I understand museum display as a translation of codes from one system of symbolic signs into another. This has been performed since the XIX century with a one-directional top down approach constructing taxonomies, usually described in written form, while hierarchies within the displayed heritage were built through space construction mostly.
The emotional and the tangible dimensions of heritage (historic, natural and artistic) and its effects have just started to be explored.
Although I acknowledge that museums narratives cannot be neutral due to the museums’ own essence, I wonder if what is understood as participatory museum is a way of solving this dilemma. The outsourcing of content creation to external actors is what leaves me perplex the most, as I see it as a form of delegating responsibility on the exposed objects and therefore their translation possibilities. I believe this form of participation to be a two-edged sword: while attempting to be inclusive by targeting usually under-represented social segments and engaging them in a new and deeper way, this practice 1) is not as straightforward as it could seem, since it replicates hyerarchic patterns in most cases, as it is the museum that requests participation and has the final word 2) leaves an empty space on ownerships of the contents, as the institutions pretend in front of their visitos to be a blank space in which other agents operate.
Who can be held accountable for the displayed content? To whom does the displayed heritage belong? To the museum or the temporary curators?
If museums narratives fail at being inclusive regardless of the means they employ and museum as institutios will therefore never become a neutral scenario of representation, what is the purpose of museums altogether nowadays?
After the burnt of the Brazilian National Museum a few weeks ago, the Guardian wrote what proves to be the factor on which museums socially rely:
Some held out hope that the collection might have been digitised, but this possibility gave little solace to those whose identities were shaped and bolstered by the tangible presence of sacred or historically significant items.
Tactile emotions – the wonder museums generates in us is only achieved through this.
Last June I joined a guided tour of El Born CCM, Barcelona*. The tour ended with the guide showing us a display of bombs fallen on the city during the War of Spanish succession – the historical moment the museum focusses on. The guide told us that three bombs per habitant fell on the city in 1714. The bombs he was talking about were there in front of us and he visitors that were with me were not 100% serene about it.
Not the same as walking through the Nazi concentration camp of Sachsenhausen, where instead I saw people calmly eating a sandwich next to the Genickschussanlage, which is the spot where Nazi shot people in the neck fyi.
In both cases I was very annoyed (in the latter, upset): in Barcelona because the rethoric of David against Goliath the guide was using was a bit too much, in Oranienburg because I couldn’t (and still can’t) grasp how people stomachs could open in that place.
But in gh first case the heritage was overwhelming, in the latter the overwhelming heritage left the visitors possibly untouched, although tact and sight were the most involved senses in the visit.
Altogether, the crucial aspect should be that awareness that visitors should be overwhelming entities for museums.
The universe of emotions related to tangible heritage and their untranslatabilities is what we should concentrate on, as they generate conflicts of immense proportions in individuals and are the reason why visitors still go to museums. I believe that nowadays there is a strong need to show weaknesses to create emotional bonds within broad society and museums are no exceptions: on the contrary, thanks to their authority they have the potential to do so. Facing the fact that museums will stay systems of control, I ask myself how can a museum (digitised or physical) be transparent toward its visitors and show its partiality. What would happen if visitors were provided with emotional maps relating to their feelings and the exhibits before entering the exhibition space, a guide of emotions instead of a table of contents? It would be again an ever changing manipulative narrative, but it would be honest in its methods and this seems to be something museums have fail to be over centuries.
How could we though regulate the potential surveillance system that this would generate? Could we at all?
Can you imagine what it would mean to undergo an emotional screening before entering a museum and be shown only selected content, like a Netflix sort of experience?
I am interested in studying how contingent emotional frames are originated and can be considered responsible for long term awareness, and how spaces of knowledge exchange could be reshaped.
*disclaimer: my research is about this center.
Dicks, B. (2016) “The Habitus of Heritage: a Discussion of Bourdieu’s Ideas for Visitor Studies in Heritage and Museums”, Museums & Society 14 (1), pp. 52-64
Lynch B., Alberti S.J.M.M (2010) “Legacies of prejudice: racism, co-production and radical trust in the museum” In Museum Management and Curatorship Vol. 25, No. 1, March 2010, pp. 13-35
Smith L., Campbell G. (2015) “The elephant in the room: heritage, affect, emotion” in W. Logan, M Nic Craith, U. Kockel (2015) A Companion to Heritage Studies, Wiley-Blackwell
Uzzell, DL and Ballantyne, R. (1998) „Heritage that Hurts: Interpretation In A Post Modern World‟ in DL Uzzell and R. Ballantyne (eds.) Contemporary Issues in Heritage and Environmental Interpretation: Problems and Prospects, London: The Stationery Office. pp 152-171
Zubrzycki G. (ed.) (2018) National Matters: Materiality, Culture, and Nationalism, Stanford: Stanford University Press
Picture: Budești Josani church, Romania, Unesco Heritage site, 7 pm mass, August 2018, by me.