Posts Tagged ‘objects’

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.

[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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I spent the last weekend at the annual conference of the German Bundesverband fuer Museumspaedagogik.  It focussed on measuring the impact of interpretation, a subject that is even newer in Germany than it is in the UK.  There were a few things that I found interesting, and which I’d like to share here:


Cultural Education

There were repeated references to cultural education (Kulturelle Bildung) as one, if not the aim of museums.  It’s certainly a term that pops up regularly in German cultural strategies.  A German colleague explained that it is an aim that harks back to the enlightenment of the 18th century, and the emergence of the Bildungsbuergertum [1]. In this context, museums became the proverbial ‘temples of learning’ that brought educational opportunities to those who didn’t have the means of the upper classes. I think it is this underlying and ultimately uncritical acceptance of cultural education as the primary aim of museums that stands in the way of some developments that are also apparent in the German discourse.  For example, there was a lot of talk about general audience development, the need for more participation, and the need for more representation of under-represented groups.  However, I feel that as long as cultural education is assumed to be the aim, some of the issues affecting these desired developments cannot be resolved.  As long as interventions, be they exhibitions or outreach programmes, are ultimately concerned with educational gain, none of the opportunities that may otherwise open up can materialise.


Emotional Learning

I know that in the UK and the USA we’ve been establishing emotional objectives for a very long time.  However, in her closing speech, Prof Dr Birgit Mandel of the University of Hildesheim really highlighted the difference between cognitive (or factual) and emotional learning. Before the backdrop of the focus on ‘cultural education’ (above) this was just one step short of revolutionary, I felt.  In my own words, Prof Mandel described emotional learning as the shifting experience of one’s lifeworld, the gain of new insights and understandings, and the experience of expanding empathy and awareness.  I’m still uneasy about the terminology of ‘learning’, and yet emotional learning perhaps is more appropriate, serious and respectful, than what we in the English-speaking world often call “experiences”.  The latter doesn’t suggest the personal growth that takes place.  There doesn’t seem to be anything that conceptually distinguishes the “experience” of going to Disneyworld from the “experience” of visiting the battlefield where one’s great-grandfather died during the First World War.



One of the speakers, Prof Dr Karen van den Berg, spoke about the need to have (and teach at museums) reverence for objects [2]. She didn’t elaborate, so taken on face value I found this a really astounding assertion. Reverence (“Ehrfurcht”) turns visitors into observers.  It requires them to adopt a passive stance far back from the object.  It elevates the object above the visitor.  It implies that the object has an intrinsic value that the visitor needs to ‘learn’.  This is of course an attitude in line with the concept of cultural education.  However, I fear that such an approach, such a requirement of visitors, will continue to perpetuate a museum that doesn’t allow room for engagement, never mind participation.  As far as I can see, the only future of such a museum will be irrelevance and ultimately, closure.


Academic Grounding

If you’ve been reading my blog for some time, you will know that I advocate a greater engagement of interpreters with academia, especially on the level of the organisations that represent us.  So far, this only seems to happen in the US and to a limited degree, so I was pleasantly surprised to see all but two speakers at this conference (namely myself and a Dutch girl) be university professors. I think this gives a great signal, not only to practitioners but also to the outside world: that the practice of interpretation (or Museumspaedagogik, as it were) is firmly grounded in and backed by academic research. It was clear that Germany is still far from a close integration between academia and practice.  The speakers themselves also emphasized that there was a need for further academic research, and that the discipline, in academic terms, is still very new.  Nevertheless, it was great to have such an academic focus, mixed with practice presentations in the evening, and that’s something I’d like to see in the UK also [3].



[1] The Bildungsbuergertum was the upper middle class that strove to increase their understanding of the world through what was basically lifelong learning in classical subjects (science, literature, humanities).

[2] She called it “Ehrfurcht vor den geschaffenen Dingen”.

[3] I do have to report one slightly negative thing though: and that is the lack of adjustment to the audience that most speakers displayed.  The majority of them read off a piece of paper, as if they were in a lecture hall.  There was no engagement, no attempt at making the content accessible and – dare I say it – fun.  I enjoyed it, and gained much from it, but I did wonder whether someone who doesn’t happen to currently be doing their own PhD on this very subject could actually follow what they were saying.  As one participant poignantly said, here we are at a conference on interpretation, where we know we shouldn’t be talking at people, and yet that’s precisely what the speakers did, for up to 1.5 hours (!) at a time.  Reporting on academic research doesn’t have to be dry or practically incomprehensible for the layperson.

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I don’t know about you, but I usually prefer heritage sites to museums for a visit.  Partially this may be a result of poor interpretation encountered once too often at museums.   Labels listing cataloguing information do very little for me and, I expect, many other visitors.  Such ‘interpretation’ fails to make that elusive connection, and yet I wonder how much interpretation could achieve in the first place when perhaps the underlying concept –taking objects out of their context and isolate them from their use – is flawed to begin with.

The argument is not new.  ‘Museumification’ springs to mind, which argues that putting an object of daily use into a museum alters its status and, sometimes artificially, turns it into ‘heritage’.  Of course, I am one of those who see heritage as a social process and as such this point doesn’t apply.  What I do believe, however, is that ‘museumification’ renders an object impotent.  Deprived of its application to human life it becomes just that – dead matter.

And yet, the two colleagues with whom I recently unwrapped objects for our own exhibition felt entirely differently.  While I wrinkled my nose at what I proceeded to call quite blasphemously ‘the stench of time’, their eyes lit up in appreciation of the objects’ age and material integrity.  I jumped at the opportunity to find out more about such conservationist enthusiasm.  I thought that perhaps something had been eluding me that provided meaning for them where I only saw materiality.  Was age, authenticity, integrity really all they cared about?

I was astonished to find that their answer was primarily, yes.  They did feel that objects also served as a springboard for people’s memories but they proceeded to defend these objects vehemently against any human use and interference.  When I brought up the practice of many post-colonial museums who are giving back indigenous objects to their source communities, many of whom proceed to destroy them as part of their heritage practice, their views were even more surprising to me.  One of my colleagues argued that they wouldn’t give the objects back because they deserved a priori ‘protection’, while the other denied the claim of ownership altogether.  The crux of the latter argument was that the passage of time gave these objects universal value, which for me placed the criteria of universality in the World Heritage List into a completely, and unsettling new light.

I can’t say whether the many museum curators here and elsewhere share my colleagues’ views.  However, interpretation I encounter in many museums does make me wonder whether similar foci on material age and integrity, as opposed to human use, are responsible for the overwhelming lack of meaningful connections between objects and visitors.  I would never dismiss the benefit of preserving and displaying objects for their age and integrity in museums, however, I still remain firm in my conviction that the actual worth of these objects lies in their use by humans.   If nothing else, museums and the interpretation they provide should aim at making this use as clear as possible, for example by allowing visitors to handle replicas in order to get a feel for the practice that centred on these objects.   I believe that it is in this (mediated) interaction that regular folk like myself will find some appreciation of age and integrity.  I’m reminded of the research that I did at Newgrange, where age and setting were the values that visitors associated with the site after having walked it (not after having read about it in the exhibition!).

Either way, it was very interesting to have this discussion with people who were just on the opposite end from me on this issue.  Perhaps one day someone will do some research on how many curators share my colleagues’ convictions, and more importantly, how many visitors do so.  The results should be enlightening.

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