Archive for the ‘Interpretation’ Category

Last December, I finally took the opportunity to travel to Washington, DC with the specific purpose of visiting its museums. I was particularly looking forward to seeing the National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC) which opened in 2016. Here are some thoughts and observations that I’ve had during and since my visit.

There is something immensely powerful to have such an architecturally impressive building dedicated exclusively to a story that in my time in the United States almost 15 years ago felt largely absent from the public narrative. Its position on the National Mall, right across from the Washington Monument with open space all around that increases the building’s visiblity, gives the museum further prominence. I was really struck by how much this combination – the location, the architecture, the thematic focus – seemed to signal the importance of the African American perspective.


It goes without saying that simply opening a museum does not change anything about the on-going racism and discrimination experienced by black Americans today. And quite possibly there are issues too with how the story of African American history and culture is told within the museum.


Nevertheless, to me – and I write here purely as a white, foreign visitor with only limited prior knowledge – the sheer existence of the NMAAHC felt like an important acknowledgment in and of itself. Personally, I did feel the interpretation went far beyond a simplistic reduction of African American history and culture to slavery. The sheer fact that the exhibition begins with a look at African society beyond its relationship to Europe raises the story above a narrative of European  exploitation and African pain, of master and slave. The exhibition for me gave a deep sense of black dignity and power while not ever shying away from showing the inhumane treatment black Americans have faced and are still facing, from lynchings to segregation to police violence.


I do not see how any white European or white American can walk through the NMAAHC without having their own identity and heritage narratives challenged. And that, too, is a powerful outcome of having an entire museum dedicated to a story that lies outside the dominant hegemony. Going through the NMAAHC forces you to compare what you see with what you may have been thinking about your people, your country and your history for your entire life. You cannot help but realize that here, you are the other, and an other who is (the descendent of) a perpetrator whose actions reverberate into your present.


That, too, was a humbling experience. Not the perpetrator part – as a German, sadly, I’ve had that experience several times before. I mean the experience of being ‘the other’. How sobering to feel so acutely that this wasn’t my space. From the history and culture on the wall to the truly noticeable increase in the number of black people within the museum: that I as a white person should be so aware of that just shows how much black history and experience, even black presence is usually absent from my life, both personally and professionally. That’s truly shocking to me.


One of the messages of the NMAAHC as I perceived it was that the history of black Americans in all its complexity is an intrinsic part of wider American history. Slaves built much of the United States. Black soldiers fought in the country’s wars. This message is now clearly part if not of the official discourse of the United States – I don’t know – but certainly of the narrative given in the (Smithsonian) museums, be it in the National Museum of American History or even the American Art Museum. I wasn’t too sure what to make of the other aspect of this message, that of course slavery was a contradiction to the claim in the Declaration of Independence that ‘all men are created equal’ and that this contradiction is still an element and representation of the nation’s complicated and faulty endeavour to live up to the ideals of its founding fathers today. This is true, no doubt, and yet it felt too much like an excuse rather than the call for change that is needed.


All in all, my visit to the NMAAHC has once again convinced me that museums have a significant role to play in increasing awareness and acknowledgement of those groups within society whose stories and experiences are suppressed or muted. Every museum has that task, including those who are not exclusively dedicated to the topic.


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Questions of Power

I have recently, together with a colleague, co-curated an exhibition with several groups from within civic society in our town. The topic was social exclusion. This experience has raised some thoughts for me on how much is still at stake when it comes to power-sharing in museums [1].

People continue to be excluded from museum narratives
The groups we worked with are well-known within our town and rather visible in terms of their organisational presence and the coverage and general support they get. Maybe for this reason I was somewhat surprised to find that for some of them, being represented in the museum seemed to be something very special indeed. This has once again underlined two things for me: firstly, that museums do carry a lot of weight for people. To be included in the representations and stories in a museum is truly a form of acknowledgement. It means something. Secondly, to some people, this acknoweldgement and representation are still sufficiently rare for them to find it noteworthy.
This really touches a nerve for me: in much of current museum (and heritage) discourse (and beyond) it is an accepted view that museums should strive to be representative of society, and inclusive. We have evidently a long way to go still if people with disabilities, with different sexual and gender identities, or newcomers think it is special that they are, in fact, included.

