Using the past to inform the present
Dear all, thank you for these papers – I was struck by the ways in which the past was a particular spectre or presence in all of your presentations – mostly as something to be critiqued moving forward. Can I ask you all what you think the challenges of working with the past are, in creating an anti-racist, socially just future? (insert your own hopes here!) I’m interested in your perspectives as researchers – what do we have to discount, acknowledge, understand in order to write about the past as we plan for the future?
But also, what are your perspectives as practitioners? This is for all of you, all active designers/architects, but Nina and Lisa, in particular, I was really struck by the physical, emotional (?) presence of the past in relation to your artistic and curatorial practice. What were the challenges of this as you were developing your fascinating project?
very good question, and multifaceted. I would differentiate between two different dimensions of 'past' in the museum (in addition to the specific past of an object, that is); on the one hand, as a question of how we conceive of history and how this shapes how we construct the past (in specific traditions and frameworks of continuity, causality, progress) through exhibits and reconstructions (speaking to points raised, e.g., in the talks of Kate Hill or Tim McNeil) and who gets a say in what pasts we tell in museums. On the other hand, there is the history of the museum institution, manifest in architecture, exhibits, practices, and the question of how a museum grapples with this past, how it is reflected upon, deconstructed, redesigned (and: 'how much of our past do we need/want/can we bear in our galleries to move forward'). -- A nice cross-reference here, of course, to Anna Tulliach's paper!
Dear Claire, thank you for your great question. The answer, as @jona highlighted, it's challenging and definitely connected with understanding all the intertwined layers of past we deal with in designing an exhibition: the ''actual'' (if we can say so) past of the object, the reconstructed/reinterpreted past of the object, the past embedded in the architecture and the aesthetics of the past (with all their absorbed controversial meanings) hidden in the exhibition design. I would also add, enlarging the concept of past, visitors' past, in the sense of their knowledge of history and their capacity of interpreting it. Very complex! However, I want to try to share some hopes for imagining a more socially just future, as you asked. I think the acknowledgment of the existence of all these layers of past plus the understanding that none of them is neutral is already a first step toward a better practice. And in this wonderful conference we had a lot of papers criticizing and discussing this issue, so we are going in the right direction. The question (and maybe you can give me your perspective) is, once we learned from the past and managed to eradicate its controversial aspects, both in curatorial, graphic and architecture/design, how do we rebuild? How do we create new principles that are informed by the past but at the same the disconnected? Maybe I am being to radical but I think we need a rupture in order to propose a change. Unfortunately, I have only the perspective of the architect, teaching and working on museum/exhibition design and architectural preservation, so I keep thinking about spatial aesthetics or meanings embedded in architecture as a way to solve this controversy. But it should be a collaborative effort, maybe based on a systematic questioning of all the aspect of the exhibitions, nothing taken for granted. Maybe not looking for one approach but create always a different approach according to the object/topics of the exhibit we design (and all the other parameters we identified). Maybe questioning is the answer to be more inclusive.
Dear Jona and Francesca, thank you for your thoughtful responses. As you know, there is a lot of contemporary commentary addressing your question, Francesca. In my own thinking (still very much in flux), I am struck by Audre Lorde’s assertion that ‘the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house’, but am also deeply concerned that museums (or at least those who tweet about them!) rarely acknowledge the socially just and anti-racist work that some exhibition makers have been doing for a long time. In terms of learning from history and then rebuilding, I think Bernadette Lynch’s work on collaboration, trust and conflict is really instructive. And, of course, any ‘rebuilding’ has to be done with an acknowledgement (and redress) of the power hierarchies in museums (curator/designer/technician/community/maker/user/visitor…). Proper monetary compensation for the work that each group does is also critical. This article by Sumaya Kassim is one of my favourite article on decolonial museum practice. Thanks again for your great contributions to the conference!
@claire-w yes, absolutely -- putting up a graphic panel somewhere cannot be a get-out-of-jail card if the rest of the exhibit is left as is under the banner of 'yes, but it's such an important/beautiful/innovative xyz'…
Hi @jona and @liuni Have you listened to Lisa Newby's fascinating paper in Panel 14 that explores this particular issue - @lisanewby elequently argues that these histories are important in fragmenting current approaches to display
@claire-w Dear Claire, thank you for suggesting Sumaya Kassim article, I really enjoyed it. I agree with you, there are a lot of curators and exhibition makers who have done and who are doing socially just and anti-racist work. And they are rarely acknowledged (or not acknowledged enough). Maybe because these efforts are still in the framework of museums that represent the criticized Eurocentric authority and it will take time (or maybe radical change?) before they lose their historical significance. It's like the container (museum) is still shadowing the content (efforts of exhibition makers). As Kassim wrote ''the legacies of European colonialism are immeasurably deep, far-reaching and ever-mutating''. She raises great questions about tokenism and the risk of seeing decoloniality as the latest British accomplishment, and you may know better then me how controversial the debate is right now. Hierarchy of powers and larger interests may be a second reason why some of the past and current efforts of decolonizing did not get the deserved attention. An obstacle much more difficult to overcome.
@claire-w Hi Claire, yes I just listened to her presentation. I really enjoyed her analysis on the implication of Modernism and Modern art in the the practices of display. I was very glad to find a lot of affinities with my presentation!
(Claire, could the talks not remain open over the weekend, to give us just a tiny extension? I am sure after the panel, people will want to go back to things that got mentioned…)
Thank you all for such an interesting conversation! For me, the way we think about and around objects, particularly those from the Pacific, needs to reflect multiple histories and biographies. The idea of 'the past' in Pacific ways of thinking and being must be acknowledged - time is not a static entity but a living, breathing space that has no beginning / before or end / after. 'Historical' objects are alive in the present and continue to hold their power. That said, I think as curators we need to strike a (sometimes very fine) balanced and respectful representation that conveys the complexity of an object's biography. Emotional engagement with museum collections resides with multiple actors. In the context of Pacific objects - it's maker and their descendants, collectors / donors and their descendants, and institutional staff (past and present), to name a few. My hope moving forward is that all museums will be generous with access to their collections and open to collaborative working practices that surface multiple and rich stories, histories and interpretations!
@jona I agree it would be great if the presentations could be viewed over the weekend. Finger's crosed