Erfgoedarena 27/01/2016: Negotiating sensibility

Almost all Heritage Arenas turn out to be a bit different than the other ones and this night was no exception. Firstly, because it was entirely in English, secondly because this edition was organized by four master students of the Reinwardt Academy. Organizing this debate night was a new experience for them, as well as for twenty percent of the audience, for whom it was the first time to visit the Heritage Arena.

The topic of the evening is ‘global fluidity in heritage practices’. Two of the organizers, Lizanne Gille and Eline Hansen, kick off with an introduction and definition of the topic. Gille talks about the various levels of international exchange in the master program. She mentions the international interdisciplinary group of master students and the lecturers, who also bring international academic and field experience to the classroom. Are these practices of heritage interchangeable? Gille explains that we are all shaped by our own cultural context. Therefore, to function in any international field we first have to critique and deconstruct our own cultural context and the heritage practices within it.

Hansen adds that ‘culture’ both differentiates and ties together at the same time because of its multicultural and national approach. It would be naive to think that this encouraging environment comes without challenges. She lists several of these challenges, some obvious, such as language and cultural background, others less evident, such as disciplinary background and the translation of theory from the classroom to the field.

Hannah Fraza, another Reinwardt master student and the night’s side kick, remarks on the possible meaning of global fluidity. We would like to see culture as a fluid thing. Does heritage practice really need translation? Can’t we just do a minor local adaptation, and can’t that just be enough?

Then Vincent Boele, curator at the Hermitage Amsterdam and the Nieuwe Kerk Amsterdam, takes the floor to talk about how he has translated traveling exhibitions for Dutch audiences. His institutions don’t own collections. In the past the Nieuwe Kerk and nowadays the Hermitage Amsterdam exhibit works from other collections, mainly from the Hermitage St. Petersburg.  These institutions use, as Boele puts it: ‘the world as their collection source’.

Boele continues about the adaptations he made for the exhibition of ‘Magical Africa’ in the Nieuwe Kerk, a European travelling exhibition that was earlier exhibited in the Rietberg Museum in Zurich. Together with some practical changes to adjust the show to the space of the Nieuwe Kerk, he also took into account that Dutch people don’t know as much about African art as the visitors of the exhibition elsewhere. Therefore he grouped the African artworks per artist, so the audience would be able to see similarities between the artworks more clearly.

This leads to the first point of discussion of the night: what is happening in the world of heritage and museums regarding internationalization, is there a global trend? Fraza explains that within the lectures of the master there is a clear trend of internationalization of heritage practice. Annemarie de Wildt curator at Amsterdam Museum adds, from the audience, that these international practices, including travelling exhibitions, are definitely happening. Moreover, there is also a growing group of people who focus on this international or global culture that museums try to include.

Boele replies that we are sometimes forcing our western museum culture and concepts on non-western cultures. We should listen more closely to locals. Hester Dibbits reacts by suggesting that, if this is a trend, maybe this focus on local is part of the glocal countertrend. According to Dibbits the discourse has grown more critical towards international heritage practices, the intentions of these practices, as well as their effects on the portrayed and perceived cultures. Erik van Rossum from the Frans Hals Museum, another audience member, points out that even the initial point of view of a museum is a very western oriented one. It’s a very western idea to display wealth openly, in other cultures these objects are kept inside, safely hidden. 

 

Next up the stage is Farid Rakun (from? Age?), researcher and education coordinator for ruangrupa, an arts collective established in Jakarta in 2000 and part of the global initiative Arts Collaboratory. He explains that there is no museum culture in Indonesia, because museums were controlled by the military and used as a tool for a military, nationalist history. Museums were part of identity politics in the New Order era until 1998. Nowadays, there is a new generation that has a different type of sensibility towards this foregone sense of nationalist identity culture of museums. Ruangrupa is the curator for the upcoming edition of Sonsbeek, a city-wide exhibition about art in public space, to be held in from June till September 2016 in Arnhem. With this edition of the Sonsbeek Biennale Ruangrupa will challenge the status quo of seeing art, by offering a different type of sensibility. Rakun adds that cultural similarities are fiction. He reminds us that a country with borders is something that we made up ourselves. Likewise, we imagine culture as something tangible and consistent. Rakun claims that this is a silly concept: culture is personal and specific all the time and can’t really be contained within any borders or structures.  

The audience seems to agree that fluidity is often used and named in theoretical constructions, as an aesthetic note of culture through a macro lens, whereas in real life we watch through micro lenses ourselves and see each other walking with our own cultural context and background. This is a mismatch between (heritage) theory and real life. Rakun advices us to negotiate with our own regional, national and other cultural identities.

Next up is Renee Akitele Mboya (1968, Kenya), writer, filmmaker and curator at the Apple Arts center. This master storyteller tells a truly inspiring story about visual heritage through a culture of sound, a story that cannot be grasped within this written text.  Global fluidity is, according to her, non-existent; heritage is always time and place related. By being aware of each other’s cultural context we can try to step outside our own context. Western culture is dominant and forcing itself violently on people outside our European space. The presence of Eurocentrism is something that museums have to acknowledge, but should continuously and critically be reflected on, within their own daily practices.  

The next statement that is open for discussion: global heritage practices are a form of neo-colonization. True global heritage cannot exist until the struggle against a dominant culture is over. Mboya immediately agrees with this statement. Dibbits asks Mboya then once someone has the right to exhibit foreign objects, how to negotiate? Mboya replies that if her heritage is shown in the Netherlands, why isn’t Dutch heritage shown in Kenya? It’s a Eurocentric, “one way cultural exchange”. Heritage means legacy, not ownership. Mboya believes that we must design a new form of language that supports accessibility, in the form of contemporary art. 

Marc Pil, lecturer at the Reinwardt Academy, closes the evening by telling a personal story. He talks about how he starts his lectures in Russia by sharing and explaining his personal background. Pil talks about the concept for an exhibition his Russian students had designed. A small village in Russia, where space rockets used to be constructed, is now a desolated village that has lost its meaning after the fall of the Soviet empire. The Russian students wanted to make an exhibition about this village, and especially the stories of the villagers, in order for the Russians to connect with the stars again and feel that they are not alone.

Like every Heritage Arena, this evening was filled with stories, questions and arguments and it did not provide any definite answers. However, there are a few key impressions that are important to take home. An increasing number of heritage institutions and professionals around the world is interested in operating on an international scale. However, this interest? hasm or so it seems, more to do with a dominating Eurocentric version of our previously mentioned global culture than with an open, interconnected and equal connected version of globalism.  We must act cautiously, honestly and openly about exhibiting and portraying other cultures and dare to negotiate the sensibilities that are concerned.


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