What does quality look like in a museum context?
The question that arises is why there is so much theoretical support for inclusion in museums on one hand, and yet such an evident lack of practical implementation on the other. In a very stimulating conversation with a consultant in preparation of a panel discussion on power-sharing, it all seemed to boil down to one central criticism: that including people somehow meant to lower the quality of the work that museums do [2]. The consultant subsequently hit the nail on the head: what is required is an open discussion about what actually constitutes quality in a museum context. This has everything to do with what – and who – we think museums are for.
Of course, we do already have various sets of definitions of quality in museums: accreditation is one attempt, as are the principles of interpretation. But let’s face it: these are often too vague or too specific to truly capture the museum as a whole, and particularly in those areas that we have nominally pushed to the fore over recent years. If inclusion is truly something we value in museums, then we must define criteria that place inclusion at the centre. What quality is in this context is something we have yet to establish authoritatively and consequently present as a natural expectation of any museum claiming professionalism and excellence.

Giving a voice to the marginalised
This process also requires ensuring that those who do not traditionally speak for museum audiences are heard. The thing about audience development – and thus inclusion – is that we are working with people who are not already networked in museums’ established (mainstream) cultural circles. These people tend to not have a voice yet, and often they are utterly unaccustomed to even claiming that voice. Museums themselves, and their decision-makers, must therefore be the advocates for these marginalised people, until they become advocates themselves. Otherwise, the only voices that we will hear are those of the established groups. And their interests are not necessarily the interests of those that we claim we want to include.

Really sharing power
Finally, and I will probably explore this further in a separate post, it was astonishing to me just how often the question of power actually arose for me personally in doing this exhibition. I am a long-time supporter of democratizing museums, and yet I was constantly aware of my own position of power and the fact that I ultimately decided against the groups if and when I felt that the experience of other audiences was being compromised. There is nothing fundamentally wrong with that in my view; personally, I did feel that the groups and I discussed things on an equal footing and in all but one case came to a compromise that worked for us all. But still: I wonder if there can ever be a way of working together that feels less like me sharing some of my power.

[1] I am conscious that some of this may (only) have particular relevance to the German context I am working in now. Although there is a very strong movement toward participation and democratization of museums and heritage in Germany also, I find that the voices opposing both are far more numerous and more influential than I have ever experienced in the discourse in the US or Great Britain. However, readers from those and other contexts may hopefully still find some of this of interest.

[2] In the case of our exhibition, we are of course talking about the method of co-curation. In theory – and theory only, as far as I am concerned – it might be possible to include people without them actually participating in telling their story. It still doesn’t happen (nor does it seem a justifiable and viable approach to me, to talk about and for someone, instead of giving them a voice themselves).

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Earlier this year I reported on The Promised Land project of which I am part. [1] At the end of September, the steering group met to reflect on the project to date and also to discuss and prepare the training that we will host in Germany at the beginning of next year.

I am so pleased to be part of this project. Here are some reasons why.

1. The importance of looking beyond our own discourses and methods

One external criticism that I’ve heard frequently and forcefully of this project is that ‘a theatre/university/business consultancy has nothing to do with museum work’. The argument is that we – museums – cannot learn from these other sectors.

In reality, I have learnt loads. What is more, I have learnt entirely unexpected things, precisely because the work of the partners is rooted in a different way of thinking about culture, its socio-political position, and the role that people play in all of this. That all partners are also from different countries adds another critical layer to this. So, for example, activism is a natural part of theatre practice, where in our sector this is still to a large degree theoretical, leading to much head-scratching and questioning. The Turkish perspective, too, is sufficiently different to give flesh to the notion of ‘eurocentrism’.

In consequence, seriously challenging questions are posed of all of our practices. In being open to discussing these questions, and probing deep into our discursive framings, I find that supposedly self-evident constellations are beginning to unravel. This is the prerequisite to developing a discipline and field of practice further into the future. Otherwise, we are simply staying in our own echo chambers. Let that bubble burst.

