Giving power to the people in the museum

Oral History

With an increasing emphasis being put on oral history nowadays, many museums rely on the input of their stakeholders, i.e. the local community, in the curation of certain exhibitions and certain cultural artefacts. See for example the regular events involving testimony from Holocaust survivors at the National Holocaust Museum in Amsterdam, as well as the call for memories of the Stedelijk Museum during World War 2 as part of an oral history project.

This increased contribution of stakeholders within the museum setting was a topic highlighted by the two guest speakers, Bernadette Schrandt and Annemarie de Wildt, during a seminar with the MA Heritage and Memory Studies students on 10th March 2017 at the University of Amsterdam. The topic interests me so much as I am currently undertaking an internship at a creative studio called MediaLAB based in Amsterdam, where oral history and local stakeholders are key factors in the project I am working on. Check out our project blog here.

The Changing Role of Museums

Annemarie de Wildt is the curator of the Amsterdam Museum and during the seminar she discussed and shared her research called “Framing Prostitution”. The research project includes studies of the exhibitions “Liefde te koop” (Love for Sale) (2002) and “The Hoerengracht” (2010) at the Amsterdam Museum. One topic she is particularly interested in is the changing power relations between the curator of a museum, the objects/artists and the museum’s visitors. This appeals to me greatly having previously studied heritage and museum theory during the MA programme. It is certainly interesting to compare the theory behind museums with their practice. In theory, the museum holds a significant power in society as an educational institution, while in practice it is clear that this characteristic of a museum as hegemonic is slowly transforming. This is apparent as the inclusion of local stakeholder’s voices is becoming increasingly valuable and important for the transfer of knowledge, experience, and emotions within the museum setting.

Traditionally, the prime role of a museum is to educate the public on a range of topics being displayed. However, in our ever-changing modern society, the role of the museum is also undergoing a change. While the element of education is always present (whether it is stressed or whether it is taking a back seat), many museums are becoming less highbrow and are taking on a more interactive and performative role in society. Thus, the perception of museums as stuffy, highly intellectual institutions is changing into a more inviting, often experiential, public space. Or is it? This leads me to the following question: if museums do not change their roles to become more open and interactive, then what does the future hold for such institutions? I would like to hear your thoughts on this, so feel free to leave comments!

Contact Zone

While the transfer of knowledge is ever-present, increased interactivity with objects and the personal contribution of visitors is becoming highly valued. In my experience, there is a noticeable transfer of power from the museum to its visitors, allowing and encouraging visitors to reinterpret the museum and its pre-set narrative from their own personal perspective.

During her lecture, Annemarie de Wildt talked about the museum as a “contact zone” (Mary Louise Pratt (1992), James Clifford (1997)), especially with regard to the two separate exhibitions on prostitution mentioned above. She explained how the exhibitions had been curated in collaboration with prostitutes in order to tell the narrative of the Red Light District from the women’s perspectives. This collaboration falls into the category of a contact zone, as local stakeholders were involved in the curation of the exhibition, allowing their voices to be heard and, ultimately, to be valued.

Robin Boast, a professor at the University of Amsterdam, re-examines the concept of the museum as a contact zone in an article entitled ‘Neocolonial Collaboration: Museum as Contact Zone Revisited’ (Museum Anthropology 34/1 (2011): 56-70). Within this, Boast quotes a definition of the contact zone from Mary Louise Pratt (1991), which states that a contact zone is a “term to refer to social spaces where cultures meet, clash, and grapple with each other, often in contexts of highly asymmetrical relations of power, such as colonialism, slavery, or their aftermaths as they are lived out in many parts of the world today”.

Expressed in a simpler way, in the context of a museum a contact zone is a transcultural space where local stakeholders are invited by the curator/museum to contribute to the narrative and discussion surrounding a particular exhibition or object. Ultimately, the contact zone acts as an anthropological exercise in mediation meaning that the opinions of the local stakeholders (i.e. the local community) are taken into account in the creation and execution of the exhibition or the displaying of a particular object/artefact.

Unbiased Space

Both the changing role of museums and the tenuous and controversial nature of the museum as a contact zone makes me question whether the nature of space (whether inside a museum or outside) can ever be unbiased. Curators curate content to reflect the ethos and values of the museum they are working in, while local stakeholders share their views and feelings toward a particular culturally significant object housed within the museum’s collection (for example).

I questioned the bias of public spaces while participating in a creative workshop hosted by Refik Anadol at the Makerversity in Amsterdam called “Architectural Intelligence”. As human beings, we wear our preconceptions, biases and stereotypes just as we wear our clothes. We take them with us wherever we go, just as a museum will house its objects and information within the walls of its own biases and specific modes of narrating.

So, can / does a truly unbiased space exist? I would love to hear your thoughts!

 

Bibliography:

Mary Louise Pratt, (1991:34), in Robin Boast, ‘Neocolonial Collaboration: Museum as Contact Zone Revisited’ (Museum Anthropology 34/1 (2011): 56-70)

Robin Boast, ‘Neocolonial Collaboration: Museum as Contact Zone Revisited’ (Museum Anthropology 34/1 (2011): 56-70)

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