderna] and one of the ways in which to start a new era is to create a tabula rasa—a clean slate.” Here Birnbaum muses on his vision for a 21st-century art world experience.

How did you end up becoming the director at Moderna?
I’m close to the museum. I grew up in Stockholm and spent time here as a student at the Moderna. I have never been a director before and felt that no other museums have a legacy like this. I’m attracted to that. 

Tell us about your vision for the museum?
The strength of the Moderna Museet historically is that it’s been a very experimental institution. The creative processes of artists have formed the institution rather than the other way around. It’s important for institutions like this to be flexible and willing to test things that artists want to try out. 

Is this the reason some of the pieces of 20th-century art from the collection are locked away in the archive?
We have one of biggest collections in Europe where one can write the entire history of modern art, from 1900 to today. It’s a space issue that means we can’t show everything. Now we have two venues, one in Stockholm and one in Malmö, so the rotation is built into the way in which we show the art. 

What would you like to see more of in museums?
Less standard narratives. Getting rid of the most predictable ways of looking at the history of art. We have a Eurocentric collection and what we are trying to do now is open the museum to more global perspectives. And that has to do with the way in which we actually look at the art. It’s a challenge.

Do you collect anything yourself?
I collect art catalogues. I’m very interested in the history of curating. The most important works of art have reached their audiences and exposure through exhibitions. 

What is your favorite museum experience?
One of the strongest memories of my childhood is that in 1968 the Moderna Museet was turned into a playground. I was five years old and was pushed into a big pool installation filled with foam pillows. It was slightly claustrophobic but unforgettable at the same time. 

Tell us a secret about the art world.
Nothing is hidden.

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