2. The privilege to explore some painful truths in a supportive environment

On the second day of our two-day committee meeting, we focused on discussing the training week in Germany. This meant it was all about the German context, and some of the things we will look at while the group is here. This quickly and unexpectedly became really personal. For example, I described the #MeTwo movement to the committee, in which Germans born to migrant parents share their experiences of not being regarded as ‘real’ Germans. I tried to relate a story of speaking to a friend, and – lo and behold – I had to stop when I realized that I was just about to describe him as ‘Italian’. Yes, I had critically examined my own position as a majority German in all of this for some time, but it was through the questions of the group, and the actual participation of the Italian partners, that I realized just how much further I still have to travel, not the least in dealing with language and the concepts it forces on us.

How necessary this confrontation with our own positioning and limitations is, is also captured in a brief exchange, when the group explored a particularly sensitive issue in the German context. I found myself saying, “I’m becoming really uncomfortable with this discussion”, to which another partner replied, “But that is what it is all about.” And it is. It gives us a different perspective, which in turn makes it possible for us to gain a different insight altogether, and perhaps a different appreciation for another’s position – even if we do not espouse that position ourselves. Of particular note was that all of us together by now have managed to create an environment that is as supportive and caring as it is critical and challenging. In so many ways, this is precisely what the agonistic exchange is all about, and what I am advocating in agonistic interpretive practice.

3. Letting a project take you places

Undoubtedly one of the most immediate impacts of the project on me personally, but I think also on our institution, is that we have reached out to partners locally that we wouldn’t normally have reached out to. Through seeing the work of the partners, but also through engaging with the topics that have come up through the project, and thinking about how we can move these conversations forward when the group comes to Germany, we have been motivated to search out institutions and organisations locally that deal with some of these issues. Each time, we have had new and interesting conversations, which have brought insights and ideas that we could not have anticipated beforehand. At the moment, it looks like this will lead to follow-on projects, too, which gives The Promised Land project a rather nice sustainability.

4. And why not do things differently?

There is an undoubted challenge in applying to museums the different methods we have seen in use at the partners’ organisations. The easy thing would be to say it’s not possible, or worse, not relevant. However, the more fitting approach is to consider how some of these methods could be adapted to change our own practice for the better. I am thinking for example of the exercises we did at the beginning of the training in Bologna, hosted by the theatre company Teatro dell’Argine. Their intention was to help people get to know each other – which surely is what we want to do at museums and heritage sites too. We ‘performed’ our own names to each other, each time with a different emotion; we, as a group, moved closely together as we ‘looked’ through a window, trying to see what the person in front described. It worked fantastically well to quickly establish an emotional connection between us. Why shouldn’t we do something similar at the start of a guided tour or a workshop in a museum? Wouldn’t this help us create the agonistic public space in which people trust and respect one another? We always talk about museums and heritage sites being places for connecting with and meeting others. The methods used in theatre practice to me are definitely worth a shot.

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As regular readers of this blog will know, it is my very firm belief that in heritage interpretation we must strive to tell a balanced story. This concept is also known as ‘multivocality’: presenting multiple perspectives on something.

When I discussed multivocality in interpretation with my peers in the past, I have sometimes been accused of relativism. In this line of argument, there exists an objective truth which provides legitimacy to a certain set of perspectives but not to others. To insist on the legitimacy of multiple perspectives consequently must mean to deny truth: it means to deny facts.

A few years ago, I simply dismissed such views. Study after study shows that heritage is not a clean-cut thing. We cannot pretend that heritage is always homogenous, nor can we continue to insist that it is determined by scientific values and nothing else. From post-colonial to feminist critiques, from discourse analysis and representational theory to the challenges to the Authorized Heritage Discourse coming out of critical heritage studies: we know that heritage is personal, emotional, dissonant and contested. In other words, more often than not, it is made up of multiple perspectives. And it is not, in general, based purely on facts. This is not because of any denial of facts. Rather, facts are appropriated, reinterpreted and recontextualized to acquire new meaning.

A few years ago, I would have stopped there. The studies are clear, and so is my interpretive answer. Full stop.

Except, today we are well into the post-factual age. The sector has been grappling with this for some time, and so have I. So when, a few months ago, Michiko Kakutani’s book The Death of Truth was published, I immediately read it in search for further input to help me formulate my new answer to the challenge of relativism.

