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A couple of weeks ago, DIE ZEIT published an article on democracy in art museums.

The article accepts that a museum is ‘a political space’ [1] and that there is validity in arguments calling for greater democracy and diversity therein [2]. However, the article asserts, these developments ‘almost inevitably endanger the freedom of art’ [3] since museums no longer ‘[defend] the freedom of art against all protests’ [4]. This defense, the article concludes, should be based on aesthetic value.

 

Much of what goes on in the article is illustrative of the wider museum-related discourse in Germany, so I feel like making a few observations.

 

  1. The language of war

I find it truly revealing that the language used is that of war. Democracy (and participation) in museums ‘endangers’ the ‘freedom’ of art, which museums must ‘defend’. In other words, this is a scenario of museums vs. the rest of the world; museums ‘defending’ a higher good. It is this kind of attitude that shores up resistance to democratisation processes within museums.

 

  1. Aesthetics as Power

The article places aesthetic values above ethical values such as, for example, animal rights (see below). Ethics, of course, is something that concerns all of us in our daily lives. It is the basis of human societies through laws and religion, it deals with how we want to be treated and how we treat others. In one way or another, we each of us have knowledge, or at least an informed opinion about ethical values which we can voice and argue. Aesthetic value, however, is something quite different. An evaluation of aesthetic value requires knowledge of art history and artistic techniques in order to be more than a simple, and thus easily dismissed statement of personal taste. By placing aesthetic over ethical value we are therefore back to an authorizing, that is, power-giving discourse that asserts that only experts (i.e. museums) can understand and thus determine the value of art. The public’s values, which in this case are ethical values, are being dismissed as less important.

 

  1. Museums in a bubble

To assert that ethical value matters nothing in the evaluation of art and that, in essence, only the expert’s (i.e. the museum’s) aesthetic evaluation should count, is to say that both art and the museums that show it are entirely separate from society and context (see point 1 above). Accordingly, the values, even the laws of society are not to be brought into the bubble. This is why the article can decry the ‘ready’ removal by the Guggenheim Museum in New York of ‘Dogs That Cannot Touch Each Other’ by Penk Yu and Sun Yuan after 830.000 people petitioned for it because, alas, animal rights matter nothing when it comes to art. Art and museums are thus a law upon themselves, a separate universe: one which must be defended.

 

  1. Expert cowardice

Ludicrous as I personally find the dismissal of ethical values when it comes to art, I actually have no objection to museums ‘defending’ art on aesthetic grounds. What I do find objectionable, however, is that most museums aren’t actually ‘defending’ their opinions at all – they are simply not putting them up for debate. They use their control of the museum space to present only their own view. So while many, like this article’s author, bemoan the supposedly negative impacts of democracy on museums, in reality most museums are still not engaging in true democracy at all.

 

  1. Political correctness

In my experience of museum discourse in Germany, there are many who, like this article, will readily grant that there must be more participation in museums, more diversity, more inclusion – you name it. I pose that this is said not out of conviction, but out of  political correctness. For when it comes to let action follow words, which can only mean to allow greater debate within museums, to share power, and to make visible other views, these same people argue that for reasons of expertise, science and knowledge more participation/diversity/inclusion isn’t possible. The spectre of lessened quality and false information is raised to scare everyone back into accepting what is really little more but those in power doing everything they can to hold on to it.

 

 

 

Notes

[1] ‘ein politischer Ort’, my translation.

[2] ‘[Museums] have understood that [official art history]…has mostly been told from a Eurocentric, white, male perspective’ (‘Sie [Museen] haben begriffen, dass die klassische Fortschrittsgeschichte der Kunst, die in der Avantgarde ihren Höhepunkt fand, viele bline Flecken aufweist, weil sie meist aus einer eurozentrischen, mnnlichen, weißen Perspektive erzählt wurde.’) My translation.

[3] ‘Allerdings gerät damit die Freiheit der Kunst…fast unweigerlich in Gefahr.’ My translation.

[4] ‘Sie [Museen] hätten die Freiheit der Kunst gegen alle Proteste verteidigt.’ My translation.

Our Shared Heritage?

