Friday, December 14, 2007

Question de Peau par Jean Bermon

J’ai fait la connaissance de Sergio sur le pas de la porte du musée qu’il a fondé à San Cristobal de Las Casas au Mexique. Heritance et l’Association Maya Solidarité participent actuellement au projet de restructuration de ce musée du costume dans le Chiapas. Je savais fort peu de choses de Sergio sinon que depuis plus de trente ans, cet ingénieur agronome de formation, dédiait sa vie aux Indiens descendant du peuple Maya. Notre présentation fut des plus brèves, Sergio finissait de soigner un de ses patients sous la véranda et m’invitait à le suivre dans ses visites à domicile. J’ignorais encore la nature de sa spécialité : le traitement des grands brûlés.

Après une bonne demi-heure de route dans le silence, nous sommes rentrés dans une petite maison bien modeste. Le jeune homme de 24 ans qu’il avait pris en charge quotidiennement depuis 4 semaines était tombé d’un toit et avait par réflexe tenté de s’accrocher à une ligne de haute tension. Outre sa chute sur le béton qui l’avait paralysé à vie des deux jambes, il avait subi de terribles brûlures. Ce patient n’était que l’un des premiers de sa longue journée qui s’achève six jours par semaines par une consultation au musée et la visite proposée du lieu à des groupes de touristes qui contribuent de façon modeste au financement de sa mission.

En effet, si Sergio ne demande rien pour les soins qu’il propose aux plus défavorisés, ceux-ci, en retour, l’ont gratifié, au cours des années, de nombreux cadeaux principalement sous la forme de costumes traditionnels qui sont pour certains des pièces d’exception que même le musée Anthropologique de Mexico lui empreinte à l’occasion. Cette première journée au cours de laquelle nous nous sommes rencontrés m’a fait découvrir un homme hors du commun ; elle m’a permis également de comprendre peut-être l’origine d’une telle collection.

Certes ces Indiens démunis ont offert leurs plus beaux vêtements, mais n’est-ce pas plutôt leur parure qu’ils ont donnée en échange d’une peau neuve…

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Forces for Good - by Maureen

As pointed out by Phil Cubata at Gift Hub, the new book Forces for Good by Lelie Crutchfield and Heather Grant has some good lessons for those of us committed to affecting social change.

Here are the six main findings in the book:

1. Work with government and advocate for policy change
2. Harness market forces and see business as a powerful partner
3. Convert individual supporters into evangelists for the cause
4. Build and nurture nonprofit networks, treating other groups as allies
5. Adapt to the changing environment
6. Share leadership, empowering others to be forces for good

Reviewers of the book claim that Crutchfield and Grant have an important idea:
Jim Collins, author of Good to Great and coauthor of Built to Last, wrote: “Crutchfield and McLeod Grant have made a significant contribution with a Very Big Idea–the shift in focus from building an organization to building a movement. Inspired and inspiring, this book can change the way the world works by changing how leaders think.”

David Gergen, professor of public service and director, Center for Public Leadership, Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government echoed Collins' praise: “The [nonprofits] having the greatest impact these days are those that have moved beyond old traditions. They are entrepreneurial, adaptive, externally-oriented, and sometimes a little messy. Working together, they are not only trying to fix problems, but also reform whole systems. For people who want to change the world—and who doesn’t?—this book provides an invaluable road map. Bravo!”

Ditto from Larry Brilliant, executive director, Google.org and Sheryl Sandberg, board member, Google.org, and vice president, Google.com: “Global problems like abject poverty and climate change require innovative, scaleable solutions. We have so much to learn from these six practices because they’re what lead to wide-scale social change.”--

Everyone seems to agree that Forces for Good outlines the characteristics of today's non-profit ideal. So how does Heritance measure up? Uh humm, to be perfectly honest, not very favorably, at least not yet.

Here's how the Heritance report card to date:

1. Work with government and advocate for policy change = F

(We have not yet worked with government agencies -- in part due to the fact that in the world of museums, especially in the US, the government and policy -- except in absentia -- do not play a role. Perhaps our role will be in part to point to this absence. )

2. Harness market forces and see business as a powerful partner = F

(We are talking with a start-up LLC about a joint venture and have applied for foundation money from an established business guru, but we have not formed any partnerships with corporations -- not even for money -- nor used market forces to our advantage.)

3. Convert individual supporters into evangelists for the cause = D

(Those of us who support Heritance are evangelists and have a respectable pitch, but there aren't many of us. We should recruit supporters with the goal of training them to be evangelists. Sounds creepy, but I think that is in part because many of us have become quite passive in our giving. In society at large, it is acceptable -- in fact preferable -- to quietly give money and do nothing that resembles a "sale". Society is sales averse, except in the realm of the object, where sales pitches abound.)

4. Build and nurture nonprofit networks, treating other groups as allies = C

(Given its year of existence, Heritance has done a respectable job. We have built an extensive network of museum professionals, where there was no network before. We have dozens of partner museums and have good working relations with a number of different kinds of organizations. Or course, we could do more to network and make our networks know.)

5. Adapt to the changing environment = C

(Again, given our youth, a C not a bad score. Our mere existence is due to a process of environmental call & response. Heritance is the product of an on-going conversation between partners, participating museum professionals, board members, advisors, funders, etc. and our process a cycle of planning-implementation-evaluation. But we don't deserve an A. There is soooo much we are not yet doing when you compare Heritance to an organization like Umeebee.org -- which also is a young org. We need to recruit more people and and become people who look, listen, learn and experiment with the multiple media available to us.)

6. Share leadership, empowering others to be forces for good = A

(I would give us an unmitigated A. As far as I can see -- which may not be far, since I'm the Director -- Heritance has acted upon its commitment to empower people in the internal, as well as, external aspects of our organization's work. We teach museum stakeholders how to optimize the resources of their own museums in order to best serve their communities. We have broken down the traditionally thick walls between museums through our international network of museum professionals. Internally, again insofar as I can see, we practice transparent and inclusive processes of decision-making.)

So, what do I make this report card. Not bad for a beginner but could -- and should -- be better with continued efforts in the areas we're doing well and more attention to the areas that don't yet exist for us.

