The International Conference Beyond Modernity – Do Ethnographic Museums Need Ethnography? took place in Rome, at Museo Nazionale Preistorico Etnografico Pigorini from 18 to 20 April 2012, as part of the European Project Ethnography Museums & World Cultures RIME (Réseau International de Musées d’Ethnographie – www.rimenet.eu) financed by the Culture Program (2007-2013) of the European Union.
RIME, sustained by Anne Marie Bouttiaux and the Musée Royal de l’Afrique Centrale in Tervuren (Belgium), as lead-museum of the project, has brought together representatives of the most important ethnographic museums in Europe to reflect on the contemporary scenario and to assume a common starting point. It aimed at rethinking the role of European Ethnography Museums in an increasingly global and multicultural world, dealing with urgent and complicated issues like the “original sin” of most ethnographic museums, which were established in the context of colonization. The international network of Ethnography Museums created through RIME, aims at positioning “museums as key partners and special mediators in the drive to foster dialogue between diverse cultures”, reinforcing or initiating new collaborations between museums and both “academics from the ethnic groups for whose heritage museums care”, and diaspora communities living in the countries in which those museums are located (quotes from the presentation of the Project RIME).
The project has also launched a traveling exhibition, Fetish Modernity that explores the relationship between modernity and the representation of European and non-European cultures, using objects from the collections of each partner museum. The exhibit opened at the Musée Royal de l’Afrique Centrale in Tervuren in April 2012, and it has traveled to several other venues: the Museo de America in Madrid, the Nàprstek Museum in Prague, the Museum für Völkerkunde in Wien, the Rijksmuseum voor Volkenkunde in Leiden and the Etnografiska Museet in Stockholm.
The often tangled relations between Ethnography Museums and Modernity in the representation of cultures were also the pivotal theme of the International Conference Beyond Modernity – Do Ethnographic Museums Need Ethnography?, about the different strategies adopted by each museum with respect to their institutional roles. The aim was to strengthen and enlarge a permanent network of ethnography museums, to share experiences and practices related to the management of collections and the promotion of cultural diversity.
This International Colloquium was based on an analytical and critical reassessment of the “first encounters” phase of ethnographic museography, of the original fascination and the colonialist display of the “other.” It aimed at reflecting on this legacy and its implications for contemporary practices of museum representation, in the light of the global crisis that these institutions are facing today. Half a century ago, the anthropologist William Sturtevant asked himself: “does Anthropology need museums?”. This conference reversed the question into: “do Ethnographic Museums need Ethnography?”.
In the light of current redefinitions of the museum’s functions (about conservation, interpretation, promotion…), the conference discussed the role that ethnographic museums should have today, their institutional role as public spaces and their social and cultural mission, linked somehow to the different needs of different publics and to identifying processes related to heritage-making practices. The purpose was to envision ethnographic museums of the future as spaces for interdisciplinary and intercultural exchange. To this extent one of the focuses of the conference was the necessity to foster a process of “negotiated representation” of cultural patrimonies, which lead to a critique of dominant values and contributes to the construction of different and plural narratives.
From the presentation of the conference, written by Vito Lattanzi, Sandra Ferracuti and Elisabetta Frasca (Museo Pigorini): “the institutional duties of museums are projected onto a totally contemporary stage, where authority is not exclusively reserved to professional discourse or the presentation of an essentialist past, but is also assigned to visitors or to the various demands of local, regional, and national communities. Today, many publics request an opportunity for expression and the self-representation of identity. The Museum, then, has to open up to different points of view, and produce plural narratives”.
So the premises of this conference were: the impact of the 1960’s hermeneutic shift in anthropology and its museography, the “new museology”, the postcolonial challenge (well addressed in the speech of Sally Price), and the role that native communities have had in the development of collaborative museography. These experiences have influenced the realm of theory, leading to the redefinition of anthropological categories themselves. From the presentation of the conference: “in the contemporary world, characterized by an emphasis on cultural difference with positive and unfortunately also negative implications, a new alliance between anthropology and museums of ethnography is a precious resource. If the museum wants to really act as an instrument of democracy, it needs an interpretive knowledge that is able to: understand intercultural processes occurring within globalized societies; interpret cultural difference as a richness; give substance to the intangible as well as tangible dimension of heritage; enhance the objects’ potential to act as testimonies; listen to the voices of the “diasporas” and confront postcolonial challenges; develop new museologies; experiment with new languages, in dialogue with contemporary forms of expression; promote local knowledge and connect it with global processes”.
Anne-Marie Bouttiaux (Musée Royal de l’Afrique Centrale in Tervuren, Belgium), project leader of RIME, after a brief description of the project, exhorted ethnography museums to commence from to the notion of Museum as “contact zone”, introduced by James Clifford more than ten years ago, asking themselves: is it true, as Robin Boast stated in 2011, that this contact zone couldn’t be other than a failure, due to the intrinsic neo-colonial nature of the museum itself?
Boris Wastiau and Steve Bourget presented the process of extensive change that will transform the Musée d’Ethnographie de Genève (MEG) into a modern institution for exhibition, research and teaching. The MEG has recently created the Centre for Anthropological Research (CRA), which aims at putting more emphasis on field research, scientific dissemination (publications, colloquiums), fellowship programs and teaching, transforming the museum in a sort of platform, keeping resolutely anthropology at the centre of its core activities and values, but also looking at the promotion of works by contemporary artists.