I have recently read ‘[Eure] Heimat ist [unser] Albtraum’, a book on the concept of Heimat, or heritage [1] with essays by writers with ‘a migrant background’, as the classification in German has it. It raises many points that we in the heritage and culture sectors must engage with even more than we have done to date, and there are no easy answers. [2]

 

The book’s challenge begins with the title: ‘[Your] heritage is [our] nightmare’, with the words ‘your’ and ‘our’ embossed without colour so that they can only be read at a closer look. The title thus emphasizes both a sense of separatedness and of a threat. That treat emanates from the concept of Heimat, which is contested in Germany, but which in large parts of society enjoys a revival as the feeling of belonging to a place or group [3].

 

The issue, as several essays in the book make clear, is how Heimat is defined and who has access to it. More specifically, it is about who does the defining and the granting of access. The writers argue that it is the dominant (non-migrant) group. It is they who establish a norm and classify people accordingly into those who belong to this Heimat,  and those who do not.

 

Several authors argue that speaking the language fluently, upholding the values of the German constitution, and even holding a German passport does not ensure that people are considered as belonging to the German norm. The examples they cite are numerous: from being constantly asked ‘Where are you from?’ to having their loyalty to the German state questioned [4]. One writer, Mithu Sanyal, also notes that the history of the new Germans [5] is not represented: they are not part of the German Erinnerungskultur, or memory culture, she argues, and thus of those who are remembered and those who do the remembering.

 

Max Czollek adds to this an excellent analysis of the discursive system of representation through which the German norm is established. He argues that it stems from Germany’s desire for normalcy after the Holocaust. In the ensuing narrative, Germany is no longer racist, because it cannot be: to acknowledge racism would end that normalcy the country craves, a normalcy it is too emotionally invested in to give up. Thus is born the Integrationsparadigma, or integration paradigm, he writes, with an all-encompassing expectation for those outside the dominant group to ‘integrate’.

 

Czollek in particular offers a suggestion on how we might move forward. For one, he suggests a focus on Gegenwartsbewältigung, or Coming to Terms with the Present, as opposed to Vergangenheitsbewältigung, or coming to terms with the past. The latter is at the root of the current narrative of German normalcy, he argues, as a focus on the successful (yet equally past) efforts of the country to take responsibility for the Holocaust. Gegenwartsbewältigung, he suggests, would make the country tackle current issues of racism so that the events of the (German) past are not repeated. Furthermore, he suggest ‘an acknowledgement of radical diversity’, which moves beyond classifications and instead acknowledges that contemporary Germany is already “all of the above”. The norm, therefore, is radical diversity.

 

The points raised in this book are a challenge to heritage and wider cultural practice. The easiest part, one might imagine, is to include ‘migrant’ narratives in the stories we tell, and that’s something that we’ve discussed in the sector for years. And yet here we are, with people still telling us that their stories are missing.

 

The book’s essays engage forcefully with the systems of representation that are at work, and I believe it is those very systems that prevent us from radically changing our practice. In Germany, for example, we may indeed, as Mithu Sanyal implies, require a shift in our memory culture. However, as Max Czollek has pointed out, for non-migrant Germans this represents a deeply engrained narrative which to challenge is difficult [6]. And yet, if we are serious about true inclusion and equality, we must do more to understand the underlying dynamic and move beyond it.

 

Both Czollek’s concepts of Gegenwartsbewältigung and radical diversity seem an excellent start, but they require of us a focus away from the past and into the present, away from repeating existing narratives to negotiating new and shared narratives instead. On the surface, that sounds simple. Digging deeper, the waters immediately become murky. In practice, I think we need to start by creating spaces where the representations applied to people are made visible and an open and respectful discussion about those representations can take place.

 

 

Notes

[1] ‘Heimat’ is sometimes translated as ‘home’, but the English word ‘home’ does not by far come close to the multifaceted and highly charged (as well as contested) meaning of the German word ‘Heimat’. ‘Heritage’, in its encompassing senses of origin, inheritance, and belonging to a group or country seems much more appropriate. This also becomes evident in the translation of the book title, which is likely to engender a similar response in English readers when using ‘heritage’ to translate ‘Heimat’, whereas ‘home’ makes the meaning of the title just a little odd but not a real, emotionally charged challenge.

 

[2] The book is written in a German context, and some of it is quite specific to that context. Nevertheless I feel there are points that are relevant beyond Germany’s borders, especially regards the processes of othering and exclusion, and the creation of a strong and shared heritage and culture.

