Susannah Eckersley of ICCHS, Newcastle University (MeLA RF 1) attended the two-day conference “Visualisierte Minderheiten. Probleme und Möglichkeiten der musealen Präsentation von ethnischen bzw. nationalen Minderheiten” (Visualised minorities. Problems and opportunities of the museal presentation of ethnic or national minorities) in Dresden on 30th and 31st March 2012.
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A wide range of fascinating papers were presented at this conference, spanning both academic and practitioner fields of museum studies but also covering a broad international scope of practical examples and theoretical issues, examining the problems and opportunities inherent in each case. The theoretical basis was provided by two excellent keynote papers by Prof Dr Konrad Köstlin, of the University of Vienna, and Prof Dr Dr Klaus Roth of Ludwig-Maximilians University, Munich. Professor Köstlin discussed the idea that while both museums and minorities are results of modernity, museums sometimes ‘create’ minorities, either by embracing a single minority or majority subject and audience, or by attempting to join people together, despite their differences, through the use of collective memory work. Professor Roth’s paper took the Jewish Museum in Vienna as the starting point for his analysis of four key problems in the visualisation of minorities in museums today: firstly, that the definition of a minority in multi-cultural societies (not just the EU, but also within nation states and back in time to transcultural ‘empires’) depends on the state’s development; secondly, the tendency to (self-)stereotype when attempting to present identities through objects and visual images; thirdly, the increasing uniformity of cultural production, the globalisation of culture and the fact that 85% of culture is non-visible, non-material and subjective, and that this is what minorities use to define themselves; and fourthly, the question of what has the potential to be exhibited and what is considered to be worth exhibiting. Professor Roth argued that both ‘insiders’ and ‘outsiders’ are needed to develop successful exhibitions in order to ensure that minorities are not presented in a stereotypical or narcissistic manner, but rather that the connections and influences between minorities and majorities need to be presented. He recognised the risks associated with such exhibition practice, but saw it as an opportunity to help prevent negative attitudes towards minorities and minority museums developing, a situation which is just as important in exhibitions on contemporary topics as for those on historical places, people and events. Regina Wonisch of Klagenfurt University, Austria provided a critical reflection on the current boom in migration museums in relation to her view that ethnic minorities have become the new priority for museums and society in the wake of similar booms in women’s’ history and workers’ history.
Other papers of particular interest to the MeLA consortium and to RF1 included the presentation by Blanka Mouralová of Collegium Bohemicum, Czech Republic and Jan Šicha from the Foreign Office of the Czech Republic, on the new Museum of the German-speaking population of Bohemia, Moravia and Silesia, in Ústí nad Labem. The permanent exhibition which is planned for this museum is all the more interesting in relation to the fact that, as the presenters pointed out, it could not have any identity-creating function as the German minority of the region no longer exists in this area (following the post-World War II border changes and population expulsions). This is a problem which was also raised by Magda Veselská of the Jewish Museum in Prague. Another Czech museum where forgotten or inherited histories of other ethnic populations are significant is the City Museum Chomutov/Komotau, whose role in the development of a Sudeten-German identity was discussed by Sandra Kreisslova of the Czech University of Life Sciences in Prague.
Some examples of individual museums within Germany which address the histories and cultures of ethnic German minorities were also presented, notably the Donauschwäbisches Zentralmuseum in Ulm by its Director and Manager, Christian Glass and the Museum für Russlanddeutsche Kulturgeschichte in Detmold by Julia Debelts, Museums and Exhibitions Consultant and Katharina Neufeld, the museum’s Director.
Further international museum case studies examining the Cité nationale de l’immigration and Musée du Quai Branly and early English-Jewish museology were presented by Eric Hold and ICCHS alumna Kathrin Pieren respectively.
Some interesting over-riding topics were raised by many of the papers and examples presented, in particular the use of languages within museums as a key focal point for discussions on belonging and identity. Many of the museums presented chose to provide their museum texts in two or more languages, in recognition of the different national, cultural and linguistic backgrounds of their key audiences, while the Museum für Russlanddeutsche Kulturgeschichte intentionally restricts their written interpretation to German only, with guided tours available in Russian on the grounds that the Russlanddeutsche are Germans, even if they do not necessarily all speak the language. One interesting omission or deficiency within the conference papers overall was that they tended to present their topics purely from the perspective of museum-makers and museum theorists, with only Kathrin Pieren’s paper addressing the issue of visitor expectations of the museum rather than merely vice-versa.
To view the conference programme, open the Visualised Minorities Leaflet.