Is positioning incompatible with agonistic interpretation?

Whenever I have presented on my vision for agonistic interpretation, that is, interpretation that strives to include all relevant views on a heritage aspect, there was at least one person in the room who challenged me: was I really proposing to include all views? Even those that are “objectionable”? What I have never once been challenged on, however, is whether positioning the museum, which I consider an equally important element of agonistic interpretation, is compatible with presenting a multivocal, somewhat balanced story. So I’m going to challenge myself here and explore this point further in this post.

To do so, I must first go back to discussing ‘neutrality’ in museums. Broadly speaking, the sector as a whole is coming to accept that museums (and heritage sites) are not neutral spaces [1]. Through curatorial selection and the very act of interpretation museums are making a statement. There is a misconception, however, that now sometimes arises: it is the idea that multivocality means an approximation of neutrality. In other words, it can seem to some that including multiple voices equates to being, at the very least, “as neutral as possible”. The underlying notion, of course, is still that neutrality is the goal we are trying to achieve in museums in the first place.

It is not. It cannot be our goal, for two reasons. For one, neutrality in any guise is an illusion. We as individuals and institutions always have a bias, period. Our bias may not be intentional, it may be an inescapable fact about ourselves like class, race or anything else that, at least for the time being, puts us in a different and likely privileged position in relation to other people in our society. Pretending that we can achieve neutrality through including other voices is therefore to deny the reality of inequality and the inherent power relations, and the very existence of the hegemonic struggle [2].

The second reason why neutrality, if it did exist, could not and should not be our goal is because as cultural institutions we have a duty to be agents in our societies. That museums do and should make an impact on society has been part of the idea of museums since they first opened their doors to ‘educate’ the public. Now we’ve taken this further, to aim for and claim impacts such as social inclusion and justice. These impacts, however, cannot be achieved through an assumed neutrality, as I have argued here. They require action, and action requires taking a stand.

Which brings me back to my question of whether we can reconcile agonistic interpretation with museums positioning themselves with regard to a certain topic. For all I have laid out above, my answer must be a resounding Yes. In fact, I’ll go one step further and argue that it is a prerequisite for successful agonistic interpretation.

By positioning our institution at the beginning (or end) of an intervention of any kind, we achieve several important outcomes: firstly, we are taking that stand necessary to take action within society and to create impact. We express our values as institutions and make it very clear what it is we believe in, what we support, and what changes in society we are seeking to affect.

This, secondly, creates much needed transparency. Transparency is about being honest and taking the agonistic exchange seriously by not pretending that our own views, biases and positions within society do not exist and did not influence our selection and presentation. Rather, this transparency goes some way to acknowledging our bias and opening ourselves to being challenged in turn.

This brings me to the third outcome, which is that by positioning ourselves we also give more credit to all other perspectives that are being presented. I believe that by taking away the usually hidden claim to and assertion of authority we create a better environment for debate. Positioning our institution signals that much of what people see, read and hear in our interpretive offer are expressions of different perspectives on reality. Our institutional perspective is but one of these. And this, fundamentally, is the core of the theory of agonistics.

 

Notes
[1] With notable exceptions, and a delightfully frank comment here.
[2] The hegemonic struggle, i.e. the struggle to win dominance over other views, is at the heart of the idea of agonistics.

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