Thursday, October 18, 2012

Can theory help and be proactive ?

The shortest way to deal with this question would be by saying: Yes, it can. Further on, we may wish to know which theory can help in what way and to whom, under what conditions it could make way and push forward.

What we have to deal with is Museology. It is not an entirely agreeable task as we deal with the matter that dwells upon variety of controversies, denied only by those occupying the extreme positions: it does or it does not exist. It does exist because we have it mentioned, discussed and wrote about since 17th century, because it is being taught at more than 800 places all around the world, because it exists in legislation and professional jargon etc. It does not exist, on the other hand, because serious protagonists say it is still in status nascendi, yet to be born; the pragmatists among scientists and managers alike refuse even considering it seriously. So, is there a way to solve the dilemma? We need answers urgently as it might easily be true that after some two hundred years of evident history of museum institution we can neither speak of museums as unquestionable public service nor we can claim that there is a respective profession behind this sector.

Critics of traditional Museology

Traditional Museology is museum centered. Since there is no other example of a science about an institution, it would be highly doubtful that this one could exist. It demonstrates clearly the inability to deal with the new practices in heritage care and communication. This is why at its very beginning it split into "special Museologies", trying to function as a divided whole, - very much responding to the very situation of the museums. With the appearance of the new, holistic approaches to the heritage care and with the insistence upon communication, Museology responded by multiplication of concepts instead of integration and openness.
We do hear some clear voices here and there, but the prevailing state of today's Museology is still rather chaotic. Anybody inclined to take Museology seriously will stumble over the multitude of proposals:  new Museology, ecomuseology, economuseology, Museum Studies etc. Whereas Museography clearly stands for the methods and techniques of museum working process, the same process is still assigned to Museology; some speak about museologists meaning museum people, while others talk about them as museographers. Others still, explain that curator of a museum is not necessarily a museologist (or: museumologist). Some differences are conceptual, some obviously terminological: is Museology interdisciplinary or multidisciplinary discipline makes a good question but the most using the two terms are having in mind only its eclectic nature.

Traditional Museology became a sort of placebo discipline, an armchair science, and what was done usually lacked the witty charm of contemporary scientific discourse. But, as H. Hesse says, it is known that nobody writes worse than the defenders of the old ideologies. Besides, to mention just one inaptitude, - according to common sense and the testimonies of our African colleagues, - the concept of Museology is totally useless in Africa. The problem is, and let me signal it here, that European museography is useless there, because, put it this way or that, - what is being taught as Museology is not much more than a pretentious Museography: methods and techniques, and, - history, be it collection care, education, marketing, management or exhibitions.

The system of present Museology is divergent and inconsistent, it is not yet in productive shape i.e. it can only service itself, but stays there and is not ultimately questioned because it needs a complete re-definition: it cannot receive any corrections as it is not an opened system. Had it been differently, Museology would not be for some hundred years in, what was afterwards called status nascendi. An unhappy defect, as it produced a sort of misology, a pragmatic opposition to solving some problems of profession by reflection and intellectual effort. The quantitative boom of museums produced the self-satisfaction of the profession which, in its turn, made all the questions of theory second rate. What was only a societal reaction to the drama of endangered identities, museum people understood as a triumph of pragmatism. The pragmatism, so triumphant and so shortsighted, is, as B.Rusell says, like a warm bath getting warmer and warmer so imperceptibly that one never knows exactly when to scream.


Why should we get concerned?

It is this hot bath of today's museum situation that makes the discussion about Museology meaningful: we have to scream finally, if it is not too late. Squeezed between reluctant state administration, and reckless corporate business on one side and heritage industry and entertainment on the other, museums would thus signal two things: that we finally want a science helping to make us a true profession and that we need a body of sublimated multidisciplinary experience able to define our entire professional mind. Museums face the stagnation whereas heritage in its totality becomes more and more an integral part of everyday culture. It may be, indeed, all the same who will do the job, but we claim the right, don't we? But we do not have a coherent and convincing way to express ourselves, first of all to achieve understanding among ourselves and, secondly, to be clear to our partners and clients. Besides, a true profession knows organizational coherence which is above the specific differences of its parts. Moreover, it transcends not only particular interests of an individual institution but also of the individual experts, prolonging their interests in terms of both, space and time: it is not only those circumstances of yours, hic et nunc, that will guide your interests. The Museology in that sense, as well as in the sense of a science with its proper place in the scientific community, - does not exist. But we do have some professional basis.

Do we have a theory?

