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Posts Tagged ‘post-factual’

I have never been in a situation before where my qualifications and experience as a museum and heritage professional were publicly denied, my work dismissed and my character vilified. I find myself in such a situation now. I have no interest in spending time on defending myself against newspaper articles that do not even pretend to be based on balanced research, and letters to the editor that are equally full of claims that even the sloppiest research on this blog and elsewhere reveals to be untrue . However, I do have a few observations I want to share.

 

The complete denial, or the denial of the relevance to working in a museum, of my qualifications and experience is, I suspect, not actually about my qualifications and experience at all [1]. It is, I believe, about the kind of museum these people want. Denying my qualifications and experience is merely a proxy for saying they don’t want a museum that is rooted in what I bring. I base this argument first on the rejection of a co-created exhibition that I coordinated, which one letter writer dismissed as a ‘Sammelsurium’, or incoherent tangle. I also base the argument on these people’s praise for the former director of the local history museum who had this to say about his views on museums [2]. In contrast, I see museums both as social agents and social spaces, where inclusion and representation of diverse people and stories are key, where process is more important than an end product and where collections are a means to an end, not an end in themselves.

 

Another proxy for disagreeing with my views on museums is, in my opinion, the accusations about my leadership and communication style. Nothing specific is ever said, and either way, I would never publicly respond with the details of behaviours of any member of staff. Assuming, therefore, that the people accusing me of treating staff poorly are in fact in possession of all the facts, despite never having spoken to me, I do wonder whether, if I were a man, I would face the same allegations or indeed any allegations at all. After all, I would not be the first woman in a leadership position that is accused of being aggressive and bitchy when expecting staff to do their job in accordance with the company’s guidelines.

 

I would have welcomed an open discussion in the appropriate forums about what kind of museum these people want. Indeed, two of the letter writers are a former and a current associate member of the council’s culture committee, to which we (yes, plural) have regularly presented updates on the new concepts for the museum(s), especially the local history museum currently under redevelopment. For them, the opportunities were plenty. I would have gladly also explained to them precisely why my qualifications and experience are exactly right for this task. And they could have reasoned openly why they disagree.

 

I object to the path of public, one-sided accusation not only on a personal, but also on a political level. Starting with the newspaper’s lack of accurate and balanced reporting, I am appalled at the casual abdication of responsibility of (proper) journalism in our democracy. The manipulation of public opinion through one-sided reporting and reporting of false information is part of the problem of the post-truth era we are living in. We should demand better.

 

Speaking of post-truth: I would expect prominent people, as the majority of the letter writers are, to acknowledge facts and base their argument on those facts accordingly. In other words, I would expect them to be more Obama than Trump. I make this reference deliberately, because as someone coming from and working in the cultural sector I am particularly disappointed that a major supporter of the arts and culture, a literary author, and the chair of an artists’ association choose to ignore facts in the manner as is happening here. The cultural sector, in Germany as elsewhere, has been largely united in its rejection of Trumpism. Granted, I do not know if these people share this rejection. They might not. But I certainly hold the cultural sector to a higher standard than this, because if not us, who will stand up to the damaging erosion of truth, debate and civility that we are witnessing in the world at the moment?

 

One final point. I am convinced to the very core of my being of the validity of my approach to museum and heritage practice. It is a scientific approach to understanding heritage, visitor needs, and the role of museums in society. It is my firm belief that this is the only sustainable foundation for responsible museum work today. However, I am exhausted to have to defend this since returning to Germany. I am therefore leaving the sector. And I can tell you that I passionately look forward to entering the further education and sociocultural sector where my view of culture as a dynamic, interactive and shared space is more widespread and where my practice of inclusion, participation and democratization therefore has more resonance. But more about that another time.

 

Notes

[1] You can read about my qualifications and experiences here, or in greater detail on LinkedIn and Xing.

[2] For those of you who don’t read German, he declared himself to be more ‘classically’ trained, with a focus on collections. He acknowledged the importance of topics such as inclusion and participation in museums, but not ‘to this radical extent’, which I suppose is a reference to my approach.

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A couple of weeks ago, the Gesellschaft für deutsche Sprache (Society for the German Language) declared ‘post-factual’ as word of the year 2016. As we enter into 2017, the post-factual approach to reality and politics appears set to continue. So I want to consider what this might mean for heritage interpretation.