Thursday, December 6, 2007

Open Collections: Quai de Branley, Paris - by Maureen

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The photo "Open Collections: Quai de Branley, Paris" shows an example of a display which is after the fashion of, but not quite, an open collection.

The photo shows a collection of musical instruments in the Musée Quai de Branley in Paris. It is an open collection in so far as a large number of objects are made available to the visitor library-style (in stacks with extensive information attached). Proponents of the "open collection" argue that the museum, like a library, should serve as a resource to visitors which promotes and supports active exploration and interpretation on the part of the individual visitor.

The open collection is one way in which to conteract the dominant trend in today's museums towards the theme park, window shop and box office hit. As in many contemporary public spaces, more and more frequently the museum visitor assumes -- and is encouraged to assume -- the role of passive consumer. They consume information and trinkets (displays, interpretations, experiences and gift shop souvenirs) which other people have constructed for the sole purpose of their consumption.

Although some museum professionals exploit the passive consumerism of their visitors, others -- such as the Lower Eastside Tenement Museum -- are disturbed by it and encourage active and conscious visitor involvement.

To take a virtual tour of LETM

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

How do museums "own" the past? - by Maureen

Museums own the past in at least two ways: 1) as guardians of the physical objects and 2) as tellers of the objects’ stories. And thank goodness!

Although I am critical of some aspects of how museums realize their missions, I think that there are good reasons why museums should not (if it were even a question on the table!) stop possessing collections in the way.

First of all, the public can’t be trusted. People have rarely proven reliable agents in the protection and public sharing of treasures. (Look at the destruction of the Bagdad Museum. Look at the thousands of priceless treasures that have disappeared underground, often illegally into private collections.) The museum, like the library, is an institution founded on with dual purpose of safekeeping and sharing humanity’s collective past.

Furthermore, not just anybody can unlock some of the most interesting stories which objects hold. Some stories can be told with the help of special skills and training, such as scientific technology for dating pottery and curatorial methods for establishing the authenticity of a painting. Many museums provide the infrastructure necessary to conduct this research. Most museums privilege these stories, because they contribute to the collective wisdom of humanity.

You might find fault with a museum’s preference for the specialist’s story (and many museums try to counter this tendency), but there is no denying that an archeologist of classical Greece will read a Grecian urn in a different way than a 14-year old first-time visitor. To me, this difference is worth preserving.

I do not meant to say that the 14-year-old’s story is devoid of interest to the museum or public, but it would be a shame to assume the two stories were interchangeable. This treatment would inflate the value of the teenager’s story and devalue the stories of the specialist who has invested time in acquiring the training and base of knowledge from which to pursue a clearer understanding of the past.

In my mind, Museums are important in so far as they probe (and lead us to probe) the questions: “Who are we? Where do we come from? Where are we going?”

Having spoken in defense of the museum, I would like to emphasize that it is wrong-headed for anyone, including a museum professional, to assert that there is one true story about an object and that specialists hold the key. Many museum professionals would be the first to agree and some have worked hard to modify their museum’s philosophy concerning board composition, accessions, exhibits, labeling, and programming.

Insofar as a museum fails to behave consistently with a belief in the object as vehicle to many, diverse, perhaps irreconciliable stories, it fails to conduct Gauguin’s inquiry and, in my mind, it fails to fulfill the museum’s dual mission as steward and story teller.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Entrez, c'est ouvert ou Une brève visite des réserves par Jean Bermon

Certains musées, dans le passé, ont assimilé leurs réserves à des galeries d’études. On peut tout particulièrement évoquer le Musée des Arts et Traditions Populaires dont le premier conservateur : Charles-Henri Rivière avait mis en place une galerie à l’usage particulier de quelques chercheurs et étudiants. Ceux-ci pouvaient, tout à loisir, étudier les nombreuses collections d’objets ethnologiques mis à leur disposition dans des vitrines. Cette disposition fut rapidement considérée comme obsolète non du fait de sa conception mais plutôt par son aspect figé et son manque de renouvellement en termes scientifiques.
Précisons que Charles-Henri Rivière ne doit pas être confondu avec Georges-Henri Rivière, le digne père du concept d’écomusée.
Depuis, certains grands musées français ou étrangers ont également opté pour des réserves visitables. Le « Science Museum » de Londres dispose de deux réserves ouvertes à un large public. De la même manière, le Musée des arts et métiers de Paris dispose de réserves destinées à être consultées par des chercheurs et qui constituent un exemple du genre.
Pour sa part, le musée des Beaux-Arts de Rouen a créé des réserves de peinture qui peuvent être visitées par le grand public ; elles trouvent leur modèle dans les galeries des grands musées du XIXe siècle.
Le Musée Anthropologique de Vancouver, quant à lui, à pris le parti de rendre accessibles au public plus de 14000 objets. Il a, dans ce dessein, créé un vaste catalogue dédié à l’ensemble des pièces présentées que le visiteur peut consulter directement.

Au fur et à mesure, les réserves, d’abord, se visitent, puis constituent le véritable corpus de la visite.
L’ouverture au public d’espaces patrimoniaux restés jusqu’alors inaccessibles, peut constituer désormais un impératif pour certains lieux, en passe de désaffection, mais ne s’agirait-il pas plutôt d’un simple acte de reconnaissance et de partage ?
Un verni de poussière peut parfois rivaliser avec les présentations les plus raffinées.

Jean Bermon

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Irezumi Sugar Bowl - posted by Maureen

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Here's an example of a Handmeon, the Irezumi sugar bowl by the potter Sarah Heimann. If you visit the site, you can learn about this object and its sojourns and Sarah's work in general.

Handmeon: a new relationship to museum objects? - by Maureen

Handmeon has introduced a new relationship to objects, collecting and giving. The potential implications are very interesting for museums.

A Handmeon is an object with its own website. The premise is that the object's signficance is created, at least in part, by a person's experience in the world with the object. The person can impart aspects of this experience to others by attaching diverse forms of information to it, for example text, photo, film, sound.

The social creation of significance could be said to be as true of a Van Gogh as the paper maché box made for by my daughter on Mother's Day. Even -- perhaps it's more appropriate to say "especially" -- great art has a history and this history is often as intimate as any personal biography. Don't we all know the story of Vincent's ear? Can't we picture the night sky of Provence?

