Multiculturalism and museums

(Response to * Jan Nederveen Pieterse, Multiculturalism and Museums: Discourse about Others in the Age of Globalisation and  to ** Walsh, K., The Representation of the Past: Chapter 5 simulating the past)

The western definition of culture based on the time-traveling approach, includes the tree-age system, ranked people who had less equipped as primitive in the hierarchic frame of ethnography. Urbanization and the industrial revolution are still considered the biggest human development in history therefore some civilizations owning them the very first creates the idea of privileged society. Although today’s machine industry has the same level of technology both in Africa and Europe, the media representation and museum narrations still do not focus on the contemporariness of ‘other’ geographies. This brings the question of what makes a society primitive under what categorization. Hence, the question emerges how this western perspective applies to the exhibiting strategies?

Assimilating or exoticizing? It needs to be highlighted the differentiation between self and other and within the category of ‘otherness’.

three approaches to putting cultures on display

There are several ways to be trapped in the loop of focusing only on similarities or differences of different cultural productions by western curators. According to the author creating a direct link between the viewers’ aesthetic sense and the artifact makers’ aesthetic sense is one of the predominant ways of assimilating strategy which is called the art-culture approach. Although most of the time the exhibited object presented as art would not necessarily be articulated as ‘art’ in the first place. It is common to present ethnographic objects as art in order to blend into viewers’ aesthetic codes of art. The author states that primitivism is almost a curatorial tool for some museums because the ‘primitive’ aesthetic is similar to the modernist aesthetic.

As far as I am concerned; since there is not a consensus for the borderline between art and cultural objects neither in the western world nor east world or wherever those primitive objects belong to , the problem is not the categorization of those elements but decontextualizing any of those objects and putting them on the well-lit vitrines.

The likely opposite approach to the art-culture approach is in-situ which utilizes the art of parody, reproducing indigenous environments, and re-enacting customs. In this method, the difference is emphasized therefore it is regarded as exoticizing. The exhibition might feature live shows, individuals who are indigenous, and other stimulation techniques. Be Similar to the colonial era international fairs, where communities were transported to be stared at. The displays become replacement tourism and using the life of “others” as a playground.

The last strategy presented is encyclopedic exhibitions. Such as ‘Japan und Europa 1543–1929’ in Berlin 1993, Europa und die Orient in Berlin, The Art of Islamic Spain, The art of the Aztecs… The author* considered these exhibitions to offer a milestone to the road of globalization which brings certain curiosity to the pluralist aesthetic, but they are non-oppositional stances to the characteristics of major history.

Displaying only what has been considered imperial power’s art with a Eurocentric hierarchical view of civilization has nothing to do with critical museology. Acknowledgment of imperial civilizations is almost a result that emerges with globalization or even a global capitalist economy.

Then the author* compares between static and fluid vies of multiculturalism and where they overlap with different perspectives of anthropology. Regarding critical thinking on exhibiting strategies, I would like to respond to some cases of  ‘simulating the past’. Understanding the aspects of recreating certain events of history or heritage might help us to bring a new perspective to the in-situ exhibiting strategy. Looking at misrepresented cultures today with the lens of Eurocentric museology can be different than looking at misrepresented European history. The author states the problems of the creation of museum narrations not being independent but controlling by the ruling class. Therefore, there is not enough inclusiveness to bring diverse insights from the working class to be part of the display.

Power relations have always been one of the strongest determinators of the history of museums. We can look at primitive museums to major proto-museums up to modern museums to see this impact. In some cases, sharing colonial experience is a way to embody the power, or in some cases such as the Louvre displaying the aspects of national identities is another way. In any case of national democracy or aristocracy, the power belongs to the ruling class. The non-critical approach is based on not questioning anything to do with the blessing of the government, nation, or power.

The critic of time traveling approach

The author** discusses even if time travel is possible it still would be one side’s perspective of seeing the past which is problematic. The main idea behind almost movie setting production-like exhibition design is promoting the experience of heritage. Those productions are generally expensive to set up and hard to maintain therefore technical aspects behind them include sights, sounds, smells event some earthquake simulations. The author points out that most of the museum displays were not sufficiently informative although they were required lots of research and preparation. In terms of creating heritage attractions, the open-air museums and folk-life museums are the pioneer examples over one hundred years. Outdoor recreation of mainly rural folk-life style museums provides a living-history experience as value to their visitors different than indoor museums.  The early examples of open-air museums emerged in Scandinavia as a response to the threat of the Industrial Revolution in the late nineteenth century. Some of those museums had collection included buildings from different places. Also, there was a high demand for sponsorships to those museums especially in the USA some big companies like Ford, Rockefeller, etc, in the establishment or restoration phases.

The author** critics the stylized and symbolic demonstrations of urban-industrial open-air museums that convey a certain sense of nostalgia rather than other information that is lost in translation.

The success of many open-air museums prompts the first theme park Walk Disney which can be considered as a development in terms of media use and organization for modern heritage museums. The author** defines the ‘Disney effect’ as spectacle and entertainment-oriented open-air museum design rather than educational purposes.  Although Disneyland had historical references, the research team, later on, confessed that many of those references were recreated with imagination. Today Disneyland has its own mythology based on recreational history (if I can say so).

For example, Beamish Museum has a collection of many buildings and objects in north England. It is organized in a way that the whole museum works as a town brings the past to life which also offers entertainment and consumable products to the visitors. The author** claims that open-air museums did not eliminate the problem of private/public separation of the museum space however they bring confusion to the visitors where to look. In the Beamish museum some of the signs are existing some created for navigation additionally there are locked buildings and many contextless objects. The author states all those dangerous aspects based on the sense of nostalgia and selective memory create a misperception of reality. The sense of second-hand nostalgia (I would rather call it indoctrinated nostalgia) is even more dangerous because new generations who do not remember this lifestyle but they obliged to believe the reality of the past. The author** also highlights the museum represents some years more prominently than others and skips certain years when an important event occurred in terms of class struggle.

Another approach to simulate the past is creating a sense of empathy through a first-person interpretation which its roots were theatre scenes. Until the Beamish museum, all the other open-air museums embraced the third-person interpretation display method. Therefore, Beamish has another important role in changing the typology of open-air museums.

In critical prospects, it must be analyzed that empathy can be dangerous as well, especially if the display creates some stereotypes. The idea that promoted here is some experts who know the past explain to the viewer how it was. Overall, the author** criticizes the anachronic problems that occurred as a result of understanding the past with today’s perspective.


28.07.2021 ESRA NESIPOGULLARI