 

[3] The foreword more specifically relates the sense of threat to the Ministerium des Innern, für Bau und Heimat, or Ministry of the Interior, for Construction and Heritage, which – as ‘Heimatministerium’ – was established in 2018. Of course it didn’t help that the minister in charge immediately proceeded to question whether Islam was part of that German Heimat.

 

[4] As happened with footballer Mesut Özil who, despite being born in Germany, was given a prize for integration and then had his loyalty to the German state questioned because he posed with the Turkish president Erdoğan (the point being also that another footballer, Lothar Matthäus, met Russian president Putin yet his loyalty was not questioned at all – presumably because he is part of the dominant group).

 

[5] This seems a term often used by those ‘with a migrant background’. It seems to offer a real sense of inclusion. And if we must still have a distinction between German people, I’d rather it be ‘old’ and ‘new’. Point is, we’re all Germans.

 

[6] Not just, I would argue, because ‘we’ – and I suppose I must include myself in the non-migrant, dominant group – require validation that we have overcome our country’s horrific actions of the past and have atoned for them. It is also difficult because the discursive boundary to right-wing rejections of the need for remembering, and taking responsibility for the Holocaust seems like such a thin line. (And no, while I am supportive of a widening of our current memory culture I am in no way suggesting that we should forget our responsibility for the Holocaust. See the definition of Gegenwartsbewältigung. And to non-German readers: me feeling the need to add that illustrates the difficulty.)

Next week, I will take up a new post and in doing so, I will formally be leaving the heritage and museum sectors that I have worked in over the past years. From now on, I will be working in the further education and socio-cultural sector.

 

I will admit that when I first read the job advert for my new role, I paused to do some soul-searching. What would I be leaving behind? Would this include the very thing that I am passionate about – (cultural) heritage and its interpretation? Would I lose my own professional identity?

 

Somewhat to my surprise, the research into the sector and the institution that I would be joining brought me renewed clarity concerning my values in heritage and interpretation. It also gave me an immense sense of excitement. It started with the organising premise and raison d’être – enshrined in law, no less – of the German Volkshochschulen: to provide access to education for all. Breaking down barriers to access, inclusion, diversity: these are all principles that underpin the work of the sector. And not just on paper either. There are annual statistics, baselines and monitoring on the basis of which the claims are checked and the work is further developed. For example, I was thrilled to see courses offered in Turkish, and the number of collaborations that the Volkshochschule I will join is already doing – and has been doing for quite some time. Even ‘education’, which is a term I am not particularly fond of [1], is explicitly understood and described as the ability to acquire knowledge, to make an informed judgment about information provided, and to participate in and contribute to society. In fact, the overriding aim of the sector, and Volkshochschulen in particular, is to enable everyone’s participation in our democracy, not just understood politically, but culturally and socially as well.

 

All of that is what has been motivating me in my work at cultural heritage sites and in museums. I have never been focused on a site’s material or evidential values, and this goes for museum collections as well. On the contrary, I have spent the better part of my professional career arguing that sites and museums must be more than places for the presentation of expert knowledge, in the sense that it continues to be overwhelmingly defined, which is material or historical knowledge. I have supported the view that such expert knowledge too often not only exerts an undemocratic hegemony over heritage, but also misses the very values that turn something into heritage in the first place. My own focus has consequently always been on supporting (and understanding) people’s heritage work on the basis of my own and other’s research, particularly, but not exclusively from within critical heritage studies.

 

Engaging with the legal framework, strategies and practices for the further education and sociocultural sector in Germany has made me realise – somewhat ironically, considering my long-held stance – that I do not need to be working at a cultural heritage site or in a museum in order to maintain my focus on facilitating and understanding heritage work. Power over the management of the materiality on site is all that I will be losing in changing sectors. I believe I can live with that loss.

 

In fact, after the last three years, I feel a distinct sense of liberation. Particularly in Germany, there is still a long way to go before these values of participation, democratization and inclusion will be widely shared in the museum and heritage sectors. There are initiatives aplenty, but merely looking for example at the heated discussions at conferences about using simpler language in interpretive texts, or the need for the federal association to persuade museums to undertake visitor studies (!!) reveals that the institutional impact of these initiatives often remains rather limited.

 

Like I said, my focus is, always has been and always will be on people. I have never been in this to garner prestige for myself. The fact that some people are now telling me that in leaving a museum post I am losing status and ‘taking a step downwards’ just reassures me: I have made the right decision. Now I can focus on the work that I consider important and right, without having to endlessly defend it.