It didn’t disappoint. The book provides an excellent overview of the Culture Wars in which people broke free of the unquestioned dominance of science. It also traces the development from well-founded critique of ideas of universal truth to the extreme rejection of any verifiable fact, or, as Kakutani writes, ‘the celebration of opinion over knowledge, feelings over facts’ (p. 63). From here, she steps right into a description of the post-factual age: the ‘sheer shamelessness and decibel level’ of right-wing media (p. 111) and our existence ‘sealed in impermeable filter bubbles by Facebook news and Google search data’ (p. 105). She reviews the historical strategy of propaganda based on lies and concludes that, this strategy was ‘to distract and exhaust [a nation’s] own people…to wear them down through such a profusion of lies that they cease to resist and retreat back into their private lives’ (p. 141). She sees a similar strategy applied in modern contexts, where lies are joined by bombast and sheer outrageousness, which equally wear people down until they retreat.

The sane person’s gut reaction is to insist on facts. There are facts. There are standards. There is a way to behave accordingly. And then there is everything else. Kakutani herself presents a cautionary tale when she cites a 2011 BBC Trust report which concluded that on climate change ‘the network’s science coverage paid “undue attention to marginal opinion”’ (p. 75) in the very effort to present a balanced story.

So, out with multivocality because it is incompatible with facts? After some reflection, I still say: no. First of all, we know from recent experience (and the review in Kakutani’s book makes this painfully obvious as well) that simply insisting on facts doesn’t make people accept them. Secondly, facts can be and actually are interpreted differently by different people. Facts do change according to a changing context, for example when further facts emerge. It is how science has evolved over centuries, and with it our understanding of the world. The key point to note is that a different interpretation of facts is not the same as ‘alternative facts’ or more bluntly, lies. We can have, and should promote, verifiable facts as our common ground. But we cannot insist that our interpretation of a certain fact is the only acceptable interpretation. We must not force others to adopt our attribution of meaning. We cannot ignore what we have learnt in recent decades about the influence that discourse and power relations have on reality and our perception of it. Particularly not in heritage, which is the subject that interpretation deals with.

This is where I still reject the charge of relativism against multivocality. Facts do have a place in multivocal interpretation. But to present them in an unassailable interpretation as ‘truth’ is to go backwards. And the BBC’s findings on telling a balanced story? If this were heritage, they would have been guided by heritage values of the relevant communities. The ‘marginal opinions’ would have consequently be presented as just that. Full stop.

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#MeTwo was launched on 24th July in Germany, two days after Mesut Özil had announced his retirement from the German National Football Team due to racism. I am wondering if this could be the Ferguson moment for German museums.

Why Ferguson? Because Ferguson kicked something loose. On one hand, it shone a light on continued institutional racism in the United States. It wasn’t as if we didn’t know there was racism in the US, of course. And yet with Ferguson there seemed a palpable change, with people refusing to remain silent. Not only that – there was a demand, and this demand was directed at White Americans to take responsibility and take action. And then, of course, there was the movement that it brought to the museum sector: the very thoughtful Joint Statement of Museum Bloggers, the #museumsrespondtoferguson Twitter chats, the MASS action project.

I think – I hope – that #MeTwo can have the same calvanizing effect for German museums. At the moment, I believe German museums, or more accurately the professionals that work there, are almost philosophically encumbered when it comes to acknowledging and thus dealing with racism. There is a strong self-image of enlightened liberalism based on thorough education, combined with a memory culture centred on the country’s Nazi past. Aleida Assmann wrote that this focus on the Nazis provides a type of “safety distance” which suggests that “we” are different and safe from similar behaviours. This conviction is so all-encompassing, that Fatima El-Tayeb in her book Undeutsch. Die Konstruktion des Anderen in der Post-Migrantischen Gesellschaft observes that whenever anything happens which might dent the liberal-enlightened view of German society – like racism, for example – this is laid squarely at the door of a supposed „faulty” German: from the former GDR, or Russia, or the less-educated, or, yes, the second-generation immigrant-Germans. In other words, it is constructed as not actually a German problem at all [1].

This touches on a second issue. Aleida Assman asserts that (German) historians reject the idea of a “German collective identity”, which in many ways they hold responsible for the rise of the Nazis and the Holocaust. And it is certainly true that in the cultural sector, any discussion of a German identity is viewed with suspicion, and therefore generally avoided [2]. However, this very rejection of identity in relation to the dominant memory culture is, in fact, itself fundamentally about identity. This is not made visible though. Like any discourse, it has practical effects on behaviours, attitudes and people, yet these are allowed to continue to work hidden in the background without neither proper examination nor challenge.