Imagine a museum where in addition to viewing the collections on display, you could access a website associated with each object. Furthermore, imagine that you could gain this access on or off site and participate in the "writing" of the object's story yourself whenever you felt like it. The enabling technology - the web-connected cell phone - already exists. Soon enough everyone will carry their "object reader and writer" around in their pocket.

It probably sounds iconoclastic to speak of a visitor "writing" the story of a museum object. But why not? The art you encounter in museums are "merely" objects. Their meaning is imparted by all of their appreciators, regardless of their credentials. Just like the meaning of any number of things in the world. You see similarly shocking examples at work right now on the Web, notably Wikipedia. On Wikipedia, a highly respectable resource, anyone who plays by the rules can participate in the amassing of information. The distinction between "expert" and "amateur" fall away on the Internet, the place where "nobody knows you're a dog".

What about the collector who wants to donate his or her collection to the museum? The Handmeon allows this person, like others, to impart his or her experience with the object. Moreover, the art collector who uses Handmeon gets the bonus of a crash course in "How to live with your mortality" and "What's a possession" -- one of the most enticing aspects of Handmeon. It's a philosophy lesson with a practicum.

Handmeon gives a gentle reminder that because we are mortal, what we consider our possessions are merely ephemeral cohabitations -- Unless we consume "our" objects, incorporate them like a piece of beef or reduce them to pieces chemically or mechanically -- most things we own will pass into the hands of another person, whether it be directly from our hands or by a proxy after our death.

It's imaginable that more people will come to feel as I do that "possession" is a not a very interesting nor appealing way of relating to the material world. Yet I am not an ascetic. I do greatly appreciate, even love, many objects. I prefer to describe my relationship to things in terms of "experiencing their presence" rather than "owning" it. Especially since, it seems to me that "ownership" and "possession" are on a slippery slope that can lead to a reversal of the subject and object functions. Many a person is possessed or owned by the possessions they allegedly own. And the world is not a better place for this reversal.

Handmeon provides a space in which to imagine alternative ways of being with objects and sharing reflections on these alternatives with other interested people. Handmeon can literally bring new meaning to museums and to life.

A Heritance caper, does it pack a punch for you? - - by Maureen

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At last, with a lot of help from friends and colleagues, Heritance has an executive summary. The purpose of this document is to explain the organization's mission, vision, goals and programs in a way that is clear, concise and compelling to the uninformed newcomer, as well as, the inveterate supporter.

Like a culinary caper, an executive summary out to pack a distinctive punch which lingers long after the reading. Tell us what you think and whether or not what we are doing strikes your fancy!

Heritance Executive Summary

Heritance coordinates a network of museum professionals who provide skills, knowledge, and services free of charge to museums in some of the poorest and most remote regions of the globe. Heritance’s mission to provide seed grants and professional services to at-risk museums presents a unique opportunity to influence the institutional culture of museums and the values of the communities they serve.

Museums are generally thought of as stewards of culture and heritage. But history is not a simple mirror of the past. Our perception and interpretation of history, and our place in it, is constantly reconstructed through a social process of collective recollection. This continuous reinvention of the past is part of the process by which communities define and shape their present and their future. We at Heritance believe that museums can and should be beacons of openness, inclusiveness, transparency, and self-determination in their communities.

Museums lacking resources cannot promote and protect the history and the collective memory of the people they serve. The disappearance of community-based museums and the displacement of their objects threaten the community’s historical identity and sap its power for self-determination. About 99% of the world’s museums fall between the cracks of the existing network of heritage organizations. Heritance is designed to help museums survive and flourish in even the poorest and most remote regions of the globe.

The expertise of trained museum professionals we mobilize represents a treasure trove of skills, knowledge, ideas and financial resources that are typically not available to museums at risk. Heritance brings together professionals from a wide variety of museums to find solutions to specific problems and to create a network for sharing “best practices” worldwide. Additionally, Heritance provides seed grants to museums to implement specific projects with well-defined goals and time frames.

Unfortunately, museums lacking resources almost invariably also lack the institutional culture and practices that would allow them to use the resources effectively, even if they had them. Simply providing “helicopter aid” to museums without any corresponding process improvements is frequently unsuccessful and even counterproductive.

To avoid the dysfunctional outcomes typically associated with ‘handing out fish’, Heritance grants and professional expertise are never provided in a vacuum. Professional assistance and seed grants are always provided in conjunction with management skills workshops or by dual-trained consultant-managers in the context of a Heritance-sponsored, collaboratively managed project. Partners are required to participate actively in project planning, coordination and evaluation of all interventions using a web-based project management system. This provides a cost effective form of distance learning, permitting partner museums to learn essential project management skills and to practice transparent and inclusive communications. Much like Doctors without Borders, by bringing first aid to museums, Heritance gains a foothold for its broader mission: changing museum culturefrom the inside out.

We believe that museums can serve a vital role in community evolution, both as catalysts in the process of self-definition and self-determination, and as role models in the transparent and inclusive processes essential to open democratic societies.

Heritance Executive Summary (available along with other Heritance corporate documents: http://www.heritance.org/resources.html)


