Performing Heritage; Beyond the Walls of the Museum and to the waves

Image: New Old Stock, ‘Surfing at Ballina (NSW)’

I would like to offer some thoughts on museum professional, Nina Simon’s blog post because two important themes stood out for me, the issue of museums and communities and how important each is to the other, as discussed by Elizabeth Crooke. As well as Laura Jane Smith’s, idea of ‘heritage as a cultural process.’ I particularly enjoyed seeing the connections that could be drawn between Elizabeth Crooke and Laura Jane Smith’s ideas and Nina Simon’s actual experience of organising an exhibition.

Nina Simon’s post discusses ‘relevance’ in relation to an exhibition at her museum, ‘Princes of Surf’ about the emergence of surfing in the Americas. She emphasises the importance of this exhibition to the cultural identity of Santa Cruz and informs us that it gathered an unprecedented response. The exhibition, minimalist in style, only contained two artefacts, the original redwood surfboards the princes shaped and used in Santa Cruz. It struck me that these particular artefacts must have such a great importance to the local community to warrant such an enormous response. However, Simon shows us that their significance runs deeper than the local community, she writes, that this exhibition managed to connect people, ‘across oceans, across cultures, across time.’

Relevance is only a beginning; Nina Simon argues, after you have relevance, then you must strive to make meaning out of relevance. Crooke informs us that ‘community could be used as a means of introducing diversity into the museum.’[2] It is clear that Nina Simon’s exhibition does this and more, she describes the exhibition as a doorway that has been opened to let a great and diverse number of people in, people from different backgrounds and with different interests but all with one common factor, their interest in the origins of the ‘Hawaiian princes’. It is clear that Nina Simon’s exhibition reached beyond the walls of the museum to connect at first with the local community and then expanded its boundaries to include an array of people from the international surfing community, through the connection of the early Hawaiian Polynesian surf culture. The exhibition clearly facilitated the visitors in affirming their present identities and created a sense of belonging for all who chose to play an active role.

This leads me on to the second reflection I had when reading Nina Simon’s post, how the visitors performed heritage. For me, when it comes to this exhibition in particular, ‘performance’ ranges from the act of visiting the exhibition, attending the lectures, partaking in the celebrations of ‘Three Princes Day,’ to creating replicas of the boards and the act of blessing the boards. Laura Jane Smith describes heritage as a ‘cultural and social process.’ She argues that, ‘heritage is not a thing or a site but rather it is what goes on at these places.’ [3] I found this to be extremely pertinent when reading Nina Simon’s description of her ‘favourite moment of the project,’ the memorial event that took place 130 years to the day since the teenage Hawaiian princes were first documented surfing on mainland USA in Santa Cruz. Simon describes this event as ‘unconventional’, and this perhaps relates to Smith’s description of what heritage really is, particularly the connections that can be drawn between identity and performance and her argument that ‘all heritage is intangible.’ [4] Simon describes the two surfboards as if they are only the beginning of something, the opening up of a space for which so much more could take place. One of Smith’s most important arguments is that we should try to move away from the ‘authorised heritage discourse,’ part of this argument stems from the fact that traditional Western accounts of heritage tends to emphasise the material basis of heritage. [5] If we look at ‘Princes of Surf’ from the view of Smith we can see that the tangible artefacts themselves are perhaps not the most important part of the exhibition, rather it is the feeling, the discussion and the events that grew from the visitors’ interpretations of what the boards represented. I found this to be particularly exciting because I could not help but see how her theories appeared to fall entirely into place whilst reading Simon’s description of the ‘performance’ that took place surrounding her exhibition.

Nina Simon describes the event that takes place on ‘Three Princes Day,’ on the beach and in the courtyard of the museum, as an act of commemoration and celebration with spiritual connotations. I feel that it cannot be separated from what Smith is trying to tell us, that this is what heritage really is, that heritage is the act of remembrance and commemoration, that heritage is how visitors to museums and sites engage with the histories that they choose to visit, and the use that they make of their visit, to understand their own identities in the present. It is clear from Nina Simon’s description that the visitors to the museum, whether they took part in this particular event or not, all had emotional investment in the exhibition and thus constructed their own meanings during their visit to the ‘Princes of Surf.’ For me, it was gratifying to see how the theories that we read in class, can fit like a glove in a real life situation. After all, what would be the point in studying so hard if we could not envision theories becoming practice?

[1] L.J. Smith, Uses of Heritage, (Taylor and Francis, 2006).

[2] E. Crooke, The ‘Active Museum’, How Concern with Community Transformed the Museum, The International Handbook of Museum Studies 4:21, (John Wiley and Sons, 2015).

[3] Op. Cit. Smith.

[4] Op. Cit. Smith.

[5] Ibid.

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