 

 

[1] The reason is that while even in formal pedagogy, the concept has evolved, in practice I find that there is still a hint of a one-way-street of (expert) instruction in quantifiable knowledge.

I have never been in a situation before where my qualifications and experience as a museum and heritage professional were publicly denied, my work dismissed and my character vilified. I find myself in such a situation now. I have no interest in spending time on defending myself against newspaper articles that do not even pretend to be based on balanced research, and letters to the editor that are equally full of claims that even the sloppiest research on this blog and elsewhere reveals to be untrue . However, I do have a few observations I want to share.

 

The complete denial, or the denial of the relevance to working in a museum, of my qualifications and experience is, I suspect, not actually about my qualifications and experience at all [1]. It is, I believe, about the kind of museum these people want. Denying my qualifications and experience is merely a proxy for saying they don’t want a museum that is rooted in what I bring. I base this argument first on the rejection of a co-created exhibition that I coordinated, which one letter writer dismissed as a ‘Sammelsurium’, or incoherent tangle. I also base the argument on these people’s praise for the former director of the local history museum who had this to say about his views on museums [2]. In contrast, I see museums both as social agents and social spaces, where inclusion and representation of diverse people and stories are key, where process is more important than an end product and where collections are a means to an end, not an end in themselves.

 

Another proxy for disagreeing with my views on museums is, in my opinion, the accusations about my leadership and communication style. Nothing specific is ever said, and either way, I would never publicly respond with the details of behaviours of any member of staff. Assuming, therefore, that the people accusing me of treating staff poorly are in fact in possession of all the facts, despite never having spoken to me, I do wonder whether, if I were a man, I would face the same allegations or indeed any allegations at all. After all, I would not be the first woman in a leadership position that is accused of being aggressive and bitchy when expecting staff to do their job in accordance with the company’s guidelines.

 

I would have welcomed an open discussion in the appropriate forums about what kind of museum these people want. Indeed, two of the letter writers are a former and a current associate member of the council’s culture committee, to which we (yes, plural) have regularly presented updates on the new concepts for the museum(s), especially the local history museum currently under redevelopment. For them, the opportunities were plenty. I would have gladly also explained to them precisely why my qualifications and experience are exactly right for this task. And they could have reasoned openly why they disagree.

 

I object to the path of public, one-sided accusation not only on a personal, but also on a political level. Starting with the newspaper’s lack of accurate and balanced reporting, I am appalled at the casual abdication of responsibility of (proper) journalism in our democracy. The manipulation of public opinion through one-sided reporting and reporting of false information is part of the problem of the post-truth era we are living in. We should demand better.

 

Speaking of post-truth: I would expect prominent people, as the majority of the letter writers are, to acknowledge facts and base their argument on those facts accordingly. In other words, I would expect them to be more Obama than Trump. I make this reference deliberately, because as someone coming from and working in the cultural sector I am particularly disappointed that a major supporter of the arts and culture, a literary author, and the chair of an artists’ association choose to ignore facts in the manner as is happening here. The cultural sector, in Germany as elsewhere, has been largely united in its rejection of Trumpism. Granted, I do not know if these people share this rejection. They might not. But I certainly hold the cultural sector to a higher standard than this, because if not us, who will stand up to the damaging erosion of truth, debate and civility that we are witnessing in the world at the moment?

 

One final point. I am convinced to the very core of my being of the validity of my approach to museum and heritage practice. It is a scientific approach to understanding heritage, visitor needs, and the role of museums in society. It is my firm belief that this is the only sustainable foundation for responsible museum work today. However, I am exhausted to have to defend this since returning to Germany. I am therefore leaving the sector. And I can tell you that I passionately look forward to entering the further education and sociocultural sector where my view of culture as a dynamic, interactive and shared space is more widespread and where my practice of inclusion, participation and democratization therefore has more resonance. But more about that another time.

 

Notes

[1] You can read about my qualifications and experiences here, or in greater detail on LinkedIn and Xing.

[2] For those of you who don’t read German, he declared himself to be more ‘classically’ trained, with a focus on collections. He acknowledged the importance of topics such as inclusion and participation in museums, but not ‘to this radical extent’, which I suppose is a reference to my approach.

The Promised Land project that I have been writing about on this blog on several occasions is nearing its conclusion. We are now finalising the ebook that captures our experiences, and for this, I have recently written a statement from the point of view of us as the German museum partner in the project. The following is adapted from that statement.