It seems that we do. Museography is a constantly developing theoretical body which contains abstracted, abbreviated and normed professional experience concerning the methods and techniques of our job. We now have numerous manuals which clearly, and I would say rightly, claim to be usable or even good guides to a successful museum practice. They represent a mixture of skills and procedures which guide any professional throughout the museum working process. Those authors, being convinced, maybe even talented, practitioners, have a pragmatic barrier that prevents them, at any moment, to mention even a notion of a possible science behind the job they describe so well. They instruct the diligent feeders of the machine but where the machine is heading, and which directions all the machines go, with what foreseeable effects on themselves and the mission they have to accomplish, - that is outside their scope of interest (even the reach, maybe), and therefore inexistant. (So very human a behaviour). Of course, most museum people like this rationalist utopia where things seem clear and solid, where all questions are answered (even though only the answerable ones are posed, which is almost a matter of cartesian upbringing) and where perspectives are mathematically regular and endless.

Should we have a science of our own?

Taken formally it is an academic question, but the answer is already contained in the questions posed, if they are posed, but whichever way taken, they will irresistibly sound like: Who we are? What do we want? Where do we go? We are  institutions paid (tacitly) by the community administration, doing exactly what has to be done in museums (see the manual!), and this then also answers the other two questions. Great practitioners (J.C.Dana, Alma Wittlin, G.Morley, W.Sandberg, G.H.Riviere, D.S.Ripley, to metion just a few), posed those simple questions more than often, offering bright and visionary reflections together with innovative practices.

The science we talk about, implicitly, can even be called Museology if we agree so but the name, like in any good marketing should not be misleading: we now talk not only about museums but about many other institutions, most of which, indeed, qualitfy for the membership in ICOM if they wish so (additional articles of the statutes enable it) but not many do. Science centres, heritage centres, theme parks, cultural centres, art centres, variety of private and company museums, natural reserves, natural parks, orientation centres, interpretation centres, permanent exhibitions, visitor centres, archeological sites, etc. are this growing heritage species, which might need some common explanation.

Knowing ourselves

It is not an easy effort any more, to define one's own self, and yet this sort of analysis, that we lack all the conceptual and methodological accessories for, is exactly the introspection we have to do. Know yourself! What more basic a request one can propose? Out of this introspective ability stems every possible quality afterwards. The fact is, - most people working in museums do not truly know the museum medium. They do not understand the museum concept. They recognize museums only where they see the recognizable technology. Can museum exist, in its elements at least, outside of institutions, in the streets, in the heads, in other cultural forms? Is museum necessary everywhere and in all cultures? What are the extents and limits of museum expression?  It is absolutely unthinkable that a theater could be successful when directed by somebody who does not understand the specificity of theater medium. What makes a true virtuoso is the profound understanding of the instrument. 

How far do we reach?

We cannot afford any more to think only in terms of physical institution but in terms of concepts. But this is yet unexplored land and no wonder we fear the unknown: with data and information banks (including even museum storages in their network), with telematics and virtual museum of hypermedia, all there, we must seriously consider how close our relations are with other institutional sectors that have the same generative concept of heritage as their basis: archives and libraries, to mention only the closest. Aren't we the branches of a same tree? We all deal with the selected collective memory, and all have possibilities to form our messages the way that immediately comprises responsibility (What message? For whom? In whose name?). Twelve years ago when the term "heritology" was provocatively proposed ([ola, 1982.), it was there only to show the direction where we should be trying to find our science. What can be seen as based upon similar principle forms the common area of resonances, of unifying factors, deserves definition of that principle: most likely we are talking  about the same strive to assure the continuity of the heritage, be it natural, civilizational or cultural; we are talking about survival of identities endangered by the change and accumulation of new experiences; we are talking about preservation of information (in form of objects and/or recorded), of upkeep of messages and their creation.

Understanding the mission

We need a science to be able to define and constantly redefine, -  our mission. It is a multidisciplinary approach applied to the specific filed of heritage, which should enable us to make clear mind upon whom do we serve, - who are our true bosses.

There is no permanent definition of the role of museums as it changed ever since the creation of museums so the question is only how well we would like to adjust it to the present and possible users. All the mentioned areas of institutional heritage care make selection and thus create the bodies of collective memory. They create memory (although they claim that it is science that decides for them) because every act of choice is necessarily subjective and potentially also creative act. It is expertise, vocation, talent and responsibility that make the creation. And, the sooner one knows this obligation, the better chances there are for a creation to take place.