Maureen

Monday, October 29, 2007

LEXIQUE ET DÉRIVÉ par Jean Bermon

Géraldine Balissat et Paule Renaud, qui toutes deux collaborent avec Heritance, ont proposé de créer un lexique multilingue propre au monde des musées. Si, avant tout, je tiens à les remercier pour cet engagement aussi audacieux que généreux, il me semble opportun de souligner la pertinence mais aussi la complexité d’un tel opus.
La muséographie est une activité qui occupe, depuis quelque temps déjà, une place non négligeable au sein de mes pensées, de mes déplacements, de mes lectures et de mes textes souvent courts et bilingues. Par voie de conséquence, mon travail journalier s’effectue depuis bien longtemps sous la surveillance aussi bienfaitrice qu’agaçante, parfois, d’un correcteur orthographique. Ma prose se voit régulièrement rehaussée de délicieuses petites guirlandes rouges ou vertes, qui sont autant de rappels constants aux vertus séculaires de l’orthographe et de la grammaire.
Tout cela est fort utile, tout cela conforte et pourtant… La machine a-t-elle raison de souligner en rouge le mot museography, dès lors que je l’emploie dans la langue de Shakespeare ? Ai-je tort d’ignorer ce sempiternel rappel à l’ordre ?
La traduction de mots propres à chaque discipline est révélatrice de perceptions et d’usages bien différents d’un processus,ou d’un objet pourtant identiques. N’ai-je pas été déstabilisé récemment par l’emploi du mot marketing lors de l’un de nos workshop alors que je ne l’attendais pas dans ce contexte ? J’ai pu, a posteriori, vérifier le bien fondé de cette tournure.
Et si, à défaut, d’une traduction pertinente, nous adoptions le mot de l’autre ?
Punaise, c’est vrai que pour parler d’un bulldozer j’ai jamais dit bouteur.
Les mots ça pourrait bien être contagieux.

Tuesday, October 9, 2007

The Lending-Museum by Maureen

Last week, Jean and I began to explore a new concept in museums -- the “lending museum”.

The idea emerged during a discussion about our potential collaboration with an organization which helps to found community libraries in Latin America. As we examined the question of the compatibility of the work Heritance does with museums and the work this NGO does with libraries, a question arose:

What if museums were more like libraries? What if museum objects, like library books, could circulate freely among the organization’s members?

In his previous French language Heritance blog, Jean introduced the notion of the open collection, a notion that has been realized with success by some museums, including the Jewish Museum in Vienna. The open collection is one way in which a museum can overcome the problem that Jean characterizes as the “unexploited richness of most museums’ reserves”. In a traditional museum only a small percentage of a collection is available to the public at any one time and rarely does the museum display all of its objects. What if you were to push the notion of the open collection a notch higher and consider making those objects available for a loan to individuals?

There is somewhat of a precedent to this idea in the concept of the “museum in a box” -- a program, which has been successfully implemented by some museums to bring the museum to visitors who cannot visit the museum themselves. The basic idea behind a “museum in the box” is that the museum provides a turnkey kit for schools, which includes: a collection of objects organized according to a theme, plans for their presentation and some curriculum materials for the teacher and students. Sometimes the box includes objects, which can be handled by the students.

The lending-museum we propose is like a giant museum in a box, minus the turnkey kit. We propose putting objects on loan for “good use”. In the case of a piece of art, the user would put it to “good use” as art, for example on display in their living room or office. In the case of tools and machines, the user would put them to “good use” (i.e. make them do work) and return them in as good a working condition as possible. Just as a reader handles books, which are sometimes returned slightly worn and eventually worn out, the borrower at the lending-museum checks out the objects for use. Like a library, the museum repairs, replaces, and retires it collections over time.

We propose that the museum have a second purpose, namely to record the stories of the objects and the people who use them? As a recorder of stories -- to include text, sound and images -- the museum would have the rare and potentially rich opportunity of simultaneously building a written, oral and material history of the community. To borrow the term from Arjun Appudurai, a lending-library with the capacity for tracking the ojects and stories of its community, could become a center of ethno-history. Such a ground-breaking institution would capture the interest of people around the world, while serving its own community as a rich and authentic archive of contemporary history.

The techonology already exists to support this kind ethno-history center, for example, the web-based object blog developed for Handmeon (www.handmeon.org). Handmeon enables any person (or museum) to easily create a website for an object (complete with text, photos, film, sound and music) and to update the site with each user’s story. The only tools necessary are an Internet connection and a computer. Since the interface is simple, it requires no special training. At this point, the only barriers to founding a lending-museum are social. Will the communities want it? Assuming they do, will the world of museum stakeholders accept it and support it?

It seems that the lending-museum flies in the face of the traditional museum. After all, isn’t a museum supposed to keep safe the world’s heritage by removing the objects from circulation? We don’t suggest that all museums start lending their objects. (Imagine the loan of a fragile papyrus books and a 2000-year-old mummy or solid gold masks and elaborately etched and painted ceramic vases.) We do suggest, however, that the dominant conception of a museum is too narrow to be adequate in contemporary society.

The museum, like all institutions is an expression of its current social values, as well as, its historical roots. What constitutes a “real” museum for many people today, including many directors of prestigious museums, dates to the Victorian era when various agencies, notably national governments, erected public spaces in which to display model art objects as part of a social program. In the case of England, the government set out to shape their lowest classes into productive participants in the Industrial Revolution of Colonial British society by exposing them to ideal art forms and inculcating in them a taste and desire for more and more expensive material objects. Since the 1900’s museums have evolved in many ways.

The basic premise underlying the dominant concepton of a museum collection, however, is still Victorian. Traditionally, the museum, as the trustee of the world’s heritage, manages a collection on behalf of the public -- often to the point of sequestering it. The museum has assumed the role of in loco parentis for the public and most often has received the endorsement of the public. (If private and public money counts as a show of support, there is no denying that museums have a lot of support from at least certain sectors of the public.) The endorsement is for good reason, because in many cases, this model has benefited humanity, by making many objects made available to the public which may have been otherwise been lost through theft, destruction, deterioration, or private acquisition.

The Victorian model for the museum and the rapport it establishes betwen the museum and the public, however, is not the only rapport nor only model available to us today. Jean and I propose admitting the lending-museum into the club of museum models, as a compliment to, not a replacement for, the Victorian model. The 19th Century conception of a museum and collection which is at hand, is derived from a colonial, nation-building world which believe is too narrow to apply to all of the museums in the world today. In order to re-invent museums in our own image, or the image of the open society we envision, we believe it is important to scrutinize -- and to ask others to scrutinize alongside us -- people's working assumptions about museums.

Since it is difficult, if not impossible to examine one's assumptions, perhaps it would help to participate in the following thought experiment: Under which conditions might it seem plausible that a museum lend its collection or specific objects to individuals? What would the collection of such a lending-museum look like? Would it have to be brand new collection designed for that purpose? Could an existing museum retrofit its collection or some of its selected objects to be made available on loan to individuals? What changes would a lending museum affect on its community, on museums in general and on museum visitors worldwide?

