Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Community - basic element of the territorial museum

... or: How can museums serve community best

The departure point: Territory[1]

Territory is another name for identity. It is always established through the recognition of some evident coherence. The span of that phenomenon covers an enormous richness: from the creation of God to the creation of Man, from geography (as the most natural circumstance) to language (as the most artificial addition). Its “final” version is the result of constant exposure to variety of forces: from natural elements (as, again, the most natural circumstance) to wars (as the meanest betrayal of the Divine). Any territorial museum is necessarily a complex, multidisciplinary museum.

The identity is the system of values that is best expressed in the notion of culture; or, to paraphrase A. Devalees[2], the territory of the museum is the one where certain cultural identification makes sense. This infinitely complex whole encompasses thus entire environment. It is understood that humans are at its fullest sense a biological kind and “would find little ultimate meaning detached from the rest of the life”[3]. Traditional museum, namely, is a materialisation of an anthropocentric weltanschaung, false in its humanist deviation.

The complexity of territory is at the same time the subject and the object of the museum institution. It is an ideal projection of all-inclusive, total collection in one sense, and the entity the museum services, in another.
Well understood this fallen barrier “does not mean that everybody has to consider themselves a museum object, but rather one of the guardians and one of the creators of a certain heritage permanently renewed, permanently recommenced”[4]. When about curators who tend to understand things too literally, there is “a risk of putting the population in the cage in a way it is done in a ZOO, and a risk of manipulating that population”[5]. Of course, what we are after is not the territory itself, nor only “the relations of man to that territory”[6] (as that would be too simple), but the furthest possible number and intricacy of interrelations within the community, of community to territory, of nature to humans those between humans etc.

The entire building of ecomuseums’ innovation stands upon the invention of the territory as basis of their endeavour: “When about the notion of territory, it is issuing directly from the new concept of collections as proposed in Le Creusot”[7], that is, the invention of ecomuseums in the late 60s opened this avenue to quality museum service.

The territory may not be only the one assigned to one museum only. In case of ecomuseums, the museum service may take the form of antenna, -the network of smaller museums or simple outposts. In other cases, where the approach is equally based upon the clear notion of territory (as the term denoting the complex identity), there may be several museums sharing the common conviction that they work together upon the same case: “570 square kilometres is our common territory”[8].

Of course, it helps to classify and systematise. SAMDOK’s pragmatic simplicity when dealing with complexity of identity is next to perfect. Their systematisation was meant for the contemporary documentation problem, and when adapted [9] for museum use showed the same quality: agriculture, nutrition, industry, trade, services, culture, arts, education, communications, organisation of the society.

The territory is thus a true starting logic of an useful museum, and an approach which makes “territorial” museum, in whichever form done, a protagonists of true museum mission. That of of continuity and survival under the criteria of quality living.

The means: collections[10]

The limits of quantitative logic and further definition of social role of museums, have been present long ago in the minds of museum professionals (Dana, 1920)[11]. Territorial museums are on the spot: there where the social role is matter of a honest sharing of whatever constitutes the life of the community. The museums find themselves finally in the era of quality, at the turning point when heritage concerned institutions have to re-define their mission through this long neglected optic.

There are more and more museums that derive their collections from participation of the community they serve: people bring them objects. Many among eco-museums did so, but also museums which do not have such a specific profile. Museum of Romanian Peasant in Bucharest (EMYA Award for 1997) has obtained objects from peasants arranging for them a visit to the museum and certificate that made the cooperation more dignified. Finnish Forest Museum, started "ex nihilo", assembled the entire collection from gifts offering in return a certificate, year free entrance, and the name in the book at the entrance. Regional Museum at Spittal am Drau, Austria, never bought (and never will) any object for their collection: their principle is well respected in community; the Director claims with perfect common sense, that making an exception would put donors in an awkward position. The reason may look financial in nature and consequence, but is much more than that, as it is explained well in the example of the Workers' Museum in Copenhagen: "Exhibitions were based on the material people had given us, that is to say, on those very objects which they perceived as their history"[12]. Museums like these accumulate little more than they expose, or if they do the collection is dispersed where it can do some good. The indecent greed, inbuilt in the logic of many conventional museums fills their reserves so much that they expose the usual 10 to 20 percent of their collections in their permanent exhibitions. The quality difference lies in the motives for collectioning: for the science (user comprised), or for the user (science comprised). In the former case it is the avarice born out of the quantitative perfection, and in the latter the reaction to the need of mirroring the complexity of the territory and the innate need for self knowing. The specific complexity, of course, - because some museums decline, as a matter of principle, any possibility to posses or expose objects which are not pertinent to their territory. Again, some curators reading this would say “we have seen that”, like when refusing to admit the novelty of ecomuseums on the ground of resemblances to regional museums. Local spirit of the collection does happen indeed, but usually as a consequence of the scientific limitations imposed upon the collection or as a consequence of relative poverty. But this here is the ethically founded responsibility, a new way of thinking, a conviction we recognize in ecomuseums.

