Is Nothing Sacred?
The ethics of representing sensitive issues in museums
Bij een opleiding als de Reinwardt Academie is de combinatie van theorie en praktijk van groot belang. De studenten komen immers doorgaans te werken in een museale omgeving en hebben daarvoor de vaardigheden en de theorie hard nodig. Op die wijze krijgen erfgoedinstelling ook mensen binnen met een frisse blik. De papers die hier in digitale vorm beschikbaar zijn, brengen theorie en praktijk op een prachtige manier bij elkaar. Met de opgebouwde kennis en natuurlijk de eigen intellectuele bagage moesten de studenten in erfgoedinstellingen met een goed en haalbaar advies komen. De instellingen werden op verschillende manieren verkend, de medewerkers werden bevraagd en zodoende werden de problemen in kaart gebracht en voorstellen gedaan. Ik ben heel blij met de ons gedane voorstellen. Ook de gesprekken met de studenten waren inspirerend. Ik wens iedereen veel leesplezier.
Directer Nederlands Uitvaart Museum Tot Zover
Table of Contents
- Authenticity versus Commodification
- Representing Sensitive Subjects
- Attracting Audiences and Displaying Objects
- Indirectly but intelligently
- Final Considerations
- Books and Journals
- Online Articles
At the heart of any study of ethics are core principles. Some principles stay true throughout time whilst others change according to how society changes and how museums are perceived in society. On a simplistic level, museum ethics concerns itself with the debate surrounding the responsibility the museum has to society. However, it also requires museums to identify and be mindful of the various and numerous stakeholders who will hold them accountable for their presentation and interpretation of subjects.
In this essay, we will explore the way that funeral museum Tot Zover presents and displays sensitive material and themes related to the subject of death, mourning and funeral traditions in its small museum located in a cemetery on the outskirts of Amsterdam. We will specifically look at four themes from the perspective of ethics in this paper - authenticity and how it relates to the museum experience, the representation of sensitive issues in public places, the issues surrounding audience development and collection display and finally how the museum sees temporary exhibitions as a way to be more progressive, and even provocative. We are aware that each of these four subjects could easily merit a paper themselves; however our principle aim is to offer an ethical overview of these subjects in relation to Tot Zover and assess how well the museum handles the difficult task of representation.
“The museum Tot Zover brings death to life in a sincere, compelling and creative way”
Own translation, interview with G.Sluiter, Director of Tot Zover, 18 November 2010
This quotation belongs to the mission statement of Tot Zover - a Dutch funeral museum that collects and exhibits national funerary heritage with emphasis on the cultural richness of the Netherlands.
Regardless of whether society’s attitude to death has changed, funeral museums like Tot Zover are rarely called museums of death or dying. Take for example, Museum of Piety (Budapest, Hungary), Funeral Museum (Vienna, Austria) or Museum for Sepulchral Culture (Kassel, Germany). Tot Zover is not an easy phrase to translate into English - the closest translation would be “that’s it” - a playful name for a museum with a serious subject matter.
According to Gilmore & Pine II, people increasingly see the world in terms of real or fake, and want to buy the real from the genuine, not the fake from some phony. Authenticity is becoming, in other words, the new consumer sensibility. (Gilmore & Pine II, 2007:250). What people want today are experiences—memorable events that engage them in an inherently personal way. Visitors are seeking an authentic respite from an unreal world. Is Tot Zover an authentic experience? For Guus Sluiter, director of the museum, their role is to be involved in breaking down social taboos and in helping people come to terms with life’s inevitable ending. (Personal interview with G. Sluiter, Director of Tot Zover, 13 October 2010)
Authenticity and experience can mean different things to different people, especially in terms of age, gender and cultural background. According to Gilmore & Pine II (2007) there are three primary levels to consider when thinking about museums and authenticity: artefacts, edifices and encounters. Regarding the artefacts that belong to their collection, we cannot perceive the objects as neutral extra-terrestrial observers would perceive them. The perceived object is always the socially processed object (Van Mensch, 1984). The museum concerns itself with the collection of objects associated with death, mourning and the rituals accompanying this subject. The ethical taboo related to the process of collecting and exhibiting such objects cannot be ignored. On the one hand, it gives the museum a better sense of authenticity. But on the other, they have a responsibility to their product that sets them apart from other attractions. Furthermore, in comparison to other specialised or idea museums, Tot Zover also has a responsibility to their visitors, who could be very sensitive to the subject matter.
