Proposal for a Contemporary
Presentation of the Decorative Arts

Mayrit BienalMuseo Nacional de Artes Decorativas


To call the permanent collection of the Museo Nacional de Artes Decorativas extensive would be an understatement. Though some 1,600 items are on view at any given time, the whole of the collection spans approximately 80,000 pieces and covers a wide breadth of origins, time periods, and decorative styles. Seemingly endless rooms lined with vitrines of ceramics, glassworks, and hand painted tiles, lead into a series of mock period vignettes: a 17th century bedroom, an 18th century Valencian kitchen, and so on. When absorbed within a single visit, the entirety presents as a dizzying blend of art and craft; a window into a flurry of traditions that have informed Spanish contemporary design from every region of the country.

If one were to visit on a Sunday, the trip would be made more curious with a loop southwest towards El Rastro, a district which is cleared of vehicles and converted into an open-air antiques market on weekends. While the shoulder-to-shoulder gridlock of patrons might make it difficult to buy anything, it’s easy to discern that much of what is on display and for sale mimics the museum’s collection. Storefronts and stands are brimming with Andalusian ceramics and Castilian furniture. Wares from nearly every period of Spanish life are present, in either reproduced likeness (more so) or actuality (less so).

The Nature of Decorative Arts Museums

Museums are usually defined by what they contain. Because decorative arts museums host the decorative arts one might believe that the operative word “decorative” is applied, primarily, to artworks. In fact, the term “decorative arts” is meant to distinguish fine art from the skilled decorative trades of the post- Renaissance Western world. The term is applied to items that were produced for functional use but which possess a level of craft that lends them an inherent artistry.

Traditionally, the intent behind decorative arts objects has been for them to be purchased, used, and lived with. Sometimes their decoration was the signature of a craftsman, or had a commercial underpinning. Other times the desire to add these flourishes was borne from the maker’s desire to marry beauty and function using the aesthetic vocabulary of their time. Regardless, decorative decisions were typically meant to complement the functionality of the object.

In the decorative arts museum one sees jugs that were once used to bathe, chairs which lived whole lifetimes in the corners of people's bedrooms, and rugs that hosted both dancing feet and spilt wine. These were real people's things, marked by conflict and intimacy, now held inside glass vitrines and time- gapped vignettes. Consequently, viewing them in this guarded state leaves one grasping for a context that has been erased in favor of an analytical display. Such presentation disregards the interactions, both commercial and interpersonal, which brought about their creation. Separated from their lives as useful things, they are hard to process: not quite products yet not quite art.

Given the functional and commercial natures behind the items in their collections, decorative arts museums are left with a more nuanced and complex responsibility to their visitors that sets them apart from the institutional herd. Their collections cannot be fully understood without interaction and people. The objects lose purpose when they cannot be a part of our everyday environment. When we put them behind glass, we risk losing everything that makes them relatable.

Can Shopping be Critical?

So, if the museum is a space to preserve and display decorative arts objects and the market is a place to purchase them, why not bring the market to the museum? In a practical sense, while the vendors have something to gain from the legitimacy of the institution and its position as a cultural preservationist, the museum would benefit enormously from engaging new audiences. When we start to consider this proposal seriously a second question starts to emerge: Does a market have a place in the intellectual space of a museum?

Throughout history, trading markets were the foundation of any civilization. We can look to the Medina in Marrakesh as an enduring example of this. The bazaar around which the city is built, called the Souk, functions as the soul of the place itself. And while it serves as a place for everyday people to purchase goods, it also presents an opportunity to learn about the way people live through objects of cultural importance, which is one of the reasons it has become a distinct cultural landmark and a tourist attraction.

If we look past their commercial nature, markets have also served as a nexus of diverging interests. In Ancient Athens, the central public space in the city was the agora. This space hosted both a marketplace as well as the political and religious nucleus of the city. Politicians settled state matters and worshippers frequented temples—right next to market stalls selling everyday goods. Even Diogenes, the Ascetic Greek philosopher, lived there in a large ceramic jar after being exiled from Sinope in the 4th century BC. He likely found it to be both a refuge and a platform from which to spread his ideas, and one that provided him access to all walks of life. This exemplifies the intellectual purpose of these spaces, where people come to buy and sell but also to congregate and exchange ideas in an environment free of the restrictive atmosphere that characterizes so many academic spaces. At the market we might find potential romance or stumble upon a new political ideology, all while haggling over the price of fish.

In Madrid, El Rastro originated as a place for the working class to exchange used everyday goods and give them a second life. Over time, this practice evolved into a bazaar of historical and modern pieces during the 19th and 20th centuries. Today, it is widely known as one of the best markets in Europe for antiques and oddities and has, like the Souk, become a tourist attraction. Though such attention has had some adverse effects, with the number of reproductions and fake “vintage” items soaring, it has nevertheless remained a remarkable social landmark for the locals. On any given Sunday, it plays host to a wide range of everyday people buying items for their homes, chatting with acquaintances, and taking strolls.

The Market and the Museum

If we place the weight of all of this dynamic history within an institution not predicated on shopping—where the sole focus is the conservation and dissemination of heritage—and in which interaction with the institution is based around the presentation of items originally intended for purchase, the implementation of a market could perhaps become a critical act. The pairing of the two infrastructures could prove to be a beneficial marriage that embraces the fully actualized nature of the objects in the collection.

It’s only when we start to view decorative arts objects as their original creators and owners did—as beautiful, useful things— that a shift occurs. We understand them in the context of our daily life. We see them as things that have a place within our time, which can find tangible use and value in fulfilling their intended purpose. The handles carefully crafted for a hand could finally be grasped, the drawers meticulously honed to slide could be opened and filled. The very essence of these things could be embraced.

It’s here that we find the poetry in the juxtaposition of these two infrastructures: the market is the museum turned inside out. The two are reflections of a shared ambition approached from opposite ends. One effectively engages the historical significance of the objects, preserving the traditions and pedigrees of craft, while the other engages with their lived context, their roles as products in our contemporary landscape.

Exposición de Bienes offers an opportunity to examine the disparity between conventional presentations of decorative arts objects and their ordinary roles in the lives of people. The exhibition acts as a commercial foil to the existing infrastructure of the museum, consisting of an outdoor antiques market which has been curated to correspond to the museum’s collection. You are encouraged to visit the museum and the market in any order you wish, and to take something home. This proposal is presented in the hope that we can begin to see the real beauty in the museum’s collection, which is largely found beyond the history, decoration, and craftsmanship. It is found in the fundamental nature of the objects: that they were made to be used.

Produced for the 2022 Mayrit Bienal, Exposición de Bienes is split into two acts: the first, by Sina Sohrab, was presented in front of the Museo Nacional de Artes Decorativas from June 16-18. The second, by curator Joel Blanco, will consist of interventions within the museum in the Fall of 2022.
Edited by Oona Brangam-Snell

Translation by Ana Larrea