This is where we’re beginning to come back to Mesut Özil and #MeTwo. Özil observed that whenever he is successful, he is German; when he is not, he is an immigrant. He questioned why in German discourse he cannot be both – German and Turkish; why his identification with his Turkish heritage should make his commitment to “German” values questionable and require him to continually reaffirm them. Basically, he is not only calling out a racist bias in German culture, he is raising a challenge to how we define – and live – Germanness.

These questions should be visible and debated in museums. And I am certain that this will require far more from us than just giving assurances of our (liberal, enlightened, educated) support to Germans with a migrant background, and staging exhibitions about Turkish guest workers in the 1960s. It requires rattling our own self-image and having a critical look at how our thinking, quite likely unintentionally, contributes to structural racism in Germany – or at the very least, does nothing to end it.

I take heart from the fact that a large number of publications, and in fact many mainstream politicians, too, are paying attention to #MeTwo and apparently listening. What comes of it is not yet clear, particularly in the museum sector. It is a chance, however, and one that I hope we’ll take.


[1] This, it must be emphasised, of course excludes and judges not only the people in question, but everyone else who belongs to that group.

[2] Politicians have less of an issue, as the recurring, and somewhat infamous discussion of a German Leitkultur, or guiding culture shows. What is lamentable is that this suggestion of a “German” culture and identity in many ways is just the kind of narrow and exclusive notion of identity that many in the cultural sector have in mind when they, in consequence, reject identity altogether as divisive and dangerous.

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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.


[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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Since starting work in the museums sector in Germany, I have gained a new appreciation for the positive role funders and political decision-makers can and do make in the effort to change museums into meaningful social agents. They can be and regularly are valuable allies. So, although I share most museum professionals’ unease about the idea of being pushed in a certain direction by outside forces, in this case, I would actually welcome more definite requirements.


Let me explain.


To start off, being a social agent is most simply defined by the impact or impacts an institution has within society, and these impacts range from the more cautious to the more radical, from the three areas of the British Museum Association’s Museums Change Lives campaign to the demands formulated after Ferguson [1].


In Germany, ‘participation’ is the key word around which we may cluster the various discussions on this topic. The landmark case of the ‘participatory museum’ [2] is the Historisches Museum Frankfurt, which, from all I can gather, really has placed participation, in the sense of inclusion and democratization, front and centre not only of its recent redevelopment, but also its on-going operation since reopening. It is an example that is regularly cited and represented at current conferences, and rightly so.


However, with equal regularity, there follows a heated debate: delegates challenge and question the idea of participation, arguing that it devalues expertise, subjects museums to the yoke of plebiscite, and overall reduces quality. How far this rejection can go is illustrated in a recent comment made by Gregor Jansen, director of the Kunsthalle Düsseldorf. He criticises the expectation that ‘everything’ should be ‘sacrificed’ to ‘Vermittlung’ (interpretation, public engagement) and that institutions are expected to use ‘simple language’, which in his words is like telling an athlete not to put in too much effort [3].


In this environment, funders and political decision-makers have turned out to be great allies when it comes to working toward museums having a bigger and broader impact in society [4]. Decision-makers have a clear expectation: they are beholden to the public at large, not a small section with the knowledge and education required to understand highly specialised treatises on a narrow topic. They want culture (and thus museums) to be representative of a diverse society, supporting things like inclusion and integration (see for example the new German Government’s coaltion agreement here, p. 166) . The same goes for many funders, who in Germany are often associated with the public purse and building societies. Perhaps because of this broad base they, too, often have a focus on wide-spread impact.


In other countries, funders’ requirements have already changed the sector. There can be no doubt that the Heritage Lottery Fund’s scoring on its desired outcomes (heritage, people, communities) has altered how museums and heritage organisations in the United Kingdom approach and deliver their work. The message has always been as clear as it has been uncompromising: you either deliver on these outcomes, or you will not get funding from us.


German funders generally are still more subtle than that. They engage in more conversations with the sector as a matter of course than I have seen elsewhere. On one hand that is fantastic, for it is always good to be engaged in an exchange. On the other hand it means that things can move very slowly. The desired change at this rate may take a very long time, and the pressing issues we were meant to tackle – migration, radicalisation, disenfranchisement – may have moved beyond our reach by then.