This thought experiment, although also potentially amusing, is not a mere exercise. It has the potential to form our conceptions of an adequate museum and affect what we expect from museums. Museums as we know them are not a given, since museum, like all institutions, are social constructs and have no essential nature other than the one than the people living today accord them. Given the work of Heritance with museums, these musings can quickly lead to realities. It would be interesting to hear what readers think about our lending-museum and ethno-history ideas.

What do you think people about the idea of creating new museums, which lend their objects for use, to their members?

Monday, October 8, 2007

En prêt ! par Jean Bermon

Nous avons envisagé, Maureen et moi, la semaine dernière, un projet d’association avec une organisation similaire à la nôtre dont la vocation est la création de bibliothèques communautaires en Amérique du Sud. Par-delà la compatibilité, voire la complémentarité de nos actions, une idée plus particulièrement reste à explorer : celle d’un « biblio-musée » communautaire dont les collections d’objets, tout comme les livres, seraient en libre circulation.
J’évoquais, dans un chapitre précédent, la pénurie généralisée des réserves dans les musées ; dans le contexte d’un musée communautaire dont les objets sont offerts par ses membres, on imagine volontiers l’emprunt et donc le stockage des collections par les abonnés.
La mise à disposition d’un objet, mais aussi d’une documentation qui lui est propre, augure d’un nouveau rapport aux collections et à leur histoire.
Quant à la gestion d’un tel projet : elle pourrait emprunter à la toute nouvelle expérience proposée par un groupe d’entrepreneurs audacieux et géniaux dont le produit en ligne : www.handmeon.com
est certainement la préfiguration d’un nouveau type d’échanges combinant le réel et le virtuel au 21ème siècle.

Jean

le 8 octobre 2007

Monday, September 17, 2007

Quelques Réserves par Jean Bermon

QUELQUES RESERVES…

J’ai visité cet été le musée juif de Vienne. Outre le fait que j’ai particulièrement apprécié la démarche muséographique proposée, il m’a été donné de découvrir sous les combles du bâtiment une «réserve ouverte».
Les réserves de plus en plus constituent un enjeu capital dans le développement des musées. Qu’ils soient citadins ou ruraux le manque d ‘espace de stockage fait cruellement défaut. Dans les cas de figures les plus difficiles rencontrés lors de nos consultations, les objets venaient se surajouter aux collections permanentes en brouillant leur lisibilité. Dans d’autres circonstances, on a vu tous les espaces annexes au musée regorger d’objets de tous poils et plumes.
Le musée zoologique de Colmar (France), qui nous sollicitait la semaine dernière, dispose de superbes collections dont un dixième, à peine, est visible. L’écomusée de Missisquoi (Canada) lors d’un workshop nous faisait part de sa crise du logement en pleine campagne.
Et pourtant, qui ne rêve de partir à la découverte des réserves d’un musée, de dénicher presque l’objet qui n’émeut que soi…
Si se sont, désormais, les expositions temporaires qui réveillent les visiteurs, à l’instar de nombreux sujets contemporains, ne pourrait-on décréter que les réserves ne se cachent plus !

Jean Bermon le 17 septembre 2007.

Monday, September 10, 2007

Museo da Maré par Jean Bermon

Derrière ces quelques mots en portugais, on découvre un projet qui m’a beaucoup touché. J’ai rencontré Mario Chagas lors de la Conférence de l’ICOM à Vienne au courant du mois d’août. Un visage buriné et sympathique, un Tee shirt noir sur lequel on peut lire dans toutes sortes de langues : « Le musée est basique », tout un programme…
Mario est muséologue et enseignant à Rio de Janeiro. Il est également responsable d’un projet peu commun : la création d’un musée dans une favela de Rio. Dans ce quartier tentaculaire qui continuellement se développe en gagnant chaque jour quelques m2 de terre sur la mer, les habitants ont décidé de créer le musée de leur cité http://www.cultura.gov.br/noticias/na_midia/index.php?p=15570&more=1

Il apparaît à l’issue de cette étrange histoire que les plus démunis n’ont pas seulement fait reculer la mer mais véritablement transformé l’horizon.

Jean Bermon

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

N’oubliez pas le guide…par Jean Bermon

N’oubliez pas le guide…

par Jean Bermon

C’est la dernière et sempiternelle phrase prononcée à l’issue de notre visite en famille de l’aven d’Orgnac, merveilleuse cavité souterraine proche des gorges de l’Ardèche, découverte en 1935.
J’avais visité le site alors que j’étais gamin et me réjouissais de le faire découvrir à nos trois enfants.
Je conservais de cette épopée sous une voûte terrestre le souvenir d’un guide docte et affable.
Je ne retrouvais pas le même personnage quelque trente années plus tard : notre homme, fort de 28 ans de bons et loyaux services et surtout d’expérience, tenait un tout autre discours. Les jeux de mots, calambours et autres allusions à quelques malheureuses belles-mères constituaient désormais l’essentiel de la nouvelle trame du scénario proposé et à défaut de silences attentifs c’était le rire qui fusait.
À l’issue d’un fabuleux périple ponctué du « son et lumière » de circonstance on se souviendrait assurément de quelques histoires drôles et des caractéristiques techniques de l’ascenseur qui nous propulsait de -121 m à la surface en moins de 50 secondes.
Je me dois de préciser qu’un musée de la préhistoire proposait, à quelques dizaines de mètres de là, quelques compléments d’information mais nous ne fûmes pas nombreux à le parcourir.
S’il est vrai, comme le prétend le réalisateur John Boorman,que le dernier décideur dans un film est le projectionniste, n’oubliez pas le guide…

Août 2007

Friday, August 17, 2007

Can the museum be a vehicle for social reform? - - by Maureen

Say “museum” and most people conjure up images of cramped rooms filled with dusty curiosities or sterile marble halls lined with glass cases locked shut. The adjectives “old”, “archaic”, “irrelevant” and “lifeless” leap to mind. With these associations, it seems laughable to suggest that the museum could be an agent for change.

I believe, however, that a viable museum is by definition a vehicle for social reform. What would have to be different for my ideal to prevail?