 

In Germany, there are still those who consider museums part of ‘high culture’. This is a powerful discourse that shapes and determines what museums, their makers and their audiences can acceptably be. Museums as high culture are temples of special knowledge and refined taste. They are encoded spaces to which one gains access through a certain type of sanctioned understanding. Working at, or visiting the high culture museum is as much about the sharing and gaining of knowledge as it is about expressing a certain identity [1]: it is a statement of distinction and a deliberate disassociation from ‘the Other’ and the masses. The philosophy of the museum as high culture consequently rejects and derides practices that are aimed at accessibility and inclusion. As Gregor Jansen, director of the Kunsthalle Düsseldorf claimed at the art KARLSRUHE convention in 2018, such practices ‘infantilise’ audiences and force (art) museums to do less than their best. In other words, in the discourse of the museum as high culture, inclusion and accessibility are thought to lower the quality of the museum’s work. The implication, although rarely owned, is obvious: those audiences that might benefit from accessible and inclusive practices are ultimately not welcome. In order for these audiences to become acceptable, they must first acquire the knowledge, tastes and understanding necessary to decode the museum as is. In this fashion, the museum becomes the enclave of a specific and select group in society and, by extension, serves to maintain that group’s cultural hegemony. Museums as high culture therefore are prone to preserve the status quo rather than make possible (social) change.

 

In contrast, the German state and German civic society have, particularly since the so-called ‘refugee crisis’ in Europe of 2015, increased efforts to support the integration [2] of new arrivals into German society. This we were able to see for ourselves during The Promised Land training week in Oldenburg. In a presentation on the German asylum system, we learnt that the Federal Office for Migration and Refugees (BAMF) defines the aim of integration as including into German society all people who live in Germany long-term and legally. Specifically, immigrants are to have comprehensive and equal rights to participate in all aspects of society. BAMF therefore sponsors German language and orientation courses for asylum applicants who have good prospects to remain. We visited IBIS e.V., an association that was founded in 1994 to promote a peaceful society of diverse groups. In 2015, several service clubs joined to establish another association we got to know, pro:connect, which provides language courses and support in finding work for new arrivals. What these initiatives, and their political framework, have in common is the desire to promote inclusion of refugees and migrants into mainstream German society.

 

Museums (especially, but not solely those that are publicly funded) have a duty to participate in this effort [3]. They must become a social actor in the way that the Minneapolis Institute of Art’s MASS project envisions, with practices that serve to promote equity and inclusion in museums outside of the limited scope of working with collections. Museums as social actors cannot content themselves with using their collections to look primarily into the past. While history can of course provide examples and serve as a case study for certain topics, it cannot make up for engagement with the present day. Furthermore, museum as social actors must re-examine their sociocultural representations. They must take their impact on people’s realities seriously and, more importantly, change it were needed.

 

None of the above is to suggest that initiatives and projects do not already exist in Germany that have responded to the issues raised. Not all museum professionals and their audiences in Germany view museums as ‘high culture’. Decolonisation of collections and restitution to origin societies is a topic in the German museum sector today also, albeit one that is hotly debated. Projects such as Multaka by four museums in Berlin include refugees in providing guided exhibition tours to others, an initiative that is certainly a laudable first step, despite criticism on the extent to which the refugees’ critical questions are allowed to inform the presentation of the collection [4]. The German Museum Association issued guidance for museum practice on migration and diversity, and stressed that migration is the norm and even a necessity in modern industrial nations.

 