So, despite my above reservations, in this instance, I think it would be a good thing for funders and political decision-makers to be more adamant about what it is they expect their funding to do. Why not make funding decisions dependent on a museum’s commitment to deliver just that? The impact would be one of accelerated change. And we are not talking about communicating a party manifesto here, or implementing a particular world view. Nor am I suggesting some superficial tick-boxing. Rather, in this case, it is (most) funders and decision-makers who are actually the ones that want museums to go beyond a narrow interest, and truly have an impact on society. Personally, I can only consider that to be a good thing.




[1] In case there is any doubt, I am on the more radical end of the spectrum.

[2] Nina Simon’s book of 2010 is an often referred to textbook.

[3] His choice of words is important here. It displays an underlying contempt for the people who require these sorts of interventions (interpretation, simple language). In the interview he goes on to talk about ‘Höchstleistung’, or maximum performance, as that which is hindered by all these other efforts. Clearly, to him there is only one aim to be served by museums, and that is output at the highest academic level for those who understand it. All else is an unwelcome distraction.

[4] I meet funders very regularly these days due to a major museum reorganisation complete with a new building that we are planning at my workplace. And it is in my conversations with them that I receive the greatest encouragement about what it is I am trying to do in and with museums. Not all of them, granted, but the majority.

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I am fortunate to be part of a cross-sectoral knowledge exchange project at the moment which looks at practices for working with new arrivals and minority populations [1]. We are five partners in total: two theatre companies (one from Britain, one from Italy), a business consultancy based in France, a university in Turkey and the municipal museums in Germany that I represent.


This mix of sectors and countries is such an asset. The project is still in its early stages, yet it is already becoming clear that each of us brings a different set of experiences and viewpoints to the table that are both determined by the respective discourses within which we locate ourselves professionally, and also by our native cultures.


This may seem an obvious point; and indeed it was for this reason that the partners were chosen [2]. However, the first training week in Turkey has already revealed that this will not be a simple and benign exchange. We may have expected that our different perspectives would just add up to something that the partners individually simply had not thought of yet. Instead, I am beginning to think that this project is as much about challenging each other’s certainties as it is about learning new methods from each other.


Take the fact that the German contingent and I didn’t actually attend the Turkey training. This was a decision based on fear: the then-German foreign minister had just warned all Germans not to travel to Turkey. Then I met the Turkish colleagues, and I quickly began to wonder about German media coverage. Yes, there seemed to be an issue. But was it really the kind of issue that they portrayed on German TV? Or was I being manipulated in the same way I was told the Turkish public were being misled?


The reports from participants of the training, and our subsequent discussion in the steering committee, also paint a picture of thought patterns clashing. The training was focused on a theoretical foundation for intercultural exchange. It seems that the Turkish colleagues presented a level of cultural categorisation that the other partners were uncomfortable with. Most of us have been striving to transcend cultural classifications and boundaries in our professional practices for years. We are motivated by the desire to see people first, not subjects defined by a supposedly distinct culture that more or less allows us to predict their expectations and behaviours. In other words, what was presented as a theory appears to have seemed, well, wrong, and somewhat outdated.


When we looked at this some more, there seemed to be a divide: the EU, or dare I say the ‘European’ partners on one hand, and the Turkish partner on the other. And some of us became uneasy: was it really ‘wrong’ and outdated what the Turkish colleagues had presented, or was this an expression of our own eurocentrism? And what does this mean in a project that looks at new arrivals, many of whom are precisely not from Europe, and therefore likely to arrive here with worldviews and values that may seem just as ‘wrong’ and outdated to us? What will our response be then?


Suddenly, the project is about much more than collecting good practices in working with refugees and migrants. The project is also and fundamentally about us. It has the potential to challenge and test the core of our beliefs, and thus develop a truly critical practice. For example, in my view, the discussion about the training in Turkey has already raised questions about the extent of our rejection of an assimilatory approach to the ‘integration’ of new arrivals. Our daily practice may be much more determined by our instinct to persuade someone else of what we think is right. We have already started to discuss democracy in response, and I think this will be a constant as we look at concrete practice for each of our sectors. I fully expect to be surprised and shocked in equal measure. And in all honesty: I can’t wait.