Museums would have to debunk the myth of history as the replication of the past and replace it with a contemporary conception of history as the collective reproduction of the past. Founded upon this premise, museums would be in a better position to participate in the creation of history on the edge of life, or what could be called "emergent history".

Many museums nowadays strive to produce emergent history. The Lower East Side Museum (LESM), for example, has a mission to promote tolerance and historical perspective about the history of immigration in Manhattan. Through its research, collections, exhibits, training programs and support services for the immigrants in New York City, the LESM has done a lot to spiff up the image of the history museum, but there is more work to be done to shake the dust off the museum in general.

One place to start is by reforming the language commonly used to describe museums -- such as the expression "museums are trustees of the past".

It is undeniable that museums have rendered an important service to humanity by keeping many cultural treasures out of harm's way. For instance, setting aside the question of where it belongs today, what would have become of the Parthenon frieze if there hadn’t been a British Museum to keep it safe from deterioration, looting and destruction? The comparison to a "trustee", however, is archaic and dysfunctional. Most people today reject the notion that the museum, or any other institution, should be entrusted with selection, conservation, interpretation, or presentation of the past. Moreover, few people believe any longer that history is a simple recitation of what-really-happened.

Many museum professionals would be the first to reject the notion of the museum as "the trustee of the past". They know that the museum's relationship to the past and to the public is much more complicated. Each day, museum employees are confronted with myriads of choices concerning acquisitions, restoration, interpretation, exhibition space, labeling, programming, scheduling, publicity, etc. which determine the range of possible representations which the museum can make of the past. Moreover, they know that the organizational structure and communications system of the museum set further limitations.

These observations about the limitations imposed on museums are not a criticism. They are a commentary on the nature of doing history. It's not possible to tell a story about the world that contains the whole world. Given a different location, curator or moment in time, the same museum working with the same objects would probably produce a very different exhibit. The new exhibit would not necessarily be more "right" than an earlier one; assuming the process was methodical, the interpretation could simply be different. Just as it is possible for an archeologist to tell more than one plausible story about the same set of pottery shards, it is possible for there to be different interpretations of the past.

A multiplicity of "right" readings of the past does not mean that all interpretations are neither right nor equally good. There can be "wrong" readings of the past, and there can be one reading which better satisfies a person's sense of adequacy than an other.

The essential point is the following: museums -- like all people, groups and institutions -- need to come to terms with with a contemporary conception of history as the collective reproduction of the past. The world of the Internet has changed people's expectations for information and images. In light of the threat these changes post to museums and the potential power of museums to serve the public as an organ of social reform, it seems to me that museums should embrace their role in the historical process, promote the new conception of history and restructure their organizations so as to fully participate in the reproduction of history on the edge of life.

Wednesday, August 1, 2007

Do Fences Make Good Neighbors?

Fences, walls, barriers of all kinds are often as much a social construct as a physical manifestation. They represent the mutually accepted delimitation of a relationship.

Sometimes the boundary is imposed more emphatically than in other instances, as in the case of the Berlin Wall. Thousands of people were walled in and walled out for decades by this mere heap of brick, mortar and wire. Many risked and lost their lives trying to cross it. As of 1989, the Berlin Wall exists only in our collective memory and tourists can take home pieces of it along with their cuckoo clocks and lederhosen. It is difficult to fathom that the world built and maintained that fence for so long.

But that’s what humans do all day every day. We are the masters of social construction. In fact you might say that a defining feature of humanity is our propensity to create social structures and turn a blind eye to the fact that they are our constructions.

We participate daily in the recreation of the fences, which form the foundation of every aspect of society – ranging from interpersonal to intergovernmental relations. In almost every case, the situation at hand “exists” in so far as the agents accept the rules of their interaction. These rules are fences. They are mutually accepted delimitations, which determine the scope of the relationships and outcomes. Fences are not essentially bad. A good fence, however, is a fence that enables good neighbors.

Heritance undertakes to help museums to build neighborly relationships. As with many of the world’s institutions, in proportion with their wealth, museums have built fences, which set them off from each other. These formidable walls have served an important function in that they have helped to keep some of our cultural heritage safe. These same walls have had negative consequences. By closing museum staffs onto themselves, they have impeded the growth of synergy and the sharing of “best practices” between museums, especially between different classes of museum. As one museum director told me, “Museums have thick walls. There’s a lot of competition and snobbism, and this isn’t good for the profession.”

Sadly, the trend seems to be towards further isolation as wealthy museums vie with each other for “box office hits” and museums with fewer resources compete with each other for visitors and limited public and private funding. The potential impact of this trend is disturbing. We could end up with a world in which cultural heritage is lost due to neglect theft, or war and further concentrated in fewer hands in richer places. The ‘haves’ will have more and the ‘have nots’ less, with all that implies for cultural, economic, social, and political development in some of the world’s most troubled places.

Heritance is trying to introduce a cultural change to museums, much like the change affected by DoctorsWithoutBorders to health care. Heritance’s mission is to create a charitable network of museum professionals, which spreads best practices and creative problem-solving to museums around the world. Through our workshops, consultancies and on-going communications, we facilitate the sharing of technical skills, information, strategic planning and project management. The primary goals for the relationships between our participating professionals are that they are long-term and mutually beneficial and satisfying.

In this day and age of quick and easy travel and communications and phenomenal global wealth, the time is ripe to found a worldwide network of caretakers for our shared cultural heritage. It is our duty to be good stewards of what we have inherited and to make these treasures available to people all over the world, especially in those regions, which need the most assistance. Culture is food for the soul and who needs food more than the hungry?

Heritance helps museums, the stewards of a public trust, to create good fences. Good fences are the ones, which neighbors make together in good faith.

Monday, July 9, 2007

Can Kenyan Christians bury their own prehistory?

In Kenya, there is a group of fundamentalist Christians who believe that the preeminence of the National Museum of Kenya's prehistoric fossil collection poses a threat to their faith. They have mobilized against the public exhibit of prehistoric human skeletons and the teaching of the theory of evolution. Many Kenyan prehistory researchers, some of them Christian, assert that their research does not necessarily compromise a person's faith. In response, they have the Kenyan Prehistory Club whose mission is to educate Kenyan's about their own prehistory and the theory of evolution.

