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Posts Tagged ‘objectivity’

In Britain, we’re experiencing interesting social and political times at the moment [1], which raises the question again what role museums, heritage sites and by extension, interpretation should play in response to this [2] – if any.

I’ve argued previously that it is a dangerous myth to think especially of museums as apolitical spaces – and this goes for interpretation and heritage sites as well [3]. By that I mean that we need to acknowledge that everything that happens within museums is in fact a selection done by people who are themselves governed by a variety of experiences and political views. It is the suggestion that museums ‘tell the truth’ or ‘are objective’ by virtue of the professionalization of their staff that has contributed to the exclusion of vast segments of the public from heritage and decision-making about it.   So that’s clearly not the way to go.

At the same time, audience research shows over and over again the faith that visitors have in museums’ integrity and authority. Social and cultural strategies too place high expectations on museums to deliver a ‘good’ for everyone: to bring integration, cohesion, and lots and lots of wider benefits. This suggests that while acknowledging our limitations as human beings, museums and heritage professionals, and interpreters in particular, have what I’m going to call a moral obligation [4].

To me, that obligation lies in a several things. First of all, it lies in holding up a mirror to society. I think it would be great practice for museums to look for example at current debate and put on exhibitions that seek to illustrate either a more balanced or indeed the opposite point of view. So for example, in Britain we would have exhibitions up and down the country right now talking about migration and immigration throughout history: what it has achieved and contributed, what has worked, what hasn’t, who says so etc.

Secondly, the moral obligation is to tell a balanced story: to present both sides with equal care and respect. And I do here mean both sides: even the side that makes us cringe. We must not censor, but we must test and question as much as we can in a respectful way.

Thirdly, we must openly acknowledge that we are not infallible. We do get it wrong and we must constantly look at our own words, actions and practices, even in the little things. So for example, a constant reference to ‘foreigners’, as I’ve experienced in one of my jobs, just doesn’t speak of an inclusive, welcoming culture. We must acknowledge that, and work hard to change where change is needed.

And finally, at least for this list here: I do think that museums and heritage sites are ultimately part of the final line of moral defence not only of our individual societies, but also of humanity at large. At the conference I recently attended, a colleague questioned one of the keynote speakers on where we draw the line: when does tolerance become sanction of the intolerable? I think that’s a fair question. And listening to some of the discourse in Britain at the moment, for example, I think museums are called upon – not to dictate what society should think, but to take a stance based on their purpose and the role that government allegedly wants us to play [5]. This, I believe, can be achieved when done with humility.

 

Notes

[1] Start here to explore the issues. I find it frightening.

[2] For example in this discussion on LinkedIn.

[3] From here on in this post, when I write ‘museums’ I include heritage sites and interpretation as well.

[4] If you prefer, you can substitute ‘moral’ with political or social – either are equally valid.

[5] On a side note, in this I disagree with the BBC’s approach to the coverage of the European elections. According to BBC Radio 4 Feedback, there were 1400 individual complaints about the extensive coverage of UKIP, to which Ric Bailey, the Chief Political Adviser (I think it was) said that the amount of coverage they got just matches how many people support UKIP. Now, I didn’t mind so much that the BBC gave UKIP so much airtime. What I did object to was and is the lack of critical coverage. What I expect of the media here is the same as what I expect of museums, heritage sites and interpretation: balance and proper questioning of ‘the facts’, not something catering to the (supposed) masses.

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Last week I was back in Germany finishing up the visitor interviews at Museum und Park Kalkriese for my doctorate research.  One interview in particular struck a note with me.  A visitor was very upset about what they felt was a major lack of balanced representation.  They felt that there was little to nothing about the German side, even though the museum owed its existence to a battle in which an outnumbered force of German tribes annihilated (there’s really no other word for it) three Roman legions in 9 AD.

The visitor said that they expected objectivity in a museum. For them, this objectivity meant giving due consideration to historical fact without overlaying a modern bias.  The bias in this case, as they explained, was Germany’s difficult relationship to anything in German history that might inspire nationalistic sentiments – i.e. a tribal leader of 2000 years ago defeating the expanding Roman Empire.

My interviews with various staff suggest that this bias has indeed been present when the interpretation was put together.  However, when I specifically asked about why there is this prominent focus on the Roman side, the answer was mostly: there aren’t many artefacts that have been found from the Germans.  Moreover, the sentiment was that by focussing strictly on what has been proven archaeologically, i.e. via artefacts and physical traces, objectivity would be achieved.

I think the visitor I spoke to articulated a very good point [1].  When, numerically speaking, about 80% of an exhibition relates to one side of a story, there cannot be objectivity.  Objects and archaeological evidence do not ensure objectivity.  These are merely two sources of information, and if they don’t illustrate both sides of a story, then other sources need to be consulted and represented [2].

If this means drawing on different theories that may still be discussed, then so be it.  What interpretation needs is the courage to own up to the dictionary core of the meaning of the word: there are many possible interpretations of a story, or historical fact.  As this visitors’ reaction makes clear, we cannot hide behind archaeology and objects.  They cannot on their own deliver objectivity [3]. We have to acknowledge that there is more than one point of view. And we have to trust our visitors to be just as smart as we are.

This is an important point: what strikes me about my interviews with staff is this fear that the site will be hijacked by fascists, or at the very least misconstrued by visitors as a site of nationalist pride [4].  And in order to prevent this, any suggestion that there could have been anything like a ‘German achievement’, as the visitor called it, is carefully avoided.

In reality, visitors are also part of this German discourse.  They’re very capable of placing the historic fact of the German defeat of the Roman army 2000 years ago into the context of more recent German history.  The visitor that spoke to me was well-educated, eloquent, and fully aware both of the challenges of German history and the fact that there weren’t many German artefacts from the battle.  What they wanted was for the museum to provide a space free of the manipulation ever present in the outside world (they said) and show some (real) objectivity.  They were going to do their own thinking about the sources provided, thank you very much.

Notes
[1] It is really striking just how reserved responses in Germany are compared to those that I’m getting in England at the Battle of Hastings.  A few responses have made me wonder whether the issue does actually lie with this bias identified at this particular museum.  I have therefore decided to do a trial study at the mirror site to Kalkriese, the Hermann’s Monument.  It’ll be interesting to see if there are differences in visitors’ responses at these two sites.

[2] Ironically, where the German tribes are discussed, this is generally done via reference to Roman writers.  And yet, the interpretation then goes on to call into question the reliability of these sources, and even contradicts them – although I’m not clear what the basis for the contradiction is.

[3] Just on a quick side note, the focus on objects in our social history museum has led to key events of local history being neglected. I’m feeling a bit smug when I write here that for this reason, I wrote into our Interpretive Vision as a principle that our interpretation at the new museum would not be object driven. It did cause a mini-mutiny by our curators, but now they’re on board.

[4] In England, at the Battle of Hastings, neither visitors nor staff give this another thought.  Of course this is where The Nation Was BornOf course it’s part of their British identity, and they’re proud of it.  I hasten to add that with none of the British visitors did I get a sense of irrational nationalism.

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