Out With the Old, In With the New: Interpreting Culture in the 21st Century Museum

“…non-Natives, including curators and other scholars, cannot themselves adequately represent the views of others and should no longer try. What they can do however is report on those views and provide better opportunities for people to represent themselves within the established museum context, through collaboration, joint curatorships, commissioned programs and exhibitions, and other forms of empowerment.” (1992, Ames) 

Hi all. Saul here, talking about interpretation. One of the main challenges for most museums is how to interpret culture. Too often the stories in museums were told by curators, collectors and “experts” not of the cultural groups being represented. The result is a skewed version of the cultural whole and is portrayed to the typical museum visitor in a static manner, a “snap shot in time.”  What is not taken into account is the deep cultural significance of objects on display and in some instances sensitive cultural objects have been proudly displayed much to the chagrin of the associated culture. This is institutional colonialism in its purest form. To compound the issue, few museums consulted with or showed contemporary issues of cultural groups that still exist. Instead, the focus centered on the cultural groups romanticized past which conveyed the same stereotypes they have worked so hard to refute. 

This is not an article bent on bashing so many museums that are guilty of this antiquated version of cultural representation. This is an attempt to shed light on a ground swelling movement within the interpretive community at large, and impacts culturally specific museums in particular. The movement is called “Community Co-curation” and it involves community members in every aspect of the exhibits development process from conceptualization to fabrication. As a result, the community is fully invested in the outcome of the project, which leads to more credible interpretation. It also results in community empowerment, giving a strong voice to cultural groups who were once marginalized by museum representation. Community Co-curation is not a new methodology but as the old guard of museum elites gives way to a younger generation of museum professionals, it is gaining significant traction.

There are institutions and individuals who have built models of successful Community Co-curation that we must take into account. The Wing Luke Museum of the Asian American Experience in Seattle has become a national model for their community-based exhibition processes. In 1995, the Museum received the Institute for Museum and Library Services National Award for Museum Service on the strength of its cutting edge work in fostering broad-based participation in the development of exhibitions and programs.

 With each exhibition, The Wing Luke brings many community members into the development process, and integrates oral histories and a range of multimedia techniques into its displays. Upon subsequent conversations, Cassie Chin, Deputy Executive Director of the Wing Luke Museum stresses three tenants all museums must abide by to create sustainable relationships through Community Co-curation.

Interpretive tour at the Wing Luke Museum (Tim Bies/Olson Kundig Architects)

Cassie states:

1.)    Emphasize long-term relationships. We’re not going away and will continue to work in this model, building relationships with the many communities over time. So even if right now we are working with one specific community, in the future there will be many other opportunities.

2.)    Look for ways to connect on multiple levels. While we may be just working with a handful of communities on exhibitions in a certain year, we also try to work with other communities on public programs and special projects to be able to continue that valuable relationship building.

3.)    Feature both thematic exhibitions and group specific exhibitions. At times we have exhibitions that hone in on one specific ethnic group. At other times we have thematic exhibitions that cross over many groups and provide opportunities for groups to come together, share and build exhibitions together. Thematic exhibitions allow us to build and maintain relationships with more groups that if we were just focusing on one group. Periodic group specific exhibitions however also allow us to go in deeper with a specific community.

Jeremy Spoon, Assistant Professor of Anthropology at Portland State University has done community collaborative work on a global scale. His projects include working with native groups in Nepal, Kenya, Hawai’i and the Western United States.  His cutting edge work attempts to step beyond a static ethnographic description of cultural groups in relation to interpreting ancestral landscapes and focuses on indigenous ecological and cultural knowledge to support area management and interpretation. His approach includes context which incorporates ecology, politics and economics of a particular area at a

particular point in time. Spoon’s model is also flexible to the point of accounting for the inevitable process of adaptation and change natural to any people-land relationship.

