Nina Simon is a heritage professional who shares her views and reflections about participatory museum experience through her blog called ‘’Museum 2.0”. Whilst I was going through her post I was stricken by the post “On White Privilege and Museums” http://museumtwo.blogspot.nl/2013/03/on-white-privilege-and-museums.html as it explores the discussion on museum’s representativeness about which I’m particularly interested and I’ve already carried out some research during the master course. Simon’s reflection on whiteness was posted in 2013 but it gains extra meaning because of some of the political issues the world is facing today due to nationalism, populism, the building of walls and the displacement of people who find themselves far from home. Museums, which have been considered by important intellectual like Foucault and Gramsci as an instrument of cultural hegemonic power and crucial in the formation of the modern State, can play an important role in this specific period in history to encourage social interaction and conciliatory practices.
Simon’s reflection on the need of museums of being less Eurocentric starts from a point of view of White Privilege in the way objects are presented, programs are built and in the behaviors is expected from visitors and staff. As a white woman directing a museum, she realizes the privileged frame which she has been granted and she makes a call on actively doing something to deconstruct and rewrite museums exhibition through the irrepressible presence of diversity and the ‘Other’ narrations. She thinks this effort is essential to make this institution ‘as relevant and essential as possible’ for all the population interests and in social representativeness. Ignoring this challenge would be again abusing of a Privilege, it would mean they feel so privileged to afford to marginalize and keep away a part of its audience. I like this post because it’s a very direct way of describing this cultural issue, right to the point, without hiding from personal social responsibility or personal involvement in this debate.
As Nina Simon is the director of Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History she speaks mostly about American museums and how they tell histories of white male conquest. This is a very hot debate also in Europe and it has been faced also through academic papers focused on how heritage can be re-imagined and re-invented in this phase of globalization that Stuart Halls calls ‘the post-nation’. Hall published an academic paper in 1999 called “Whose Heritage?” where he also investigated and questioned on the power and authority to represent the culture of Others. As Simon underlines the discussions about diversity and inclusion is blustering since the 1980s and continued during 1990s and writings from that time are still very up-to-date. Stuart Hall was a cultural theorist and sociologist whose research and work dealt lots with race and gender contributing to incorporate these ideas within the cultural studies field. When he died several journalists described him as the godfather of multiculturalism https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2014/feb/10/stuart-hall . In his article, Hall focuses on British Heritage and he underlines the need to include minorities in the agenda. In his opinion British heritage is facing two major challenges. Firstly, there has been a democratization process which involves our conception of value and of what is and is not worth preserving. This can be seen from the explosion of interest in ‘history from below’ like local and family history, oral memories of ordinary everyday British people. The second challenge is the critique of dispassionate universal knowledge which has inspired so much of heritage activity in the past, towards a less western-oriented or Eurocentric narrative. This has stimulated also a broad debate on how the ‘other culture’ is represented in important exhibitions. In order to tackle such a tricky task, he suggests that some money should be spent to train and recruit curators, professionals, and artists directly from the ‘minority communities’ so that they can bring their knowledge and expertise. Minorities, such as Africans, Asian, Jewish and Irish have been present in Britain for a couple of centuries, and they have long required being integrated with the global version of Britain story as much as to be the subjects of their own dedicated heritage spaces.
On this subject, it’s fundamental to keep in mind also Robin Boast’s research https://amsterdam.academia.edu/RobinBoast . He is a heritage professional that has worked over 30 years in American museums but, at the same time, he’s also an academic whose research zooms in indigenous studies and, collaborative and critical access to museum spaces and collections. He wrote an academic article published in Museum Anthropology whose titles straight away links to Nina Simon’s post: ‘Neocolonial Collaboration: Museum as Contact Zone Revisited’. The article investigates the contact zone concept within museums which can be seen as dialogical space where culture meet and confront with each other. He sees this concept and zones highly problematic and it makes a thorough analysis on this matter confronting different theories written by the most influential cultural studies scholars before arriving at his conclusion which highlights, as the key problem, the fact that ‘the contact zone is a site in and for the center’. Yet he describes the new museum, as contact zone, as a mean still instrumentally used to mask inequalities, appropriations, and bigotry.
Another important argument pinpointed by Boast has to do with the actual anatomy of the museum which seems to be persistently neocolonial. In fact, according to Boast, despite all the ethical engaged works that have been done through museum programs to empower and include indigenous community, the three main museums activities: collecting, exhibiting and educating are ‘leftover colonial competencies’. In his work, when he defines museums as a ‘gatekeeper of authority’, expert accounts and ‘ultimate arbiter of the identity of the object’, we can recall Nina Simon’s ‘white privilege’ notions. Boast concludes affirming that the museum of the 21 century in order to become a place that supports enhancement rather than authorization of collections needs to be completely reshaped and ‘to learn to let go of their resources, even at times of the objects, for the benefit and use of communities and agendas far beyond its knowledge and control.’
- Boast, Robin, “Neocolonial Collaboration: Museum as Contact Zone Revisite”, Museum Anthropology 34/1 (2011): 56-70.
- Hall, Stuart, “Whose Heritage?” Third Text 49 (1999): 3-13.