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.