The Musée Royal de l’Afrique Central (RMCA) (Tervuren, Belgium), presented by Guido Gryseels, was established in 1898 as a museum and scientific institute to support the colonial policies of Belgium in what was then Belgian Congo. The permanent exhibition, therefore, still carries a major colonial stamp, even though the temporary exhibits have a very contemporary inspiration. The RMCA is engaged in a major renovation program that goes well beyond the renovation of the museum building, implying major cultural changes in order to envision the idea of a post-colonial museum, developing a close collaboration with the African diaspora in Belgium and elsewhere in Europe, opening up the patrimony to different narrations (for example the exhibition Exit Congo in 2001 narrated the real origin of the collection of the museum, explaining the colonial and violent roots of that patrimony), and giving space to interdisciplinary exhibitions.
Elena Delgado, of the Museo de América (Madrid), started from the point that contemporary ethnographic museums “should take advantage of the possibility to generate thought from a reflexive discourse that gets us closer to the unsaid, starting from the relations that we establish among the collection’s fragments of memory and the recognition of the cohabitation of heterogeneous temporalities. If museums wish to turn into institutions that pose questions instead of administering conventional truths, they need to radically reconsider their internal structure, the training of their professionals and, most of all, their relation with users”.
Clare Harris, from Pitt Rivers Museum (University of Oxford), underlined that in the era of the World Wide Web ethnographic museums are increasingly deploying digital technologies to facilitate access to their collections and to communicate more directly with the communities they serve and collaborate with. Activities sometimes described as “visual” or “virtual” repatriation have enabled museums to extend their reach into global dimensions and to distribute their collections to relevant audiences. This is the case of The Tibet Album, a website created at the Pitt Rivers Museum that made six thousand colonial period photographs of Tibet available to all those with access to the Internet. It was launched by the Dalai Lama in 2008 and was conceived as a resource that would be of particular benefit to Tibetans both in Asia and the Diaspora. There are many crucial questions at stake here, from the dilemmas that can arise when colonial photography is disconnected from archival contexts and enters other spaces of interpretation, to the unpredictability of the responses by users, which can confirm or context the expectations of the museum.
The question of “visual” or “virtual” repatriation, or “cultural restitution” was also the argument of Michael Rowlands (University College, London) and Grame Were (University of Queensland, Australia). During the discussion following this intervention, some crucial points were addressed. The concept of digital “repatriation”, or “re-distribution”, or “circulation”, or “access” to ethnographic patrimony does not necessarily means rendering it more democratic. Since ethnographic museums “share” or give back a form, an image, rather than the object, to its “source community” or in general to the users, this process risks simply avoiding the crucial problem, which concerns the property of the object itself and the relationships of power which founded its property. The digitalization of ethnographic patrimonies generate confusion around the concept of “repatriation” or “restitution” or “repair”, as a potentially neo-colonialist approach, instead of being a necessarily ethical and political gesture.
The contribution of Mario Turci, Fondazione Museo “Ettore Guatelli” (Ozzano Taro, Parma) was based on a “critique of the exhibitionary reason of ethnographic museums, starting from the relations between research and ethnographic writing, as well as between the installation (the exhibitionary character of which is ephemerality) and the ‘permanent’ character of exhibitions”. His aim was to critique the ethnographic nature of ethnographic museography through the comparison of a “demonstrative” effect (historical in nature) and a “testimonial” (ethnographic) one. He underlined the criticalities of ethnographic (or self-proclaimed as such) museography in the relations between language and writing, interpretation and narration, ethnographic authority and dialogic inclusiveness, asking if all ethnographic museums are ethnographic.
Toma Muteba Luntumbue, art historian/artist/curator from Bruxelles, underlined that most ethnographic museums continue to serve as tool for the control of cultural diversity, and so the practice of exhibition may become an act of contestation.
Marc-Olivier Gonseth presented the activities, the exhibitions and the conceptual roots of MEN Musée d’Ethnographie in Neuchatel, in order to question the problematic interrelations and the creative antinomies between ethnography and “expography”. An exhibition, in fact, is neither a text on the wall, nor images on a stage, nor objects in showcases, but must offer the cognitive, physical, associative and emotional discovery of a problematic space. This is one of the most interesting methodologies in ethnographic display, as it take into consideration a postcolonial perspective concerning both contents and languages.
The interview Sandra Ferracuti had with George Marcus and Pietro Clemente addressed some crucial themes, commencing from a dialogue between two different national traditions, by inviting a North American and an Italian scholar who both promote innovative reflections on ethnography and ethnographic museography. The starting point of the interview was the book Designs for an Anthropology of the Contemporary (Durham & London, Duke University Press, 2008), a dense dialogue between Tobias Rees and James D. Faubion with George E. Marcus and Paul Rabinow, in which Marcus interrogates the relationship between an “anthropology of the contemporary” and ethnography, and insists on the necessity of developing a new set of conceptual tools and pedagogical strategies and to sustain the work of the next generations of anthropologists. Pietro Clemente is part of a new approach in Italian Anthropological Museography.
Next International Conference of RIME will be in Oxford, Pitt Rivers Museum, in 2013.
Giulia Grechi, University “L’Orientale”, Naples