 

Accepted interpretive philosophy tells us that information is not interpretation [1]. Interpretation is more than a ‘statement of facts’ [2]: it is revelation [3]. These were corner stones of Tilden’s philosophy, and of course what he responded to in 1957 was a visitor environment dominated by subject specialists. So one can vividly imagine Tilden, the exasperated journalist, telling a detail-obsessed specialist that it isn’t enough to simply tell visitors facts. They need more.

 

However, I think interpretation has taken this principle, that information is not interpretation, and the associated denigration of a ‘statement of facts’ a step too far. In current interpretation philosophy, it is not information which is most important, but the purposeful selection of information to succesfully deliver a message. Information has been demoted to a mere ingredient in the realisation of interpretive aims.

 

Putting aside the fact that selection is also manipulation, and that evidence suggests that people do want more or less pure information, albeit skillfully delivered: the instrumentalisation and thus marginalisation of information in contemporary interpretive practice is particularly problematic when faced with the reality and threats of a post-factual world. While mis-information is blatantly used to make a point, the selection of information to make another point neither seems appropriate nor sufficient. We need more.

 

Of course, post-factual attitudes won’t be changed by simply giving more information. Post-factual doesn’t just mean ‘ignoring’ or ‘falsifying’ facts. It also means being motivated by feelings: feelings of helplessness, unrational fears, a hope that may have no other foundation than the sense that it simply can’t be worse than this. It is not enough to scorn people with post-factual tendencies. Like it or not, we need to take them seriously in order to have any hope of collectively working through these feelings and leaving them behind in favour of more factual and rational decision-making [4].

 

Many political commentators have observed how very close mainstream democratic parties have moved towards one another in their policies. But rather than enfold everyone in society, this has created a vacuum around its edges. People no longer feel that their views are represented, and they are turning to parties and organisations who do not share a commitment to pluralist, democratic debate. It’s not just that these ‘populists’ ignore or falsify facts. It’s that they encourage people to no longer engage with anything but their own (post-factual) views, a situation that endangers democracy at its very core. From populist echochambers all critical thinking is purged, and what you get is a post-factual world that takes over whole nations (like the UK, like the US).

 

So what should interpretation do?

 

With the framing of this post so far, I realise that I’m edging toward suggesting that interpretation become political. It’s not a term I’ve used before in relation to interpretation. And if I do use it now, it is in a complex, maybe even contradictory way. Because on one hand, when I say ‘political’ I mean it as a responsibility and response which we must openly acknowledge in light of the developments in the world around us. When I complained about the failure of British museums and the British Museums Association to respond to the vilification of (im)migrants especially during the Brexit campaign, I was really saying that they should make a political statement. To say that ‘this is not okay’ is a political statement. And if that statement comes from a museum, that still carries weight with a lot of people. It matters.

 

But on the other hand, when I say that interpretation should become political I mean it should play a role in our political systems of democracy. Democracy is characterised by a debate on views and opinions, with respect for others. If, in a post-factual world, people no longer engage with the views of others and/or attack them, then interpretation must step up. I come back to agonistic interpretation here: in a post-factual world we must do our best to make visible what people do not see: The differing views. Their validity. The humanity of the ‘other’. And I’m not just talking about making visible the ‘good’ views, the liberal, pluralist, democratic views. I mean a real engagement in all directions, taking seriously also those people that feel ‘the establishment’ has left them behind. Not to educate and change anyone. But to make the whole of this democratic world visible to each participant.

 

This is fundamentally about information. It is about actual facts, and information about how people feel. Not every place will be suited to this. But where we can, we must make a push for it. Because I don’t know about you, but from where I am standing this future looks really scary. We can’t rely on others to fix it while we gaze into the past. Right now is what counts.

 

 

Notes
[1] This is of course first expressed in Tilden’s second principle of interpretation (Tilden, F., 1957(1977). Interpreting Our Heritage. 3rd edition. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina.

[2] Tilden, p. 8.

[3] This is also part of Tilden’s second principle.

[4] I write ‘factual’ and ‘rational’ with some misgivings, and only in contrast to ‘post-factual’. Although I do firmly believe in the importance of basing decisions on facts, I also know that half the time facts do not lead you to near self-evident decisions, as if the world were black and white. Mostly what is required is a judgment call, and that is based on a tangled mix of values, beliefs and yes, emotions.

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