The complex identity can best be presented on its own ground and it is fundamentally ethically correct to do so. The museum is good enough as interpretation and orientation centre. Keeping and caring for the values pertaining to that identity, gives museums the opportunity to participate fully in life: visually, functionally, symbolically.... After the life gives them enough reason, the values may also (assisted by museum action), return to some use, thus retaining at least the essential qualities of the certain identity alive. Guided by this logic, any territorial museum, be it small regional museum in the province or the city museum in the capital, will have to regard its territory a display in the need of constant interpretation and care.

The complexity, of course, may mean literally anything, including, as it was already said, even the people themselves. The stage of the museum is theirs, anyhow: In the (territorially enormous) Ecomuseum Haute-Beauce, Canada, almost every familly wrote its own chronicle, which is a testimony valuable as any other museum object. In this pulsating and constantly changing whole, every individual is creator of however tiny part of the local history, and with every departing member, the particular life experience is reduced to some “collectable” contribution. In most cases, that experience, even in its physical part will stay in use as an underlying  yet unrecognised part of certain reality (say of a family, group or community). The museum may recognize that individual contribution and, being a sort of collective ego, preserve it and let it eventually sediment in live collective memory.

The success of a reformed territorial museum corresponds to the measure of becoming the underlying structure of the living identity, a sort of omnipresent, (almost) invisible sage, a carer of the well kept though changing values. A reformed territorial museum is founded upon conviction that all objects are “born” equal, i.e. that museum is not a the glory account of the people it incidentally belongs to or depends upon, but of the lives of all the sharers of the same identity. It is not based upon the collection of superlatives, but is a collection which talks equally about drawbacks (which instruct best) and highlights (which inspire most). The quality of collection will  be expressed in high objectives and creative use of it; it may include the capital items and the masterpieces of any sort if they happen, but it will contain a richness of quotidiana and efemera – at least by the measures of conventional elitist museums. The other aspect of quality would be, of course, the ends to which the collection is used. If it helps to maintain the diversity and richness alive and functional in everyday life, - museum does a good job. Of course, there are other tasks which fall into the universal categories of advancement of human nature, like its creative exposure to and instruction in the divine matter of beauty. The aims can be set “lowly”, - as enhancing the daily life, say by making a good choice of wall paper, or resisting some consumerist folly.

The approach whose ambition is the useful museum, changes the character of the collection (partly) into the interpretive inventory. That is, of course, the Troyan horse which we started to fill long ago with the so called "secondary museum material". With the hyper media inside, it is apt to challenge any museum tradition. But, there are no surprises, it has been already wheeled in long ago: we always lived with alternative but there was time when it could be ignored. The information technology[13] makes possible: (a) the transparency of the museum working process, (b) opening up the entire collection to the users (c) effective museum networking or, indeed,working together; it enables and favours interdisciplinary and trans-sectorial cooperation as well as such products and is inherently participatory. It is the logic of the information technology that will give the decisive momentum to creation of a heritage care&communication mega-profession, the one that would both theoretically and in practice (from social contract to common information network) present firm partner to the ruling forces of the society[14].

The alternative practices (visible collections, loan service, participation in conservation, etc.) favour identification of users with the museum medium: the sense of involvement, of museum as shared possession, the pride of partaking in establishing and running an institution, - that is the fertile ground for an useful museum. Only in this way, the museum can become part of living, like a football match or a pop concert. There is a subtle art of assuring the respectable professional standard while giving over (what is otherwise hidden and fragmented) and stepping down (from scientific, intellectual and class pedestals). This is the core matter of the campaign for quality we have to launch finally in our profession if we want to avoid becoming “endangered species” ourselves[15]. That is an attitude based upon the double cult: of extreme professionalism and of humble service to the common welfare, - a challenge any good priest would know.

Any collection is but the means towards the set of objectives aimed at material and spiritual prosperity of the people, - not the science, not the profession, not the ruling class of money owners, decision and opinion makers, not anyone but the community as it is.

A collection is physical substance of the museum’s intended role and mission, good inasmuch as it proves to be quality matter in the subtle process of recording, caring, preserving, amplifying, and transferring the identity it helps to live.

The purpose: Community

Community, that is the individuals who share the common set of values that constitute them as a whole, - represent the starting and the final objective of museum.

Territorial museum is supposed to respond to their wishes and their needs. Whereas there might exist an elitist museum in some particular situations, like in cultural capitals and big universities, - territorial museums are democratic institutions serving the common welfare.