Kenya National Museum is the home to Turkana Boy, the most complete skeleton of a prehistoric human ever found. This skeleton, unearthed in 1984 by Richard Leakey, renowned paleontologist and son of Louis and Mary Leakey, will be displayed prominently for the first time this summer.

Bishop Boniface Adoyo, the leader of an evangelical Christian coalition, which claims to have 10 million followers, opposes the exhibition of fossils as evidence of the theory of evolution. He asserts: "I did not evolve from Turkana Boy or anything like it. These sorts of silly views are killing our faith." Adoyo is calling for a boycott of the exhibition and the installation of a written disclaimer that the theory of evolution is just one among a number of theories.

"Whether the bishop likes it or not, Turkana Boy is a distant relation of his," Leakey, who founded the museum's prehistory department, told The Associated Press. "The bishop is descended from the apes and these fossils tell how he evolved." The Kenyan National Museum is proceeding with its preparations for a renovated exhibit space in which they will put 160,000 fossils on display. The renovation is funded by 10.5 million dollar grant from the European Community.

Out of fear that the ideological dispute may prompt an attack on the collection, the Museum has taken precautions to implement a security system to protect what Dr. Emma Mbua, the head of paleontology at the Museum calls their “jewel”. She asserts that “evolution is a fact” and supports the implementation of a security system (which may end up costing millions of dollars) so that the Kenyans can show their heritage to the world.

The world’s community of paleontologists is disturbed by the extensiveness of the evangelical backlash. In response, the Museums Prehistory Club, an organization founded by Mbua, the Club’s President Dr. Fredrick Manthi and other paleontologists engaged in research in Kenya, have created a series of summer workshops to teach the theory of evolution and the richness of Kenyan prehistory to high school teachers in Kenya. The Club has secured a $15,000 grant from the Wenner-Gren Foundation to fund the August program, as well as, $691 from Heritance to cover a budget shortfall.

The workshops, however, mark just the beginning of an effort coordinated by the Kenyan Prehistory Club, Wenner-Gren Foundation and Heritance to continue to protect and promote continued research and teaching about Kenya's prehistory.

For more information about the controversy in Kenya, consult:
http://www.wired.com/culture/lifestyle/news/2006/09/71795
http://www.foxnews.com/story/0,2933,250557,00.html

Sunday, June 17, 2007

PIETERMARITZBURG, SES MUSEES, SA GARE ET AU-DELA… par Jean Bermon

Jean avec Numfundo

Lors de mon séjour en Afrique du Sud j’ai été invité par Philippe Denis, un ami dominicain de Belgique, à passer un WE dans sa maison à Pietermaritzburg. Il y vit en compagnie des sept enfants qu’il a adoptés. C’est donc en compagnie de trois d’entre eux, Nomfundo (4 ans), Kwanele (12 ans) et Sandile (14 ans) que nous avons entamé un petit périple, ce dimanche matin.

Du musée des beaux-arts de cette jolie ville au profil anglais, nous avons emprunté Railway Street pour aboutir devant un bâtiment typiquement victorien et curieusement désert: la gare ferroviaire.
Philippe nous a mené dans le hall de l’édifice où nous avons découvert l’une de ces nombreuses plaques commémoratives en bronze patiné sur lesquelles plus personne ne jette le moindre regard.
Celle-ci restera saillante dans ma mémoire, il est vrai qu’on ne grave pas dans le bronze, car elle nous rappelle l’un de ces événements communs qui bousculent la marche d’un train et aussi celle du monde.

Un jour de 1893 un jeune avocat indien voyageant en première classe a refusé de quitter sa place alors que sa couleur de peau lui interdisait ce compartiment. L’homme fut arrêté sur le champ et emprisonné dans la prison voisine où il passa la nuit, une nuit passée à réfléchir et peu dormir. Cet homme connu sous le nom de Mahatma Gandhi nous révéla plus tard que l’idée de la lutte non-violente venait de germer dans son esprit au cœur de l’Afrique.

Gandhi a passé prés de vingt ans en Afrique du Sud avant de retourner en Inde pour prolonger sa lutte pour les droits de l’homme jusqu’à sa mort en 1948.

Friday, June 1, 2007

Tomb raiding: the world’s second oldest profession

The Medici Conspiracy (Public Affairs, 2006) by Peter Watson reads like fiction, but it is not. This book recounts the true story of the Italian art dealer, Giacomo Medici, who facilitated the smuggling of antiquities between places as distant and different as a 2500 year-old tomb in Macedonia, Sotheby’s in London and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

What is truly remarkable about the Medici story is that stealing antiquities is so commonplace. According to S.A.F.E.: Saving Antiquities for Everyone (www.savingantiquities.org), it is a business worth between 2 and 6 billion dollars annually. Only a minute percentage of those thefts are either detected or prosecuted.

Especially in places where war and poverty have left heritage sites and objects exposed, it is easy for opportunists to steal objects. In some countries, the racketeers employ poor local residents to do the dirty work. They extract objects from the ground or monuments, smash them and send them piecemeal by ordinary post and delivery services to dealers in other countries who reconstruct them and put them on the market. The big auction houses (Watson incriminates Sotheby’s) have facilitated this process by guaranteeing that the seller’s anonymity is guaranteed. Some of these laundered artifacts end up in museums, and until recently, stand on exhibit with impunity.

One of the most notorious examples is the Euphronios Krater at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The Met acquired the masterpiece for $1,000,000 in 1972 and displayed it prominently for over three decades. The Met, however, who had not insured the legitimacy of its acquisition according to the UNESCO Convention of 1970, eventually paid the price of its negligence. In response to a prolonged dispute with the Italian ministry of culture, in 2005, the Met relinquished ownership of the vase to the Italian government and struck a deal, whereby it kept the vase on display at the Met as a “lent” object.

The Met is not the only museum embroiled in controversy over stolen antiquities. One of the most newsworthy cases is the former antiquities curator of the Getty, Marion True. True was fired from the Getty and criminal charges were pressed against her for acquiring stolen objects, including a rare funerary wreath dating to about 400 BC. (http://www.latimes.com/business/la-me-getty11dec11, 0,6267248.story). In response to the scandal, the Getty has returned some disputed artifacts to the cultural authorities of Greece.

