Personal problems

Some museum professionals seem to be less interested in artefacts than in their visitors' identities.

Josie Appleton

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At the conference Connections and Disconnections: Museums, Cultural Heritage and Diverse Communities at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A), delegates talked about the urgent need for museums to ‘recognise cultural diversity’ (1).

This sounded surreal sitting in the V&A, home to massive collections of Asian and Islamic arts. Whatever its blind spots, the nineteenth-century cultural elite was very curious about other cultures, and made a substantial effort to collect artefacts and assimilate styles from around the world.

But ‘recognising cultural diversity’ today doesn’t mean developing an appreciation for the arts of India or China, or collecting artefacts from previously neglected cultures. It means using cultural artefacts to aid conversations between the museum and its visitors. The artefacts are mere props: things that museums want their visitors to dance and chatter around.

At the start of the conference, David Anderson, director of learning and visitor services at the V&A, argued that cultural meaning is not created by artefacts themselves – it is created by the usage of the artefacts. The job of museums, he said, should be to ‘foster cultural performance’.

Rajiv Anand – development officer for cultural diversity for the Council for Museums, Archives and Libraries, re:source – spoke about a project in West Yorkshire engaging 16- to 25-year-olds with South Asian artefacts (2). The endpoint of this engagement was a video called ‘A Separate Sense’, which explored the conflicts of identity experienced by a group of teenagers. Anand said that this Yorkshire Arts-funded project aided these teenagers’ ‘realisation, understanding and sense of self’. The chair of the conference added that the teenagers seemed to be going through ‘turmoil’ in their ‘search for their identities’, and that they needed ‘a lot of support’.

The South Asian artefacts functioned as a stimulant to spark off this turmoil and introspection. Anand explained that the teenagers ‘see themselves reflected in various cultural artefacts’. Like a counselling session, it seems that the teenagers were encouraged to use the collection to set in motion a string of private associations and feelings.

Fiona Davison from Hackney Museum told how her museum had asked people to donate objects with ‘personal significance’ – to them individually or to their community. One man donated a go-cart like the one he played on as a child in Africa; others gave objects of spiritual significance. Davison didn’t seem to care whether the objects were interesting or beautiful: their value came from the personal significance that people had given them. By valuing the objects, said Davison, she was ‘valuing what is happening’ in people’s lives.

These museum professionals seem to have little interest in artefacts, but a deep fascination for the personal identities of their visitors.

This means encouraging visitors to use museum artefacts for introspection. ‘What does it say about me?’, visitors are encouraged to ask. But surely this is one of the shallowest questions that could be asked of an artefact or piece of art? To get something out of an artefact, you have to be interested in it.

Of course objects do not create meaning for themselves. But museum objects provide the material for meaning – by examining art and artefacts, we can develop our understanding and appreciation of the world around us. To see objects as a mirror for our identities, or props in our cultural conversations, is to cut them off from us – and to limit ourselves to messing around in our own heads.

But there is something else that is worrying about museums taking such a keen interest in their visitors’ identities. If teenagers from West Yorkshire are going through ‘turmoil’ about who they are, why should museums be the ones to provide ‘support’? Migrants to Hackney might pine for their homeland, but why should the museum want to share their experience?

The sense of self that the museum wants to debate is a very intimate thing – it loses weight and significance when it is held up in the public glare. The Asian teenagers in Anand’s film looked like normal gawky teenagers: their cultural dilemmas, although they meant the world to them, lacked gravitas for us. Similarly, the African man’s go-cart just looked like a scrappy piece of wood, because we could not be part of the memories that the object evoked for him.

It is true that, because of social prejudice, museums often ignored important objects in the past. Deborah Willis, professor of photography at New York University, told the conference how photography by early twentieth-century black Americans had been virtually ignored. The photos she found by digging through obscure archives showed this to be a grievous oversight.

But to enlist these photos in a debate about identity is to lose them again. One photograph was a portrait of an older black woman, her powerful form wrapped in layers of cloth. She apparently refused to sit down for the photo, and faced the camera with a steely pride. Perhaps this photo would be ideal for triggering off debates about self-esteem and identity with young black women – but this would rob it of its power, as a portrait full of individual character and aesthetic value.

Today’s museum professionals criticise the nineteenth century for its prejudices, but under the banner of cultural diversity they are perpetuating a far more blatant prejudice. At least the nineteenth-century museum elite was curious to learn from the artefacts from different cultures – today’s museum professionals are too wrapped up in their cultural performances to learn anything much.

Read on:

‘I prefer paternalism to populism’, by Josie Appleton

spiked-issue: Museums and galleries

Josie Appleton is author of Museums for ‘The People’?, the Institute of Ideas’ Conversation in Print. To buy a copy, call 020 7269 9220 or go to the Institute of Ideas website.

(1) See the programme for Connections and Disconnections: Museums, Cultural Heritage and Diverse Communities (.pdf), V&A, 22 June 2002

(2) See Rajiv Anand’s write-up of A Separate Sense

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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