[1] The project is an Erasmus + experience exchange called ‘The Promised Land’. It builds on the work that three of the partners – myself included – did in 2016 during the EU Voices of Culture Structured Dialogue on the inclusion of refugees and migrants through culture. You can read the report from the dialogue here. During the project, each partner will host the other partners for a week of training. Inbetween, the steering committee meets to review progress and learning, with the aim of collating a booklet of good practice methods working with refugees and migrants.

[2] The lead partner is Border Crossings in the UK, with its ever-passionate director, Michael Walling. It was Michael and his colleague Lucy who initiated the project and approached everyone.

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Some years ago I read the US American National Historic Preservation Act of 1966 (amended 2000). In it, it states that ‘the historical and cultural foundations of the Nation should be preserved as a living part of our community life and development in order to give a sense of orientation to the American people’ (my emphasis).

Since my return to Germany, I have often thought of this idea, that heritage can and should provide people with orientation. It is a much simpler concept than those that have been adopted in most European and international policies: cultural understanding, identity, social cohesion, personal development, sense of place or sense of belonging. All of these concepts are valid, and yet in my experience of arrival in Germany, ‘orientation’ was my most immediate need, and how I began to refer to it.

This is a personal first, however. Despite having been a new arrival in several different countries and regions before, in these circumstances to date, heritage first and foremost has always been a source of information for me. I went to heritage sites and museums to learn more about this new society I was now a part of.

Heritage is often theorized in this way in the context of migration. A recent paper by Laia Colomer [1] suggests that global nomads use local or national heritage as part of a cultural first-aid kit (my words) to support their integration. They assemble these heritages into cultural capital that helps them transition between cultures. These heritages also collectively form the backdrop against which global nomads experience and define their global identity.

One might argue that orientation does play a role here, though. What I like about ‘orientation’ as a concept is this sense of mapping the world around you in relation to your own position within it. It suggests place and an awareness of this place and others in it. It implies making connections, between your existing knowledge and what is new, between yourself, others and place. It is a term of arrival and need, a process that may be activated when necessary.

There is an emotional dimension to orientation too, at the contact points to belonging, identity and cohesion. Orientation is about touching the soul of a place and a people. It is a process of empathy, of entering into the mind of the other. It is about finding that which is universally human and thus shared between this new place, its people, and us as individuals. Orientation is fundamentally about story: that which captures our imagination, which we can connect to, make our own, reuse or reinvent to fit around who we are.

To think of ‘orientation’ in heritage management and also interpretation may give us a different perspective. When understood as a dynamic physical and emotional process, as I’ve described above, it can help us provide (negotiation) space, especially for new arrivals like refugees and migrants, but also the native population. Orientation is a transitory phase, which in itself implies change: change that also needs to be allowed for in management and interpretation. Orientation also acknowledges a deeply felt need we all have at certain points in our lives. This can be a rather existential crisis, and ‘orientation’ as our guiding term recognises the meaning and use heritage has in people’s lives. In some ways, ‘orientation’ thus brings us full circle: it is a classic concept, a traditional concept, yet with a newly added layer of change in a globalised world [2].



[1] Colomer, L. 2017. ‘Heritage on the move. Cross-cultural heritage as a response to globalisation, mobilities and multiple migrations’. International Journal of Heritage Studies 23 (10), pp. 913 – 927

[2] There are very many pitfalls and issues here too, that I want to concede and briefly touch on. Orientation, if understood as a one-way lesson on ‘what things are like here’ cannot work. Thus my emphasis on the dynamic interplay between the person and place/others. I also wrote of the emotional element of orientation. The challenge is the sometimes very real danger that such emotion will be misappropriated and misused, particularly in a nationalistic way. This would be something to explore further, for based on my own experience with sites of very high nationalistic potential, I think it is not at all an automatic outcome of making visible and accessible an emotion – but it is a danger, and an unease that many of us feel

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At work, we are getting ready for a major redevelopment of our local history museum. It is a good opportunity to think more about what an agonistic approach to interpretive planning might entail. Most of it is not revolutionary; in one way or another much of this has been or is being discussed if not in textbooks, then at least at current conferences. Nevertheless, it might be helpful to collate some important points, and highlight a few challenges along the way.


