The growing interdisciplinarity of research, and the important input of social sciences to historical research in particular, have renewed the questionnaire through which history, museums and objects are interrogated. The fact that history is socially constructed and that it encloses several dimensions is hardly questioned anymore. In short, there is not one established history. Rather, historical knowledge can be seen as a flow which is constantly moving and changing according to time, space and society. Similarly, the way we relate to objects is also not stable across time, space or social groups.
We argue that the contextualisation of objects in permanent exhibitions is challenging. First, because it is physically impossible to render all the information relevant to the understanding of the object. Second, we believe museums have a responsibility in delivering a vision of the world which is complex and triggers thinking. Third, more worryingly, there can also be influence from political agendas applied to museums, especially where there is national or public funding. This also raises the question of museum independence with regards to political / power instances.
A primary question this session wants to look into is: how do museums use permanent exhibitions to produce historical knowledge?
The session can be organised around the following questions:
How can museums become places to actively think historically with objects?
Is there a ‘museum history’ and an ‘academic history’?
How problematic can decontextualisation be? Why is historicisation of objects important?
Objects are historical and social products: how do they change in time and how can it be exhibited in practical terms?
How can a museum guarantee / be guaranteed independence with regards to institutional and political context while it remains a major instrument of political propaganda?
When considering the theme of responsibility in response to the relationship between academics and curators two key questions arise; what is the responsibility of museums as public institutions and research centres in portraying history to the public, and how does this shared responsibility link curators and historians? Following on from the first session on History, this session will debate the nature of museums’ ‘responsibilities’, and will explore how this links with questions surrounding who gets to write history.
The idea that museums are socially responsible institutions is far from new. Traditionally, museums’ responsibility to the public was conceived as being tied to their role in assembling, researching and conserving collections, and disseminating the knowledge associated with them to the public. This role was bound up in unequal power relations, however, and museums came to be seen as temples of the dominant in society, reifying their principles and beliefs. The discussions on the potential power of the permanent exhibition in creating historical, national and political narratives highlights the need for historians and curators to recognise their responsibility. Yet there is little consensus on who historians and curators have a responsibility to and what form this should take.
In recent decades, museums have sought to move away from their traditional monocultural identities, and have embraced cultural diversity. They no longer concentrate merely on the histories of dominant social groups, and instead seek to engage with histories of those traditionally excluded from museum narratives.
However, ‘responsibility’ continues to be a contested term in relation to museums. The influence of public history has resulted in an interrogation of curatorial authority and of the narrow, binary conceptions of curators versus community. Museums are increasingly called on to work collaboratively with communities, and are seen to have a responsibility to include public voices in exhibitions, rather than simply disseminate historical narratives to them.
Drawing on the themes and debates of the three previous sessions, the final session will reflect on the issues these shifts raise: are the curator and historian ethically obligated to make the public aware of historical events, figures and movements? Or, does this presuppose that it is the prerogative of the academic or museum to decide what constitutes history? Should we be moving beyond the simple ‘dissemination’ models towards permanent exhibitions that acknowledge multiple histories and include public voices? Do museums have a responsibility to try to effect social change, or, would acting as agents for social transformation require that academics and museums decide on a ‘truth’ in a way that contradicts the imperative to represent multiple histories?
Mediation refers “to a whole range of actions carried out in a museal context in order to build bridges between that which is exhibited (seeing) and the meanings that these objects and sites may carry (knowledge)” (ICOFOM 2015: 47)
Mediating implies interpretation. Hence, mediation is a prime function of the museum and the exhibition of the collections continues to be the main instrument of mediation that museums have.
The objects itself are mute. Displaying them is to give them voice(s). Curators are responsible for this process by creating a set of mediation tools as a means to ensure that the visitors will be interested and willing to listen to what the object has to say. This action becomes an interaction when visitors give the objects new meanings, multiplying their voices.
Opening a permanent exhibition is therefore the result of a scientific and educational curatorial program that outlines the museological program. The museological program is itself a mediation device perceived by any kind of visitor through various assumptions: the choice of a place for accommodating a collection; its display; which objects are chosen to be displayed; the way these objects are displayed in a particular order; the way these objects were placed in the space and the relationship they establish with each other, etc.
Permanent exhibitions are usually informed by criteria of geographical and chronological character but information about the objects is often reduced to a non-interpretive label (Serrell 1996), even if these objects have been studied and in many cases by different scientific disciplines.
Many permanent exhibitions seem to suffer from a kind of crystallization of knowledge, which may explain why so often mediation in this type of exhibition does not reflect updates, despite new interpretations of objects suggested by researchers academic or not.
Mediation session aims to raise two main questions: having in mind that objects that are being displayed in a museum is no longer usable in other context, but are still very useful, how can History discourse be transformed into a conscious and updated narrative?
Having in mind that objects that are being displayed in a museum are no longer usable in other contexts, but are still very useful, how can History discourse be transformed into a conscious and updated narrative to the visitors?
Knowing that historical contents narrated in permanent exhibitions are also result of historical interpretations, what kind of mediation devices may allow visitors to raise a critical interpretation of such contents as well as encouraging them (namely historians) to contribute to enrich and update those contents?
4. Communication (between Curators & Scholars)
In the past twenty years the discipline of material culture has developed at an accelerated pace, with scholars turning more frequently to objects housed within museum collections to aid and inform their research. Our primary observation is that a greater level of collaboration has occurred between museums and academia during this period; this collaboration is significant as curators and scholars contribute to define the understanding of history in museums. Nevertheless, much work remains to be done in order to bridge the gap between academia and the heritage sector, and this workshop seeks to address some of these issues with a particular focus on communication between scholars and curators.
Academic research employing the use of museum collections is often heavily reliant upon well-established theoretical frameworks, and it could be argued that scholars do not always go far enough in incorporating museum objects into their research. This can sometimes be a result of the gap in curatorial skills that limit the extent to which an academic scholar is able to conduct comprehensive object-based research; communication between scholars and curators is therefore necessary in order to enrich the outcome of academic research by sharing curatorial knowledge and skills. Moreover, there are scholars who would benefit from object-based research but who do not engage at present with museum collections; this workshop will also explore how we can communicate the benefits of utilising museum collections within the wider research community.
Furthermore, recent developments have introduced new standpoints with regards to the academia/museum relationship. In museums, whilst research plays a central role in the dissemination of knowledge to its various audiences, this can sometimes lack the wide-ranging and interdisciplinary approach of academic research. Often collection-based and centred on objects, museum research would benefit greatly from the input of academic scholars in order to understand collections better in the context of cutting-edge historical research. Indeed, the practical difficulty of updating permanent exhibitions at the pace of historical research has demanded alternative solutions for presenting historical artefacts and communicating their relevance. One effect of the introduction of research centres within museums has been to restore the museum’s function as a place for the creation and discussion of knowledge.
We argue that communication between curators and scholars is required in order to create a cohesive and responsible museographic strategy. Curators should not fear the views of scholars, whilst scholarship should not ignore the potential of utilising permanent exhibitions as the outcome of historical enquiry. Therefore, how can academic and museum research be integrated through the communication between disciplines? How can museums employ academic research in order to aid the public understanding of history? And how can academia benefit from permanent museum displays? Has the creation of some research centres within museums improved the collaborative relationship between scholars and curators?