However, through The Promised Land project, and in comparing museum practice in Germany and elsewhere particularly to the theatre practice of our project partners from Italy and the United Kingdom, it has become clear that museums must and can do much more to provide inclusive spaces for all. The notion of the museum as ‘high culture’ is still too pervasive to allow a similar success to develop as that which has been enjoyed by our partners, and to make such practices more broadly accepted as good museum practice. Museums in Germany must actively reject the separation between ‘high culture’ and low culture, or Soziokultur, for it undermines the importance of inclusion and inclusive practices. We are said to live in an age of migrations. Successful immigrant, or post-migrant societies are those that are inclusive. Museums as centres of the nation’s culture and development are at the heart of this. Here, new arrivals can find orientation about their new home. In museum spaces, ‘native’ populations and new arrivals can meet and engage with each other’s perspectives on history, art and culture. In museums, heritage work [5] can be undertaken, that is, heritage is performed and reinforced, but new heritage is also negotiated and created. This important function of museums can only be realised if museums actively strive to become open and inclusive spaces. This requires more of museums than a selective and isolated offer of inclusive projects that are not intrinsically embedded in the museum’s work. To become inclusive spaces, museums must make inclusion a core element of their entire approach, from collecting to presentation to staffing. It requires opening up narratives and providing opportunities throughout for people – newcomers and natives alike – to enter into a constructive dialogue. Museums, like the theatre practice we were able to witness during The Promised Land project, must become more process-oriented than is currently the case. While collections will undoubtedly remain important in museum work, museums must recognise that they need to be so much more than mere places for collection display in order to maintain their relevance and make a contribution to post-migrant societies such as modern-day Germany. It is to be hoped that the ICOM definition of museums, which is currently under review, in the future enables and supports such an approach and makes it commonplace to expect museums to be lively spaces of social action.

You know that you’ve been to a fantastic conference when it stays with you for some time afterwards. That is the case with me and the recently ended Interpret Europe conference on ‘Engaging with diversity’. I would like to share some impressions, ranging from the conference location to papers to a General Assembly that has made me proud to be a member.

 

Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina: A place I won’t forget

It was an absolute masterstroke to hold a conference on diversity in Sarajevo. Coming from Germany, where some still think it necessary to discuss whether or not Islam is part of our nation, it was amazing to see so many mosques right alongside synagogues and churches – the European Jerusalem indeed. The war was also ever present, not only in the bullet holes in the buildings, but also in what our Bosnian hosts shared with us. It seemed to me an example of where diversity had ceased to exist comfortably together, not because of people, as we were told, but because of politics. It raised questions about dealing with national trauma and achieving reconciliation, not the least in places like the Museum of Crimes Against Humanity and Genocide, where it turned out one of the founders and our tour guide had been a prisoner of war himself. Sarajevo was perfect for this conference precisely because it isn’t a perfect example of diversity in harmony. It provided, however, a perfect opportunity to discuss what interpretation at heritage sites and in museums should be and what it should strive to achieve in this context.

To our hosts, I would like to extend another heartfelt ‘Thank you!’

 

Four truths as the foundation of interpretation

Anne and Rachel Ketz of the US American 106 Group ltd reported on their application to interpretation of the four truths that the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of South Africa used. It was one of those instances when you wonder why you’d not thought of this yourself before. I have since scanned the relevant report and can only recommend it to. The four truths are factual or forensic truth, that is the classic Western idea of objective facts, which are established through forensic checks and cross-checks. Then there is personal and narrative truth, which is not about ‘arguments or claims in a court of law’ (report, p. 112), but about giving voice to those who have been silenced before. Social or ‘dialogue’ truth is almost quintessentially agonistic: it is about making ‘a conscious effort to provide an environment in which all possible views could be considered and weighed, one against the other’ (ibid, p. 113). It is, in essence, about listening. The final truth is healing and restorative truth. This is centrally about acknowledgement, for ‘often the basic facts about what happened are already known, at least by those who were affected. What is critical is that these facts be fully and publicly acknowledged’ (ibid, p. 114). Importantly, healing and restorative truth also looks forward into the future, seaking to establish a foundation from which a society can truly move forward.

Anne and Rachel’s presentation has made it abundantly clear that these four truths are a perfect tool in interpretive planning processes.

 

Checking values to make visible difference and commonalities

I will confess that I’ve been dubious about Interpret Europe’s focus on European values for the past few years. However, a workshop led by Patrick Lehnes and Peter Seccombe has persuaded me that there is more to it than I allowed. An exercise which had us check our values in a group, and imagine a group different from us doing the same, convinced me that here was a tool that could be usefully employed to establish both difference and commonality between two groups, and a starting point for discussion. This struck me as particularly helpful when considering feedback as part of The Promised Land project, where language tutors reported discussions on values such as family between them and new arrivals. What is family to us? How do we express our values in this regard? This exercise might give structure to such shared cultural explorations.