The second level to take into consideration is edifice - which in the case of Tot Zover is a modern, light building. Nevertheless, what makes the experience ‘extra’-authentic is the fact that the museum is located inside a cemetery where funerals are taking place. The fact that the museum has these ‘authentic’ conditions puts them in real danger of appearing inauthentic to their visitors. “Museums must therefore learn to understand, manage and excel at rendering authenticity. Finding ways to tap into authenticity, as the emerging standard will become essential. Museums must get real” (Gilmore & Pine II, 2007). This quote is particularly apt considering the subject matter of Tot Zover seeks to transform relationships with their visitors, but not at the risk of appearing too commercial.
In order to be authentic you should not have to promote it. The public that visits will find out by themselves that the museum works hard to provide information and knowledge about death in a respectful way. The public expects museums to be authentic, however, if you proclaim your authenticity, it sometimes creates the opposite effect – it creates doubt on your sincerity and your careful and considered approach.
The third level of authenticity is the encounter within the museum. The personal connections with the staff, collection, objects, shop, cafeteria and environment will all make a visit more engaging, authentic or even fake. There is a danger of this specifically with the cafeteria and the gift shop - if either is viewed as existing primarily to sell merchandise which is not in any way related to the subject matter, they run the risk of being perceived as inauthentic. The act of consuming food and purchasing goods in the gift shop whilst through the windows a funeral procession arrives at the cemetery creates an ethical dilemma for the visitor. The situation could make the visitor feel uncomfortable and even voyeuristic. On the whole, however, the large windows and light airy spaces inside the museum create a feeling of quiet contemplation which respectfully acknowledges the reality of funerals outside the museum walls.
Furthermore, from the small size of the cafeteria and the modest gift shop, we could guess that their main goal is not to profit from them, as other museums do. The museum seeks to create an authentic experience of culture and heritage related to the subject of death, without losing sight of it for the purpose of entertainment, popularity or profit.
How we react to a museum like Tot Zover depends on who we are, our cultural background, our mood, personal experiences and many other factors. Nothing is inherently authentic; authenticity is constructed by a society based on points of view, beliefs, perspectives, interpretations or powers. Therefore, what consumers or tourists do is to project their own expectations, preferences, consciousness and stereotyped images onto objects and sites. They believe them to be authentic when they meet these expectations (Urry, 2002; Wang, 1999). The museum provides the stage to create the stimuli to make people immersed and engaged within a topic. In this particular case death is a sensitive subject and Tot Zover is brave to approach and deal with it, accepting the difficulties and criticisms that it can produce. Also, Totzover understands that it is essential to represent and display difficult subject matters in order to raise dilemmas, create controversial debates and verbalise ethical issues to their audience. Below, some case studies will be analysed in relation to the museum’s presentation and interpretation of subjects.
Presenting death is a controversial subject that has the ability to attract and repel people at the same time. We have already seen how Tot Zover presents itself as an authentic experience and in doing so earns the trust of its visitors. How then, can they use this to break down taboos, encourage people to think differently and challenge stereotypes?
Although the representation of sensitive objects in the heritage world is not new, it is still not that common-place. It is not that museums do not want to work with this subject but more that they are afraid of getting it wrong. How can we represent this subject; what objects can we choose for display without offending our different visitors? How can we exhibit them sensitively without making the museum into an attraction? If you add to that pressure from stakeholders and funding bodies to tread traditional ‘safe’ ground, it is no wonder that many museums would not even consider staging an exhibition about a sensitive topic, let alone a whole museum around the subject of death!
The museum Tot Zover deals with the subject of death and dying. For the most part people in the western world are not particularly open and positive about life’s inevitable ending. Therefore, is it ever possible to present death in a positive way? In the case of displaying homosexuality in the UK, many museums said they did not know how to show it to the public in a positive way. In a health exhibition at the London Science Museum, gay men appeared in the context of AIDS. The exhibition wanted to promote health education; however, rather than present homosexuality in a positive light, gay men were presented as victims with the implication that they became ill because of their sexuality (Vanegas 2002:104). This example shows how difficult it is to avoid exhibiting sensitive subjects in a negative way. Death already has a negative image in our society and Tot Zover has to deal with this image. Promoting health education and avoiding stereotyping is also difficult - it is all too easy to imply the wrong associations and to cause offense.
