Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Does it make sense to speak of a museum's 'visitor community'?

We Americans are apt to use terms like 'family' and 'community' somewhat loosely as a way of expressing a vaguely but positive sense of good-natured friendliness. We speak approvingly of the 'classroom family' or the 'model railroading community' in ways that can strike observers from other cultures as downright peculiar. 

It came as something of a surprise to me to discover that to many Frenchmen, the term 'community' is practically derogatory, especially when opposed to the notion of 'society'. When Émile Durkheim translated Ferdinand Tönnies' terms 'Gemeinschaft' and 'Gesellschaft' as 'communauté' and 'société,  the French claustrophobic distaste for excessive togetherness can be heard in Durkheim's description of 'communauté': "c'est une masse indistincte et compacte qui n'est capable que de mouvements d'ensemble" (it is an indistinct and compact mass capable only of collective movement). 

No doubt that is why, after living in France for six years, I feel a certain trepidation about speaking of a museum's 'visitor community'.  Do the visitors to a museum constitute a community? Would that even be a good thing?

Or, if we value openness, would we not, perhaps, do better to concentrate, instead, on the universe of potential visitors?

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

What's good governance?

An interesting document by UNESCAP -- What is Good Governance?

"Governance" is not new. It is as old as human civilization. Simply put "governance" means: the process of decision-making and the process by which decisions are implemented (or not implemented)...
Good governance has 8 major characteristics. It is participatory, consensus oriented, accountable, transparent, responsive, effective and efficient, equitable and inclusive and follows the rule of law. It assures that corruption is minimized, the views of minorities are taken into account and that the voices of the most vulnerable in society are heard in decision-making. It is also responsive to the present and future needs of society.

Monday, May 19, 2008

Reading between the lines

Article 8 of the UNESCO Universal Declaration on Cultural Diversity states that cultural goods and services are commodities of a unique kind:

"In the face of present-day economic and technological change, opening up vast prospects for creation and innovation, particular attention must be paid to the diversity of the supply of creative work, to due recognition of the rights of authors and artists and to the specificity of cultural goods and services which, as vectors of identity, values and meaning, must not be treated as mere commodities or consumer goods."
The casual reader might well be forgiven for wondering what the motivation might have been for this somewhat cryptic statement. The business about the "rights of artists and authors" clearly has something to do with intellectual property and copyright protection - but the article seems to be suggesting that such legal and economic considerations need to be balanced off against something else. But against what and in what way? One has the sense that a certain amount of horse-trading and compromise went into the construction of this document and that clarity may have suffered for the sake of unanimity.

I gained some insight into the underlying issues when I stumbled across the web site of the Canadian-based Coalition for cultural diversity, a coalition of canadian "cultural professionals" from the fields of publishing, film, television, music, performing arts and visual arts. Their primary mission is to defend the principle that cultural policy must not be subject to the constraints of international trade agreements. Their position paper states:
"We all remember the cultural exemption debate that peaked during the final stretch of the Uruguay Round in the Fall of 1993. At the time, the United States had applied tremendous pressure to have culture included in these negotiations, more specifically to have the GATS signatory countries agree to make trade liberalization commitments in the cultural services sector, especially the audio-visual sector (film, television, radio, music), in the same way as in other service sectors. Aware that such commitments would jeopardize many of their cultural policies, and spurred by the remarkable mobilization of the cultural sector, the majority of the member countries -- with France and Canada at the helm -- did not succumb to that pressure. Indeed, as of 1998, only 19 of the 136 WTO member-countries agreed to submit their audio-visual sector, in part or in totality, to the restrictive disciplines of the GATS."
A  useful reminder that vague blanket terms like "cultural diversity" can mean very different things in different contexts.

Saturday, May 17, 2008

Muddying the waters

I've been working on an executive summary to introduce Heritance to prospective donors. After writing a paragraph about the importance of promoting cultural diversity, I found myself wondering about the tradeoffs between a community's right to assert it's cultural identity, and the right of the individual to a distinct or different take on that identity. The executive summary may not be the ideal place to tease this nuance out but I suppose I believe something like the following:

Of course, any individual's personal identity is a complex amalgam only partially described by their cultural affiliations. A community's right to assert its cultural identity is properly limited by the individual's right to define their own personal identity as well as by the right to dissenting perspectives on the version concocted by one's own or another cultural or social group. Such differences in perspective and interpretation can be source of tremendous friction. Navigating those differences with tolerance and respect lies at the heart of successful intercultural and interpersonal dialog. These are the skills and practices that the Open Museum seeks to promote.

Friday, May 16, 2008

Black Womanhood at the Hood Museum

Guest post by Kathy J. :
Black Womanhood at the Hood Museum until August 10, 2008 is amazing.

Amongst all its riches I found myself choosing to return to view "Dressed Like Queens", a video and sound installation by Igrid Mwamgi.

The installation is composed of three video screens behind a trinity of cascading translucent curtains: one red, one bronze and one green.

I stood and watched for quite awhile, the piece runs just over twenty minutes, noticing how hard it is for me to really slow down and look and listen. The words became a poem and the video images became a dance. There is so much here that can't be conveyed except by the experience itself. See it if you can.

A few words from the narration that I jotted down: "You don't know." "No shoes." "Rage." "Insecure future", and most affecting for me given that the show details the oppression of black women, "Give them their clothes."