Dancers from Hawai'i and the Bay Area in Keolalaulani Hālau offer a tribute to Pele in Hawai'i Volcanoes National Park. (Alohalani Alapai)

 

The case study most applicable for museum interpretation is the Kanaka Maoli (Native Hawaiians) Cultural Representation at Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park. This project examined public responses to an interpretive exhibit developed in collaboration among a committee of Native Hawaiian elders, National Park staff, the Mountain Institute, the Hawai’i Tourism Authority, the Volcano Art Center, and the Ford Foundation. The exhibit included 67 paintings at three separate venues of the volcano goddess Pele selected by the committee of elders. Spoon’s research utilized a sample of 217 quantitative and qualitative surveys to gauge public response. Results showed that the public is overwhelmingly supportive of indigenous-themed and Community Co-curated interpretive exhibits and is interested in learning more. Most importantly,  Kanaka Maoli (Native Hawaiians) were also satisfied with the project and are interested in collaborating more with the Park’s interpretive program. Spoon’s findings were presented back to the Park and inform the development of future exhibits.

By examining the examples presented we must do our self reflexive duty and ask: Where does the Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum fit within the spectrum of Community Co-curation? It is our job as employees of the Seminole Tribe of Florida to tap into and tailor our activities at the Museum to reflect and/or incorporate many tribal partners. I feel that we are meeting this priority to a certain extent. However, it is imperative that we do better! One positive step we are taking is instituting a museum wide Interpretive Plan. This plan will include internal tribal stakeholders who will act in a decision making capacity which will help us formulate our interpretive methodology. Another step we are taking is focused on Community Co-curation in the exhibits development process. In 2012 we will rededicate a temporary museum gallery space to Community Co-curated exhibits exclusively. These exhibits will include tribal members in all phases of the decision making process from conception to fabrication.

These ideas, amongst others, have incredible potential for building internal tribal partnerships and thus strengthening the Museum as a whole. The future looks bright if we accept the challenge of properly interpreting culture in the 21st century museum.

The case study most applicable for museum interpretation is the Kanaka Maoli (Native Hawaiians) Cultural Representation at Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park. This project examined public responses to an interpretive exhibit developed in collaboration among a committee of Native Hawaiian elders, National Park staff, the Mountain Institute, the Hawai’i Tourism Authority, the Volcano Art Center, and the Ford Foundation. The exhibit included 67 paintings at three separate venues of the volcano goddess Pele selected by the committee of elders. Spoon’s research utilized a sample of 217 quantitative and qualitative surveys to gauge public response. Results showed that the public is overwhelmingly supportive of indigenous-themed and Community Co-curated interpretive exhibits and is interested in learning more. Most importantly,  Kanaka Maoli (Native Hawaiians) were also satisfied with the project and are interested in collaborating more with the Park’s interpretive program. Spoon’s findings were presented back to the Park and inform the development of future exhibits.

By examining the examples presented we must do our self reflexive duty and ask: Where does the Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum fit within the spectrum of Community Co-curation? It is our job as employees of the Seminole Tribe of Florida to tap into and tailor our activities at the Museum to reflect and/or incorporate many tribal partners. I feel that we are meeting this priority to a certain extent. However, it is imperative that we do better! One positive step we are taking is instituting a museum wide Interpretive Plan. This plan will include internal tribal stakeholders who will act in a decision making capacity which will help us formulate our interpretive methodology. Another step we are taking is focused on Community Co-curation in the exhibits development process. In 2012 we will rededicate a temporary museum gallery space to Community Co-curated exhibits exclusively. These exhibits will include tribal members in all phases of the decision making process from conception to fabrication.

American Association of Museums accreditation award to Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum in 2009

 

 

Bibliography

1992, Michael Ames. Cannibal Tours and Glass Boxes: The Anthropology of Museums. UBC Press, Vancouver B.C.

Cool websites

www.wingluke.org

http://jeremyspoon.com/

Food for Thought

The Participatory Museum by Nina Simon

http://www.participatorymuseum.org/

 

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