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.

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