Archive for the ‘Interpretation’ Category

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.

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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.

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A few days ago, the German Museum Association published guidelines on visitor research, which I was honoured to contribute to. This experience of thinking specifically about the aims and advantages of doing visitor research then combined with another recent experience to further sharpen a thought that’s been with me for some time about what museums are and what they are for.


At the beginning of March, we hosted ‘The Promised Land’ project partners for the training week in Germany. We are the only museums participating in the project, and it quickly became clear that we needed a session on establishing what defined a museum in the partners’ minds. Their responses covered the whole range, from the classic (‘a place to learn/see things from the past’) to the more contemporary (‘a place to meet/discuss with others our present and future’) and the highly discourse-driven (‘a place where Western hegemonies still dominate and must be challenged!’).


I could not dismiss any of the definitions the partners gave, and not just because I know them to be highly educated and experienced culture experts. I realised in my subsequent conversations with them that I was qualifying my responses, noting that in such and such a case, yes, a museum may be that, but in another case, it may be this.


The point is, I have always argued that with regards to understanding heritage (values), and planning and implementing interpretation, we must start with visitor research. What I have always thought, but until now never really considered important enough to add to my arguments, is that visitor research also establishes what purpose a specific museum serves. These purposes can be very different depending on the type of heritage the museum deals with and the reasons for which that heritage is valued.


This by no means is to suggest that we now need new discourses for each individual type of museum, on the contrary. Where there are parallels these are unlikely to follow the distinctions between local history museums, national heritage sites, and art museums – at least, that is what the visitor studies I have done or read seem to suggest. Rather, the equivalences probably revolve around people’s existing relationships with the heritage in question, in other words, the values they attach to it.


Such a definition of a museum’s purpose based on visitor research and not its institutional organisation and structure necessarily also has an impact on wider topics that are currently being debated within the sector, such as inclusion and visitor focus. Inclusion, for example, will take on a different quality, and require a different approach, in a context where the subject-matter of a museum is related to (local or national) identity than in a context where it is valued for aesthetic reasons. Acknowledging this on the discursive level may help prevent the ‘one size fits all’ approach to some of these topics, and their all-encompassing rejection by those who – rightly or wrongly – feel these approaches would not be appropriate to their heritage or museum.


Either way, when I was recently asked to present a short talk at the spring conference of the Museum Association of Mecklenburg-West Pomerania on the topic of visitor research, I decided to explore this connection to the purposes of museums further. The conference takes place next week; I shall report back on comments.

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Museum (as) Space

At work, we have just completed an architectural design competition. What makes a good design for a museum building has consequently been on my mind for quite some time.


Of course, to a large degree, the answer depends on the case in question. There are certain requirements that are unique to each project, stemming for example from spatial or financial circumstances. In our case, we are dealing with a seriously constrained building plot set right beside a busy road. The plot is further compromised by an underground car park which poses considerable challenges for the structural engineer. In addition, there are existing buildings that any new built needs to connect with in a seemless way, supporting also their respective function. In our case, therefore, there are certain pre-conditions that the building must meet before it can be considered good in any more abstract sense.


This isn’t very flashy. It is a question of deliverability and dry functionality that extends further to matters of toilets, storage rooms, delivery access and the ability to regulate light and temperature conditions in exhibition galleries. And yet, as anyone will tell you who has ever worked in a museum building whose architecture was not driven by functionality but architectural vanity instead: this matters. A lot. Before we can even begin thinking about anything else, we must absolutely ensure that the museum can function properly within its architectural frame [1].


I have, however, been thinking as well about what, in my opinion and not based on any scientific study, makes a good museum building once its functionality has been secured. Personally, I do enjoy buildings that in their own right turn a visit into an experience. For me, that means grand, elaborate structures. For example, I love the Naturhistorisches Museum Wien with its extended façade and the fantastically impressive grand staircase. The café is simply spectacular in a high-ceilinged, ornately decorated circular space. The building itself is a piece of architectural art that has an impact on my senses: much like a good exhibition itself.


On the other hand, I am well aware that to many people such grandeur feels intimidating. Rather than promise an exciting experience, they feel threatened and put-off. And it is true: most of these museums, built mostly in the 19th century, offer nothing in the way of transparency. They are fairly closed-off temples that more often than not require you to climb steep stairs to arrive at a narrow set of doors that reveals nothing about what is inside. You have to pluck up the courage and often quite literally enter into the dark unknown. This is decidedly not ideal when we are seeking to diversify audiences – at least not without additional effort.


So, despite my personal preference, I have become an advocate for museum buildings that open out into their environments: glass foyers on the ground floor, clear lines of sight from the outside in, an open view (or announcement) of what can be seen and done inside. This takes down the first barrier.


Inside, I still like spectacular spaces, based on my belief that people of all walks of life, once they feel that this is their space as well, do enjoy what is grand and stunning – much like people enjoy the Grand Canyon. It is all about the atmosphere that is being created: grand and stunning does not necessitate an exclusive, elitist feel.


Recently, I have come to think of another architectural element that to me makes a good museum building: spaces, even rooms, where people can meet. We talk a lot about museums being meeting places for diverse people, where they can exchange views and create their futures together. And yet, what is often missing are inviting spaces where people can do just that. We tend to think only of the exhibition infrastructure to which all other spaces are subordinate, and so at best, we offer opportunities for people to sit. Increasingly, however, museum buildings go beyond that. One version of this are spaces for reflection, like the Hall of Remembrance at the Holocaust Memorial Museum or the Contemplative Court at the National Museum of African American History and Culture, both Washington D.C.. These spaces invite you to spend time and reflect on what you have seen and experienced, which I think is fantastic. What is missing for me, however, is an invitation to actually talk to other visitors: these spaces are made for whispers, and whispers do not lend themselves to conversations. Furthermore, I don’t like that these rooms are generally separate from the exhibition galleries, although given their aim of reflection this does of course make sense. A space integrated into the exhibition itself is what I have in mind. At Culloden Visitor Centre in Scotland there is a central performance area that offers benches on either side, which comes closer to what I would like to see. In an exhibition that I did last year, a group I was working with integrated a living room into their space which did invite people to just sit and chat. Many did take up that opportunity, although I have no data on how many conversations went across groups, as it were. Nevertheless, something similar should, in my view, be a permanent feature of any exhibition.


There are many factors in making a building a good museum building. Let’s see how this works out as our project progresses. So far, I have a really food feeling. I shall report back.




[1] It is a well-known truth among museum professionals that the architecture should always come secondary to the requirements of the museum itself, with all its purposes and aims concerning audiences. What is less often talked about openly is how much this can become a fight with the architects’ desire to fulfil their own ambition outside functionality. (Too) Often, this fight is lost on the museum side. So forgive me for ‘stating the obvious’ here.

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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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