 

A General Assembly to inspire

Unfortunately, there had been some friction between Interpret Europe’s management and the previous Supervisory Committee prior to this conference. Tempers ran high, and there was every chance that the General Assembly might descend into a fiasco. No such thing happened. Instead what I was privileged to witness was a mature organisation handle itself admirably. We had an excellent chair in Peter Seccombe from the UK, who guided us through the sometimes uncomfortable points of the agenda with a steady hand. In fellow founding member Michael Glen from Scotland we had someone who, when things might have gone astray, immediately set us on the right course by suggesting a way forward rather than a harmful look back. As another fellow founding member of Interpret Europe said, perhaps because we were – I was – there when it all began for the organisation, we/I deeply care about this organisation today. After this conference, and having seen a management under shameful attack carry itself with such inspiring integrity, I am not only convinced of Interpret Europe’s continued growth. I am once again persuaded that Interpret Europe is in fact at the forefront of developing our discipline of interpretation and exploring issues that are relevant to it today. I am honoured to be a member, and if you are not a member already, you really should consider becoming one. Things are happening. Be a part of it.

Members of staff have recently returned from the last of the training weeks that are part of The Promised Land project on inclusion of refugees and migrants through cultural practice. One of them reported on a method of facilitation that was used throughout the week, which she called ‘Deep Democracy’. She described it as a powerful tool to bring awareness to the project group and increase their sense of unity. I was intrigued.

A brief search on the internet brought me across this definition of Deep Democracy by the Deep Democracy Institute: ‘Deep Democracy is the experience of a process of flow in which all actors on the stage are needed to create the play that is being watched.’

If you’ve been reading this blog for a while, you will know that I belong to the school of thought that understands heritage as fluid and in a constant process of change negotiated between different actors and environmental and contextual factors. You may see, then, why this definition of Deep Democracy immediately struck a chord with me.

The Institute’s website continues to explain that, ‘Deep Democracy [fosters] a deeper level of dialogue and inclusiveness that makes space for all people … as well as all various and competing views, tensions, feelings, and styles of communication – in a way that supports awareness of relative rank, power, and privilege, and the potential of these forces to marginalize other views, individuals, and groups.’

In other words, Deep Democracy as described here is an agonistic practice. You will remember my review on this blog of Chantal Mouffe’s concept of ‘agonistic public spaces’, where views that are generally obscured by the dominant consensus are made visible, and conflicting views presented and given room. I have suggested that interpretation should be agonistic in this sense, and that it should aim to make visible the wider representational dynamics in society and history. Agonistics provides the philosophical foundation for such an interpretive approach. Since writing that first blog post about agonistic heritage interpretation, I have thought about different methods to turn the theory into practice.

Deep Democracy seems just one such method that is perfectly suited to agonistic interpretive practice. In an article on Bringing Deep Democracy to Life, Amy Mindell, whose husband Arnold coined the concept of Deep Democracy, explains that Deep Democracy is rooted in process-oriented psychology. She suggests that each process has an inherent wisdom. This wisdom, however, can only manifest itself when all experiences brought into the process are allowed to unfold and become visible. A group also has a process, and this is at the heart of the idea of worldwork. It applies process-oriented psychology to a group, effectively trying to make visible all group members’ experiences in the process. This avoids that feelings and experiences remain active in a hidden field, which nonetheless will have considerable influence over the outcome of the group process.

The central aspect here is awareness. From what I understand, this is often an awareness of body signals as a key to underlying feelings, but also an awareness of languge and content. Much as in Bhabha’s idea of the ‘Third Space’, in which the progress of modernity is halted and shown as staged, in Deep Democracy as a method of facilitation the process is stopped to further explore these signals and make visible what they stand for.

In so doing, Deep Democracy also examines the different roles that people inhabit, often unconsciously. Mindell points out that people don’t necessarily always stay in one role even during a conversation, but that they can change roles also. This gives fluidity to a process which, if consciously employed, can unlock its creativity, for example toward moving an issue forward. However, like agonism, Deep Democracy does not believe that conflict can or should always be resolved in order for people to live together successfully. Rather, it accepts conflict as natural and finds a way to move on constructively in mutual respect and with empathy nonetheless.

The application of Deep Democracy to personal interpretation is obvious. Whenever we as interpreters are in a room with other people, we can use Deep Democracy to facilitate the shared creation of heritage, while tackling issues of power and hegemony. What I am not so sure about yet is how Deep Democracy can be used in non-personal interpretation beyond working with heritage communities at the beginning. I wonder if there is something in Deep Democracy that we can use in a dynamic and transformative way for people also as an infrastructure on site. Let me mediate on that some more.