Being a public institution par excellence, museums correspond to the definition of the humanist value system. The needs are therefore described as the values of that system that have to be attained or maintained. As the value system changes, the needs change and so should the museum. But, museums lag behind.

We may be in a syntagm of post-modern, post-humanist, age of synthesis, but (just because) we are experiencing the growing attraction to utopian visions like R. Owen’s New Harmony (of some two centuries ago). No wonder as we are again experiencing still deeper immersion into the egoistical reality of self-benefit and profit defined society. (The dream of freedom to infinite purchasing and endless possessioning is becoming widely nurtured and offered as the substitute for democracy). The new crave for The Paradise lost, for the true ideals, brings people back to religions, as science (and its museums) offered only knowledge. They never said that knowledge is but a raw material and by itself offers no final value of any sort. Museums must go further and offer that first spirituality of might, love and wisdom (all attributes of God himself  according to T. Campanella). For a community, might is knowledge, love is empathy, compassion and understanding; wisdom is all that together, meant to help any individual as well as entire community to make viable, quality decisions. 

Wisdom is the essential orientation on the life values: for the continuation of identities, successful and effective (quality) survival, - spiritual, first of all, but not separated from the biology and economy. It is knowledge where no particular interest prevails, the one that starts with “Why”s, -  hermeneutics and epistemology, receiving the form of common reasoning. Wisdom grows from morality and should strive to achieve creative freedom, contentment, health and affluence under the condition of equal chances and within the society ruled by justice.

To any pretentious “practitioner”, this will seem as irresponsible enumeration of utopian ideals and useless avoidance of true problems. Those are, as they claim, all of scientific, managerial and technological level. It is correct to claim that all that is important, but only once we know why would any community need a museum. The set of old answers is as wrong as it is simple. The truth is different. To do our job well, be it in a tiny museum or the huge institution, we have to master four areas of expertise: (a) knowing well the nature of the world in which museums operate and our users live, (b) having a clear philosophy of the profession as a total understanding of the museum and heritage ideas (c) perfectly knowing our users (d) knowing well the set of techniques, methods and procedures which we call the museum working process. Only the fourth expertise can be learned on the job, although it is not advisable: too long and expensive.

Only by these three + one, areas of expertise, professionals be able to face the real problems: those of running the institution effectively, and of making/offering the good product.

What concerns us here is obviously the product. It is any corrective input into community that helps to restore the (permanently endangered) balance. The long story of “cybernetic”[16] museum is just another try to assert that museum belongs to the societal forces of adaptation and correction, - counterbalancing the aggressive change which has become so dangerously imposed that the human destiny may well be already out of hand. It is this fear, that created the utopian outcry for sustainable development.

If you feel your community or part of it feels fear, give them some hope, by showing that their predecessors also felt it. If they need hope, offer it by comparing their state with situations where hope was fruitful and justified in spite of the gloom. If they oppose the ruthless destruction of their natural environment, join them (cautiously) by arguments they would be unable to gather themselves. If they do not react to the merciless devastation of architectural heritage by real-estate speculators, offer them an insight into the quality of it and consequences for the cultural, tourist image....If they suffer from illiteracy in art and crafts, becoming easy victims to consumerist tricks, instruct them into the matters of beauty and style. If some support the new nuclear power-plant and others refuse, offer them an overview of arguments for both variants with consequences they have to accept. If they are manipulated by politicians into developmental strategies which are short-sighted, making quick profit for some favoured business, try to suggest different approaches and solutions by using the examples from the past of the same community, by drawing parallels, by using outside experts etc, etc....

Of course, all that would be too much to expect, some of it practically impossible, but one thing is for sure: if we have that tremendous amount of knowledge, well selected and filtered from the past experiences of generations of our ancestors, we, therefore, have a chance for wisdom; and if we have a community with its needs knocking on the doors of our conciousness (they still don’t expect much from us, do they?), we have a a matrix of our professional philosophy: our community is the boss, and their needs are our programme. All the rest is hardly more than a technique.

This simplicity is the core of the problem. It requires insight, understanding, ethical commitment and a hard work. The most obvious “reward” may easily be refusal of finances to the museum, or as we know well, suspension of the director[17]. The paradox is that, when this starts to happen, you may well know we’re doing what we are supposed to do.