This also applies to the following Dutch example. In 2009 when a disability exhibition ‘Difference on display’ opened, the Nederlandse Spoorwegen withdrew posters for it from station platforms because of the imagery (a sculpture missing one arm and one leg). The company decided on behalf of their passengers that it was too confrontational for them. This was precisely the main prejudice that ‘Difference on Display’ had wanted to tackle via their main theme: what is normal and who decides? (Niet Normaal 2002). This just shows how hard it is to avoid telling people what is the ethical and moral thing to do.
In a 2000 exhibition at Nottingham Castle Museum and Art gallery, works of the artist, Alison Lapper were presented. Although the museum had carefully explained beforehand what the exhibition was referring to, the museum was sent a complaint: ‘we were particularly offended by the display of photographs of a disabled women and her baby, which I can only compare to the old ‘ freak show’. I know we live in the age of ‘ political correctness but I do not think that the Castle was the place to display such items of so- called modern art.’ (Sandell 2007:15). This is an outspoken example that shows how important it is for museums to think about how they present their collection and make visitors aware of what they are going to see. This also raises a question for Tot Zover: is the cemetery an appropriate location for the museum? Does this prejudice the visitor against the museum before they have even entered the building? Certainly, the location provokes a strong emotional reaction and connection with the subject matter; as the visitor sees the reality of the crematorium graveyard before they enter the created world of the museum.
Richard Sandell states that you have a tension on the one hand between showing positive forms of representation and on the other, between acknowledging and exploring the challenging, painful and difficult stories. (Sandell 2007:168). But at the same time he concludes that museums should not shrink away from these sometimes discomforting subjects, but rather, should explore ways of enabling audiences to engage with both their historical and contemporary significance. (Sandell 2007:169) At Tot Zover there is an exhibition about the memories that family and friends have of their loved ones. It confronts the visitor with the difficulty of loss. This example shows that the museum does work within the ‘sensitivity parameters’ of their subject and that it is possible to openly confront difficult emotions.
Museums have a great responsibility towards their product and their customers – even more so in the case of Tot Zover. Because of that difference there are limits certainly to what can be shown and how it should be displayed. The museum Tot Zover, maybe as a community museum, could have an important and active role in breaking down the barriers and taboos concerning the representation of sensitive objects to the public. Given that this subject can attract and repel people for all sorts of reasons, it is important to think beforehand as a museum as to what your core audience is and what you can show to them. Ethical difficulties are involved and need to be handled with care. This will be further talked about in the next part about audience and display.
Mario Chagas (2010:8) states that “ ...we live in a world in which virtually anything can be staged or exhibited in a museum or in which virtually anything can serve or be classified as a museum”.
In the past, museums tended to focus on research, collecting and preserving rather than customers or visitors. They have always tended to be driven by their product – that is, the curator has long held the position of authority in deciding what needs to be said and how it is going to be shown. In recent years, this has given way to a new approach advocated by the New Museology, which places the emphasis strongly on education and visitors (Kirschenblatt Gimblett 1998:138). The new mission has been to engage the public, although for museums a delicate balance has had to be struck between being commercially positive and being seen as authentic. Museums have been cocooned against change for a long time and many are worried about being “bypassed as boring, dusty places, as spaces of death – dead animals, dead plants, defunct things”(Kirschenblatt Gimblett 1998:139). The director of Tot Zover , has also spoken of the need to present themselves as a modern museum and not a morbid one. (Telephone interview with G.Sluiter, Director of Tot Zover, 18 November 2010)
Traditionally, museums have been places of knowledge and accuracy but of limited appeal to the masses. Displays and objects have been presented in a way which only appeals to a minority of people from an educated background. The shift in emphasis of museums towards their visitors lately can be illustrated by the term ‘experience’ , which, according to Kirschenblatt-Gimblett, has become common-place in both tourism and museum marketing. It is hard to imagine tourism without heritage and that heritage is often seen as an ‘exhibit’ for the purposes of tourism (Robinson et al in Leask and Fyall 2006:163). The dominant issue is the conflict between preservation and access. One which resonates also with Tot Zover. The museum originated as a consequence over the concern of the disappearance of funerary knowledge and objects. Costs of maintaining and preserving such objects and sharing the information of these rituals is considerable and public access offers one of the few ways of raising revenue to preserve this culture. The museum is funded primarily by funeral organisations and funeral insurance companies – would there ever be any pressure from the funders to increase visitor numbers? The director has admitted that he would like to see visitor numbers rise from the current figure of potentially 6,000 by the end of 2010 to 10,000 by 2014. (Interview with G.Sluiter, director of Tot Zover, 11 November 2010). However, it remains to be seen how they will achieve this and whether this will have an effect on how they portray and promote themselves to the public at large.