Check Your Ego At the Door

Local history museums often rank low in the museum hierarchy. I think there may be a trace of professional snobbism in this: anything that is local is considered small and less important; local collections are thought mostly repetitive and undistinguished; people are believed to be just so precious about their own little corner of the world… I think this (unconscious) ranking should make us cautious, and maybe even wary of our own attitudes. In fact, in agonistic interpretive planning, I believe it is vital to constantly – and critically – check our attitudes to the heritage and people in question. These attitudes will colour what we notice as potential content in the interpretive planning process, what we ultimately choose to represent, and how we will do so. In other words, our attitudes are a major factor in the interpretive planning process, and we need to be aware of them in order to work with them responsibly. I am not suggesting that we can shed them altogether, nor do I think that necessary. However, I do believe that we must check them as carefully as we would any source of information. We will have to decide on a case by case basis  what role they play; different scenarios are possible. We just can’t allow them to play that role in hiding, in an approximation of a natural law, and in exclusion of other views.


Capturing a Sense of Place

Local history museums are nothing if not about the local sense of place. But herein lies the first trap: is there really only one sense of place? Doing interpretive planning agonistically around sense of place would start with the premise that while there may indeed be a dominant sense of place, upheld by a dominant group of people, there are other versions too. These are equally important and relevant. As agonistic interpretive planners it is our task to uncover all these ‘senses’ of place and create an environment where people feel that their sense of place is valued and appreciated. Of course this must be followed up by representing these different ‘senses’ of place in the museum, and that may be the toughest task yet. It is far easier to present a closed narrative of what makes a place special – in the case of our city, we might think of the architecture, or a certain lifestyle shaped by its (former) majority population of civil servants. These two narratives are actually two sides of the same coin, but things will likely look very different once we start talking to the refugees that have come to town, or the students, or anyone else that doesn’t care about architecture or an upper middle class lifestyle. To bring these senses of place together under one roof, while still making them understandable for visitors – that’s the agonistic challenge of the task.


Brace for Impact

A hegemony of view is a hegemony for a reason. The majority of people support it, and therefore, insisting that other perspectives are represented in (agonistic) interpretation means to potentially swim against the tide. This is an obvious point, but it has further consequences that are less often considered than perhaps they should be. It is here that I suggest agonistic interpretation must leave the well-trodden path of community-majority democracy, and insist on representation for all. This also means that agonistic interpreters drop all pretense of neutrality. They decidedly fight a corner – inclusive representation – and they do so on the grounds of a very clear ethical-moral value – to give everyone a voice. In this standpoint is also encapsulated a whole series of beliefs about what a museum is, and what role it plays in society. Again, agonistic interpretation is far removed here from the serene image of the knowledge-expert, hovering in objective distance above the mess society makes. Agonistic interpretation is clear that it takes part, that it promotes inclusivity even where this is not universally welcomed. This can be messy: I am sure in our city, too, there will be some stories and perspectives that many, if not a majority would rather leave untold. Still, if museums are to be more than frozen temples to a hegemonic view, then we must enter the fray.


Honour the Heritage Story

As agonistic interpretive planners search out different perspectives, it is important to still keep in mind one important aspect: heritage is heritage because (some) people make it so. A fine line is drawn through this statement, and another difficult task hides behind it. We must recognise what is a relevant heritage perspective, and what is a mere historical fact [1]. I am always reminded here of the lesson I learnt as a frontline interpreter at Culloden Battlefield in Scotland: yes, historically speaking, the Jacobite defeat at Culloden began a still unbroken period of (Royal) stability for the United Kingdom. However, if supporters of the union and what is now the House of Windsor came to Culloden at all, they certainly never identified themselves as such to me. This suggests that any Unionist/Royalist attitude wasn’t a motivating factor in visiting Culloden, and that the site held no or little place in the respective heritage. I did meet many that came because they simply were battle enthusiasts. And I met many more who came to Culloden on a pilgrimage, because the battle to them marked the beginning of a personal story of Diaspora and cultural loss. This means that planning agonistically does not mean to gather and represent every utterance about a site. It means weighing up what is heritage, and what is history.




[1] As a reminder: heritage need not necessarily be built on historical accuracy. A historical fact therefore cannot be automatically equated with heritage.

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