What is creation in museums and institutions alike? Successful, meaningful, productive, spiritual impact upon the mind of the visitor that leads to a changed behaviour on the higher conceptual level. An impact that is created through repeated emissions corrected by the received reaction i.e. through communicational process can produce a surplus value that I would like to identify as wisdom. 

A science of heritage deals with the quality of memory, not just any memory as it might appear with today's perfectionism leading to a future of perfect recall: What a nightmare! We talk about a ennobling and enriching the raw material of memory so that it becomes a wisdom. This Mnemosophia ([ola, 1985.) could make sense by the wideness of its application, openness of its possible system, and qualitative ambition it contains by definition.

If museum institution is a means of good, the source of wisdom amalgamated and sedimented in the past, then it might be perceived as a mechanism of liberation and emancipation. (There are many museums that   the soul and torture the mind into the moulds of concepts and myths of suspect quality). Mnemosphy could also help us to and create museums where we shall not assure only the transfer of socially and scientifically formed knowledge (i.e. education) as knowledge alone, disregarding the quantity, serves little purpose. If museums cannot appropriate the sort of impact produced by great music, namely that feeling of fulfillment and closeness to the essence, if they cannot enhance self knowing, through contemplation and the chatarsis of understanding, - then they might easily find themselves out of business, - to put it rudely.
Organization of the service

In most countries of the world, museums are badly organized as a sector. Most of them function as separate strongholds of some vaguely common cause: the spirit of private collectors still dwelling in their collections invaded their minds. The frontiers between them are drawn by scientific classification, by fiscal status, by rank, by size and ambition, by administration, - and by individualism. Besides, what they expose are parts of an imaginary puzzle never meant to be put together. In this world of synthesis museums are still not prepared to go far from their analysis, not to mention any further ambition, like contributing to the sustained development of society. Without the professional philosophy, without unity through the same mission, assured by professional discipline and vocational fidelity to a common cause, - there is little hope museums could remain a developing profession. Some Mnemosophy or call-it-what-you-like science could give the convincing frame to this professional cross reference, introducing the notion of museums as common, unified source and building the network towards systems of libraries, archives and towards all the rising variety of other heritage oriented institutions and organizations.

Building a profession

Finally!, one would almost exclaim. Just like disordered ranks are not an army,  the dismembered and divided institutional clusters are not a profession. So, little can be done on a larger scale or in a conceptual shift, when we still have the majority of people working in museums without any formal training that would enable them to understand the medium and the mission in its full potential. The talent and quality experience are both rare so the profession is constituted upon the fact of specific institution they all work in.

I am convinced that two hundred years of history and some half a century of true effort to build a profession were not entirely sufficient: there are weak zones in what should be a compact professional system: legal regulations (regulating the status in the society), licensing system (as our job is performed by all and everybody), code of ethics (usually of "conduct", hardly concerning mind and attitudes), autonomy (museums are autonomous only when acting according the rules of "establishment") and mission (which is mostly defined at the lowest, technical level).

Insisting upon professionalism is not building a position of a guild but caring that museums and kindred institutions become a solid, reliable partner: to the state, to the media, to the informatic and telecommunication business and to the corporate business itself. If we consent to the present role and impact of museums, we might be relatively happy, at least in the cultural centres, with the place assigned to museums. But if we see museums as active, creative addition in the society where they use their enormous potential of stored knowledge in pursuing humanist and democratic ideals, forced sometimes into disagreement with the actual interests of governing force, - then they might profit for the common benefits if they present a strong, united profession (When saying united, I even mean decentralized!).

Museums cannot ignore the globalization of many a problem of modern civilization: if they wish to participate in solutions  (And I believe they should), the have to think globally, wherever their acting would be performed. As a strong profession (this "Mnemosophy" is state of mind) they can see that true multidisciplinarity means ability to move into the interspace, where the firm ground is not own institution but the common principle and mission. Thinking along these lines one easily comes to solutions which practice will certainly find, but one wonders will that happen in (proper) time, or at least in proper way: preliminary reflection enables practice to locate the solutions effectively. I therefore believe that we could (and should, indeed) have theoretical  writings about the future of our profession(s) with the sole ambition to clear the mind and comprehend our present selves. (The first book on the theme was recently published by Routledge). A profession without its speculative theory is like a vehicle without headlights: usable and secure when weather conditions are ideal. So, even the ideas I have proposed will, it seems to me, depend upon how you estimate the state of museums, of heritage or, maybe, even of this world of ours.

                                                                                                                                Zagreb, October 2004