The screens show images of black women with upper torso unclothed. Are all three the same woman? The draperies over the screens provide a sort of covering. The figures are softened and contoured by the folds of the cloth. The woman on the right commands, "Give them their clothes. "The figure on the left contorts her face into frightening shapes and ululates, is it a warrior's countenance? The figure in the center is pregnant and says nothing. She stands, walks away,
approaches, sits, massages her abdomen.

All three use their hands throughout the piece. Their hands sprinkle, pinch, soothe, flow gracefully a language of gesture. After awhile the hands seemed to be speaking as eloquently as the narration reminding me of sign language.

"They should be dressed like queens." is a commanding presence in this remarkable exhibit. My time spent was richly rewarded.

Kathy J

Friday, May 9, 2008

Representing Self and Others

The power of story telling is deceptive. The representations of ourselves in print or image can seem to be "kids stuff" -- a lovely adornment, a harmless pastime or a frivolous diversion form the "serious" business of life. In fact, historically there is nothing further from the truth.

In traditional societies, story telling was ubiquitous and its centrality to the transmission of culture evident. Reflect, for example, on rites of passage the world over -- their mobilization of stories through props, scripts, role plays, costumes, chorus -- for the express goal of transforming the individual's conception of self and their relationship to society. These rituals, as well as the myriad of everyday representations of self and other, are ways in which people have participated in the formation of individual and collective identities.

In contemporary society -- the society dominated by global communications, scientific method and market economies -- the role of stories is somewhat obfuscated. Few people dispute that advertisements affect people's tastes, but the breadth and depth of the question of representation remains mostly unprobed, with some notable exceptions.

Renée Cox is one exception. She has dedicated her professional life to remaking the representation and perception of blackness and black womanhood. In this photo of the Hottentot-Venus , Renée deploys ridiculous plastic breasts and buttocks and her trademark gaze to challenge the traditional representation of the real "Hottentot Venus", the name given to the Saartjie Baartman (1789 - 1816). Saartjie was an orphaned Khoisan servant brought from South Africa to England against her will and enticed into becoming a show girl on the promise of becoming rich. Billed as the Hottentot Venus, Saartjie's dance shows in body-fitting stocking were extremely popular with late-Georgian Londoners and later the Napoleonic French. She became the archetype of African womanhood for many of the epochs artists and upon her death at age 26, her body was dissected and its parts, including her genitalia that were her prime attraction, boiled, bottled and plaster casted to be put on display. In 2002, after 8 years of battle, South Africa secured the return of Saartjie Baartman's remains to her birthplace where they were honored with a state burial.

Today, Saartjie Baartman is modern South Africa's most revered female historical icon of the colonial era. The story of Saartjie Baartman exemplifies the power of image making in identity formation and transformation whether or not the image makers are aware of the power they hold.

Thursday, May 1, 2008

Museums and communities?

What's the relationship between a museum and its community? The relationship is at least as messy as the sum of its messy parts. After all, what's a museum and what's a community?

Within a 20-mile radius of my home, institutions as disparate as the Hood Museum at Dartmouth College, Billings Farm & Museum, The Main Street Museum, Woodstock Historical Society, Saint-Gaudens Memorial, American Precision Museum and Justin Morrill Homestead all carry the tag line, museum. What do they have in common that makes them a "museum"? I would venture to say "Collections that they make available to the public through a combination of exhibits and educational programs".

Having perused their mission statements, I'd add that they all strive to serve their communities. But what is their community? What is the community of any museum? Is it the people who live locally? If so, is it everyone or only people of certain ages or socio-economic profiles? Or is the community further afield, such as all Dartmouth alumni or scholars of the Cornish Colony? Is it lovers of old documents, houses or machine tools ? Is it people who have contributed money or collections? If so, recently or in the past?

If I hop on the Interstate and drive 2 and 1/4 hours south, I can park at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, the "big" museum that is closest to my home in Vermont. Am I part of its community? Or are the residents of Boston? The university students or school children who live nearby? Or is the US or world its community? Or all of the above?

There is no essential answer to the question of which community a museum serves. Likewise, there is no museum which serves all communities. It seems to me that the primary obligation of any museum -- like any institution -- is to define its "target market" (its audience and supporters). Specifying the target market is step one in the mission-writing process.

Harold Skramsted, President Emeritus, Henry Ford Museum and Greenfield Village, makes an interesting argument for ithis point in his article Museums and Communities: What Does It All Mean? (page 4) Skramsted suggests that the word "community" is no longer valid, because communities in contemporary America are no longer "communities of need" but rather "communities of choice". Most people today live in a world of overlapping communities. Museums, taking this fact into account, need to shift their focus from serving a community to listening and responding to various communities. Museums need to establish what Skramsted calls their "gyroscope", by writing a mission in which they to set the limits to whom you can listen to and what you can respond to. To set the gyrospope, a museum must the following questions:

1) What is your mission: What is your distinctive and special role and why should anyone care?
2) What is your vision: Where do you want to be at a specific time in the future if you follow your mission?
3) What are your key strategies: How will you get there?

It is only through listening to various communities, that it is possible for museums to connect deeply to the world and thereby serve the people who may become their audience and supporters.