Returning to Kirschenblatt-Gimblett, she writes that heritage and tourism are collaborative industries – “heritage converts locations into destinations and tourism makes them economically viable”(Kirschenblatt-Gimblett 1998:51). Whereas Sluiter has always asserted that Tot Zover is not a tourist museum due to competition from the more traditional museums in the centre of Amsterdam (Telephone interview with G. Sluiter, 18 November 2010), he does feel that it is a possible direction for the future as people become more comfortable with the subject matter. Indeed, the museum could never aim for the mass-market tourist product due to the dark subject matter and location, but there may be a role for the museum in promoting its difference from more mainstream museums. Urry (1990, in Herbert 1995:6) has famously talked about the ‘tourist of the collective gaze’, those who follow the beaten-track where all experiences are predictable and repetitive. Tot Zover would perhaps have more appeal for the anti-tourist who sets himself apart from Urry’s definition, those who like to go off the beaten-track (quite literally here in the geographical sense and relating to the subject matter).
In addition to not considering the museum Totzover as a tourist destination, Sluiter also refuses to see his museum as part of any dark tourism trend (Telephone Call with G.Sluiter, 18 November 2010). Dark tourism, according to Philip Stone (2005) “can range from any site which is purpose built or otherwise which attracts paying or non-paying visitors and which has real or simulated death, pain or suffering as the main ‘attracting theme’”. There would be moral and ethical implications if Totzover presented itself along the lines of the Amsterdam Dungeon or the infamous Bodyworlds exhibitions, however, the museum adopts a much more commemorative and educational tone. The museum, whilst refuting any kinship to this trend, is aware of how they must be seen to be credible and genuine.
This credibility is extremely important when it comes to ensuring that the message of the museum is conveyed in the right tone. Heritage in a sense is a ‘transvaluation of the obsolete, the mistaken, the outmoded, the dead and the defunct’ (Kirschenblatt Gimblett 1998:49). Through the process of musealisation, heritage is given a second-life; another layer of value and meaning are added. Objects or relics of the past are transformed into something subjective and personal by the gaze of the viewer and in this way identical events or themes can be portrayed in many different ways to ensure a particular message is conveyed. Tot Zover therefore has a responsibility towards its visitors in this respect to ensure that the message is portrayed correctly. There are limits in this museum to what can be shown and what can be observed comfortably. Guus Sluiter has stated sometimes people are upset by images that they see at the museum (Interview with G. Sluiter, 11 November 2010). Although as we have seen earlier, everyone sees objects subjectively shaped by their own experiences with death. There are still some items in the museum that will always unsettle – film footage of dead people or the bouquet of flowers made out of human hair. Whether this is breaking down taboos or not, it is not clear.
Admittedly there is always a delicate balance to be struck between museum and market, culture and tourism, visitor and customer. Nowhere is the balance more important than in Tot Zover, a museum situated in a cemetery, focusing on the rituals, customs and history of funeral culture. However, the museum treads a cautious and considerate path, refusing to alienate their stakeholders or profit from placing such personal subject matter in a public place. The permanent collection at the museum is not on the whole provocative or confronting. However, the temporary exhibitions at the museum are approached in a different way - evident in subject matter, style and marketing - and this will be discussed in the final section of this paper.