But, to sooth down the scared traditionalists, you may also do the job just by pretending you’re doing something important for your community. You give them what is expected from you: a splendid permanent display and a row of temporary exhibitions and events that are conventional cocktails consisting of prestigious but meaningless components of sciences and arts. When about identity and its history, you avoid any possible link with the present and future, deducing only passeist prestige and nostalgia. The mind of the ruling (as you are on that side of the community) will tell you well that when giving, you will do well by offering poor devils the glittering, useless things...Pannem et circenses! Or if, obviously, you offer the utter excellence, do it in a way to fascinate and add a touch of disdain for the crowd. They are well accustomed to be despised by politicians and might appreciate more what they cannot grasp but feel the importance of. This is why the international blockbuster exhibition will be the best solution. Talk to senses, not mind. Some, specially in the art world, even pretend talking to the mind: they make things so avant-guard that only the decadent or the sophisticated few enjoy while their snobbish followers only pretend to enjoy. If museologically uninitiated, no traditional curator will feel guilty. Administration supports him, media love him, public hurls into the museum...Reasonably or even well educated, the public (different from visitors and users[18]) is perfectly conditioned to support the museum part of the Mega Machine (L.Mumford) working the way it does. Why should you worry then about the 75%  of our community who never set their foot in the museum? It never crosses their mind, anyhow, that the museum is supported from their pockets. So, the museological dilemma is only a part of the bigger one, and there, like in the very living lies your preferred solution. It is always our frailty or our strengthen that take the chance.

Museum institution needs relevance, respectability, guarantee of successful functioning. What any community member needs is sense of importance, self respect, (not any but) usable knowledge, security, well-being and, - the immortality; of course, not the one pretended in museums, but the immortality, to paraphrase Rolland Barth, of the human kind, of those values and qualities that link it to Gods forever.

If it wasn’t clear enough how can museums serve their community best, it remains to try a brief version: Museums can bring us closer to meaningful existence by being a reliable, friendly place, doing what any respectable, old, wise friend would do. The shortest definition of a museologist, which explains what the institution itself might be, is: Museologist is a curator with the mind of visitor[19], so the good territorial museum is the one with the community on its mind. Science remains the basis and collections the means, but the job is theatre; a specific one though. 

[1] Šola, Tomislav. Essays on Museums and Their Theory/ Towards the cybernetic museum. The Finnish Association of Museums, Helsinki, 1997 (pp. 68-   ) p. 295
[2] Desvalees, Andre in discussion, at the occasion of the ICOFOM symposium “Originals or substitutes”, Zagreb, 1983.
[3] Wilson, Edward O.Pregled, Zagreb, p.233
[4] Collin, G. L’ecomusee du Mont-Lozere. A paper at the symposium “Museum, territory, society”, London, 1983. pp. 5
[5] Desvalees, Andre. L’esprit et la lettre de l’ecomusee. p 54; In: Ecomusees en France. Actes de premiers recontres nationales des ecomusees, L’Isle d’Abeau, 1986. pp 267ECO, 702,Desv.
[6] Veillard, Jean Ives. Le musee d’histoire, muse de combat. A paper at the symposium “Museum, territory, society”, London, 1983.
[7] Hubert, Francois. Pays de Rennes, un ecomusee de la fin des annes quatre-vingts. In: Ecomusees en France. Actes de premiers recontres nationales des ecomusees, L’Isle d’Abeau, 1986. pp 267
[8] the words of ......, director of  Isle of Man Museum when presenting the museum for the European Museum of the Year Award.
9 “Slovenianum”, Heritage orientation and information centre, Ljubljana (project by T.Šola, unrelised)

[10]  More about the theme in: Šola. Tomislav. Redefining Collecting. In: Knell, Simon J. (ed) 1999. Museums and the Future of Collecting,. Asgate, Aldershot.
[11] Dana, John Cotton. 1920. A plan for a New Museum, Elm Tree Press, Vermont
[12] Ludvigsen, Peter. 1995. A Workers' Museum in Copenhagen. Museum International, 188, vol 47, No 4, p.41
[13] Šola, Tomislav. 1995. How Museology perceives information technology. Commet Conference, Swansea/Barcelona, 1995.
[14] Introduction to the cybernetic museum. in “Essays on Museums and Ther Theory”, Finnish Association of Museums,
[15] Šola, Tomislav. Museum Curators – The endangered Species. In: Boylan Patrick (ed.) Museums for the 2000. Routledge, 19....., London. ( A paper at the conference of the 100th anniversary of Museums Association, UK)
[16] a few chapters in the book: Šola, Tomislav. Essays on Museums and Their Theory/Towards the cybernetic museum. Finnish Association of Museums, Helsinki, 1997. pp. 295
[17] Zolberg, Vera. Museums as contested sites of remembrance: the Enola Gay affair. In the book: Macdonald Sharon; Fyfe Gordon (editors). Theorizing Museums. Blackwell Publishers. 1998.
[18] Šola, Tomislav. From visitors to users. Informatica Museologica. No 3-4, Zagreb,1997.
[19] Šola, Tomislav, scattered in texts and lectures ever since 1987.

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