Moreover, the Getty has instituted a policy on acquisition, a common practice in museums that has recently become more widespread. The Getty’s general guideline comprises three requirements: due diligence, compliance with the legal code of the country of origin, adequate documentation. The role of the guidelines is to protect museums from incurring financial and professional costs in the future. Thus far, the Getty has forfeited over $5,000,000 in returned objects, and their former curator faces criminal charges and a ruined career.

It may seem like a high price to pay, but the stakes of the tomboli game have to be high if the problem is to be mitigated. The advent of quick and cheap global communications and transportation and the increase in the world’s wealth, have contributed to making the theft of artifacts into what Interpol declares is the third largest crime in the world after drug trafficking and arms trafficking. Furthermore, art theft is known to play an important role in funding criminal activities and terrorism.

One of its most costly effects, however, isn’t measurable in monetary. It’s the opportunity loss that arises when humanity’s heritage is concentrated in a few rich places, thereby robbing less fortunate people of the opportunity to know and experience first hand their own heritage.

Books on the topic:

Matthew Bogdanos, Thieves of Baghdad (Bloomsbury, 2005)

Roger Atwood, Stealing History (St. Martin’s Press, 2004)

Podcasts:

Peter Watson: http://www.savingantiquities.org/podcasts.php

NPR: http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=10588693

Friday, May 25, 2007

The Museum as a Lifeline

Where I grew up in the White Mountains of New Hampshire, there was no museum. That's not surprising, since there was no Movie Theater, bookstore nor medical clinic. The only "real" supermarket was a half hour away in good weather, and we bought our clothes from the Sears and Roebuck catalogue.

Lincoln was a depressed paper mill town, where the people pinned their hopes on the success of the new ski hill. For me, that ski hill, the bookmobile and museums were lifelines to imaginary worlds I hoped to inhabit someday.

Each year of my grade school career was punctuated by a class trip to a museum. In third grade we went to the Warren Museum, which only exists today in the faded memories of middle-aged men and women. It was filled with stuffed animals that came from places I had never hear of. On the way home, we picnicked at the Warren Rocket, a NASA space ship brought to New Hampshire by one of its native sons, the astronaut Alan B. Shepherd.

At the end of fifth grade, we rode the school bus to Sturbridge Village. Along the way, some of my classmates went through their first tollbooth. One girl (I assume dyslexic) looking back at the booth announced that they sold "pots".

As sixth graders we went to see the Fairbanks Museum -- another room filled with exotic creatures and objects -- and stopped at a sugarhouse to buy little maple sugar people. We celebrated the end of eighth grade by besieging Fort Ticonderoga. All 38 of us (thanks to my father, the school’s principal and a history buff) camped out at a nearby campground and reenacted various battle maneuvers.

These museum experiences were important to me, as were my visits to the museums of New York and Long Island with "Gram". She loved museums and took me to all of them over and over again. They were places for us to share imaginary adventures in far away places. One of our best voyages was inspired by the King Tut exhibit in 1979. When I graduated from college in 1986, I set off on a two-year bike trek to "revisit" many of these places I had shared with "Gram", including the pyramids of the Nile.

The museums I experienced, as a youth were as formative to me as ski races and Nancy Drew Mysteries. I feel grateful to them for the part they played in my becoming a happy and fulfilled person. I would like to help museums -- wherever they may be in the world -- to do the best they can do for kids like me.

Friday, May 18, 2007

Batman Super-hero?

En 2002 je participais à un Forum International des Musées organisé à Paris. Les représentants de musées provenant de plus de 30 pays étaient invités à se présenter, exprimer leurs sentiments et surtout leurs besoins.

Nous-autres, professionnels avertis de la sphère muséale, recevions ces multiples doléances et apportions, dans la mesure de nos moyens, la solution ad hoc au cours de petites tables rondes prévues à cet effet.

Nous voyagions de plates-formes culturelles en pays exotiques quand je me retrouvai finalement assis face à un petit homme au regard pétillant. Il était le directeur d’un musée au Cambodge. Limitant les préambules au minimum il se pencha vers moi et me dit sur le ton de la confidence : « Je viens de rencontrer des informaticiens talentueux qui me proposaient des solutions extraordinaires dans le domaine du multimédia appliqué aux musées. Pour être franc avec vous mon problème actuel est de chasser les chauves-souris de mon musée. Pourriez-vous m’aider ? »

Il me faut avouer ici les limites de mes compétences de muséographe car je n’ai pu le gratifier que d’un franc éclat de rire.

Cinq années plus tard, j’ai le sentiment que si dans Héritance on peut entendre aussi inhéritance (héritage) notre organisation doit beaucoup à un héro plein de malice.

Jean Bermon

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

The birth of Heritance: Juste une idée

Heritance was founded in Vermont in 2007, but the idea has its root in Paris five years earlier.

In 2002, Heritance co-founder, Jean Bermon, participated in SITEM, an international forum of museums organized in Paris. Representatives of museums from 30 countries were invited to share their feelings and needs with the assembly of museums professionals. The overwhelming message sent by presenters was that most museums lack the resources necessary to protect their public trust.

The participants in SITEM listened to each other’s concerns and worked together in ad hoc round tables to find solutions to some of the most pressing problems faced by these museums. By putting their heads together, they came up with a number of feasible responses.

Jean recounts the story of an encounter with one museum representative, the director of a museum in Cambodia. Without introduction, the man leaned towards Jean and confided : « I just met a talented computer programmer who proposed extraordinary multi-media technology for my museum. To be honest, however, my real problem is the bats. How do I get them out of my museum ? »

Jean laughed along with his colleague and took away an important lesson. Each museum has its own needs. The starting point for any museum intervention is a diagnosis of the museum’s unique situation and its existing resources. Furthermore, Jean learned that many of the problems plaguing museums do not require new technology or large capital expenditures (although these certainly do have their place). Often pertinent and timely information can mitigate, or even solve, a problem.

Our purpose at Heritance is to provide museums with technical services on site and on-line so that they can find and implement affordable solutions to their own problems.