According to the director of Tot Zover, the museum uses marketing mostly for their temporary exhibitions. They are somewhat limited in their options but promote themselves by artistic exhibitions, which express the subject matter of death indirectly and intelligently. Whilst viewing the art works visitors may feel they are in an art gallery rather than a museum inside a cemetery. Public relations with media organisations are also approached in this indirect way too. Interviews with the artists involved in the exhibitions in newspapers or on radio stations are only about their work. They rarely mention the museum at all, even though the artists’ work is related to death too.
The recent exhibition ‘Bedrooms of the Fallen’ by Ashley Gilbertson illustrates this approach. On the opening night the museum invited many people from the arts and media world, similar to the opening of an art exhibition. Tot Zover seems to be avoiding showing their true identity to those who might feel uncomfortable around the subject of death.
In Tot Zover‘s early marketing they used their cafe and restaurant as an advertising tool. The poster invites the visitor to a piano recital in the Roosenburgh café at the New East Cemetery. They intrigued people using the word ‘cemetery’.
The goal at that moment was to attract as many visitors as possible and to get the name of the museum known. Later, we can see the museum using art as a way to promote itself. For example the exhibition ‘De dubbelzinnigheid van het einde’ in 2009 which aimed to inspire reflection and to challenge previous preconceptions of what the artist calls “the end”.
Why then have they taken this direction? Why have they chosen to market themselves through their temporary exhibitions rather than through their permanent collection of objects related to funeral culture? In a practical sense, ethics is necessary as a moderating factor between the extremes of intellectual control and impulse (Edson1997:11). Whether Tot Zover wants it or not, they cannot avoid ethical criticism from their main theme. Therefore, their tool to moderate ethical issues is the use of artistic exhibitions.
Museums research audiences when they plan exhibitions. It is widely accepted that the primary aim of a museum is not just to sell tickets like other commercial attractions. However, no matter how good the exhibition is, what is a museum without visitors? Advertising is ‘sine qua non’ in a museum too.
Tot Zover has recently been working with a guest curator, Erik Kessels who has brought several photography exhibitions to the museum (see pictures above). As you can see, the artist’s names are easily recognisable on the poster with the name and location of the exhibition. The name of the museum is situated at the bottom in very small letters, whilst the name of the artist is displayed boldly. If a visitor did not have any prior knowledge about Tot Zover, they might be surprised to learn that these exhibitions are taking place at a funeral museum and not at a photography institute. Tot Zover is mapping their marketing strategy firmly behind the artist’s name or their work.
Fiona McLean states in her book ‘Marketing the Museum’; “There is no one definition of marketing: its concepts being slotted in to comply with the requirements of differing situations.” (McLean 1997:89) As we mentioned before, Tot Zover has more sensitivity issues compared to ‘ordinary’ museums. If Tot Zover exhibited their collection without any filtering, then the theme of death could deter potential visitors. Therefore, Tot Zover has chosen a moderate way of marketing their museum that intrigues rather than offends. Every museum has its own method for marketing and there is no right or wrong. There is no doubt that Tot Zover has been using marketing and advertising in a unique and clever way.
In the present day, cultural changes are taking place all the time. What was considered authentic, or scandalous yesterday are commercially successful today. This is a trend that works favourably for a museum dealing with sensitive subjects. Tot Zover should focus on transforming new relationships with their visitors, engaging new audiences and promoting their difference. However, in this process it is easy to forget the ethical responsibility that the museum carries through their stakeholders.
The museum must not lose sight of the need to be seen as credible as an institution that there are limits to what can be shown particularly in the permanent collection and to how far you can promote this subject. Caution and consideration are the key. However, new ground can always be broken with temporary exhibitions and this is where the museum are cleverly marketing themselves to a larger audience with interests in photography and art rather than funereal traditions and death.
After all the thoughts reflected in this paper, it is possible to say that there is definitely a place for a museum like Tot Zover in our society. Certainly all too often we are used to seeing ‘sanitised’ representations of heritage subjects – nostalgic recreations of our past, idyllic pastoral scenes - rather than more heavy-weight themes. In the postmodern sense-making of the world and our place within it, this museum could be viewed as cathartic for some and providing comfort for others.
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