In search of intercultural dialogue

Multicultural society, immigrants, the new Dutch, ethnic minorities, intercultural target groups, cultural diversity, multi-ethnic groups; nowadays we are swamped with all these different terms. From political agendas to television programming, cultural diversity is a hot issue, even within the museological field.

First of all, what exactly is cultural diversity? In the report State of affairs: Heritage & Cultural Diversity, Erfgoed Nederland (The Netherlands Institute for Heritage) describes the term as follows:

“Cultural diversity = cultural variety. Diversity covers all aspects in which people differ of one another (such as origin, gender and age). This term is often used to identify immigrant minority-groups.”

The described cultural diversity is what is at stake, but why should this be of any interest for museums? There is a relatively simple answer to this question. We are already way beyond the nineteenth century idea of the museum as an elitist treasury-house. Nowadays the museum is a place for everyone and should therefore logically mirror the contemporary society. Furthermore should this not only be a reflection of the social aspects within our society, but for both the cultural and ethnic aspects as well.

In cultural institutions across the world cultural diversity is an important matter of discussion. In 2007 the Raad van Cultuur (Council for Culture) published a report on cultural policy. This report had a revealing subtitle: ‘Innovate, participate!’, and lay its focus on the social task of-in this case- national museums and the addressing of a varied audience. Notable in this report was the main condition for the reception of subsidy. It said that the museum should “contribute to the historical notion and the social cohesion within the society”. This almost implies a quite simple task: gain some government support, add up a well phrased objective on intercultural participation and the result will be a successful and socially engaged museum with a varied audience. How come then, are museums still dominated by a majority of white visitors above 50?

The previously mentioned research report of Erfgoed Nederland shows that 33% of the 247 interviewed heritage institutions embodied the theme cultural diversity in her policy plan.

For example, the Tropenmuseum speaks in her mission statement of the following policy:

“... (the museum) provides an experience for a broad and diverse audience and strengthens the respect for cultural diversity...”

We should applaud the fact that museums include multiculturalism in their mission statements. However, just policy is not enough. The real difficulties lie in the step from policy to practice. These problems are far from unambiguous and relate to the museums vision on their own task within the heritage field, the society and their public, as well as to the knowledge within the organization.

Although in recent years we see a tendency towards involving audiences, still many museums mainly focus on their collection and how to elevate the passive visitor with the knowledge they provide. In addition, stereotyping is a major tumbling-block which reinforces thinking in terms of ‘us’ versus ‘them’. This separation is magnified by the fact that museums which intend social inclusion of allochthonous groups often exclusively target them with activities related to their own cultures. The result is a rather bitter social exclusion of the socially included.

It is quite clear that many heritage institutions are willing to involve the theme cultural diversity in their policy. However, this mainly results in side programming and temporary projects for the target groups, but nearly leads to structural inclusion of the theme within the institutions policy. As a result, there only is an occasional encounter with audiences, rather than long-term work and commitment. Integrating intercultural dialogue in the museum means starting at the base. Diversity should not begin with an allochthonous target group, but with staffing and management, policy, (re)presentation of the collection and guidelines for education. Museums should for example decide who the stakeholders of the organisation are and try to map the different interests of these stakeholders. In addition, it is important to think from and with the target groups.

A good example of integration of intercultural dialogue is a project by the English Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery. In 2004 this museum started a project to gather a collection about aspects of the temporary black youth culture. The main key was that the project was developed by the community, instead of by a conservator or the institution itself. The project resulted in an exhibition called Vibes: a History of Urban Music, which truly was a representation of society by society itself, rather than a representation from the museums point of view. Due to the successfulness of the exhibition and the increase in the number of visitors, the museum started to embed these new developments in the entire organisation.

Naturally, the project Vibes is only one example. Nevertheless it represents participation projects in the United Kingdom, a country that undoubtedly takes the lead when it comes to participation of minorities in heritage institutions. As said before there are certainly some developments going on in the Netherlands too. Yet, often the smaller supra-sectoral organisations with a clear vision on the social function of cultural institutions take the lead, rather than the more traditional museums. An example of such an institutions is Imagine Identity & Culture (ImagineIC), which was founded in 2001. This organisation is established in the Bijlmer district in Amsterdam and aims to represent the identity and culture of migrants and their descendants in the Netherlands. In addition, they believe it is important to pass this information on to a wide audience. Essential goals are collecting stories of the first generation migrants and the current young generation (their descendants) and representing these stories in a new way.

ImagineIC sees itself as a production centre for the heritage sector with three core functions: representation of cultural diversity from its own perspective, laboratory and presentation-platform for contemporary cultural diversity. In trying to represent temporary cultural diversity, the organisation uses new media, visual arts, film and photography. Especially with the youth projects ImagineIC tries to be experimental. The organisation aims to challenge youngsters to broaden their interest towards culture by means of, among other things, oral history projects and workshops in which the starting point is an equal exchange of information.

Evidently, ImagineIC works with diversity in a way that divers completely from its colleague heritage institutions. First of all, Imagine has a collection based on the target groups content, rather than an already established collection as medium. Secondly, the organisation is established in a culturally diverse area (the Bijlmer), which means they mingle with the community they try to target. Additionally, ImagineIC has employed staff from different cultural backgrounds and creates programmes which aim to constantly create a dialogue within the community itself, as well as between the community and other groups. With these approaches, ImagineIC is nearing the crucial point of an integrated view on participation and brings about almost literally what Simona Bodo, research specialist on intercultural dialogue in museums, in her paper for the ERICarts Institute describes:

“… intercultural heritage in museums means that they have devoted a specific attention to the development of policies, strategies and programs aimed at creating “third spaces”, where individuals are finally allowed to cross the boundaries of “belonging”, and are treated as «creators rather than consumers of identity».”

Although in the last years ImagineIC mainly focused its projects on Amsterdam Zuidoost (the Bijlmer area), its vision and aims are ambitious enough for a broader professional field. In the light of the European Year of Intercultural Dialogue in 2008, ImagineIC therefore submitted proposals for pilot projects for the project Museums as Places for Intercultural Dialogue 2007-2009, in short Map for ID. This project, supported by the Lifelong Learning Programme of the European Union, aims to develop the potential and practice for museums as places for intercultural dialogue and promote a more active engagement with the communities they serve. To achieve this goal, museums from different countries form research groups and start pilot projects of which the outcomes will be analysed and disseminated, after which they will be published in a Handbook on Museums and Intercultural Dialogue in the autumn of 2009.

In total 25 pilot projects are executed by institutions in Italy, Spain, Hungary and The Netherlands. They all have a different appearance, for example language courses in museums, development of intercultural skills and competences of the museum staff and storytelling by collecting life stories as intangible heritage. In connection with Map for ID, ImagineIC organised four projects. One of the projects was the youth workshop Personal Geographies (2008), as part of the exhibition New Geographies. With the help of artist Monica de Miranda the youngsters visualised their personal migration histories by means of photography, audio taping and performances, which resulted in an exhibition.

ImagineIC is clearly occupied with the participation of her target groups. Taking part in Map for ID produces an amount of extra internal knowledge, like information about how to transfer this knowledge on to the target groups and other heritage institutions. New insights mainly evolve by sharing ideas and methods with other European organisations. In spite of these successful projects, ImagineIC is relatively unknown to the wider public. The strengths of ImagineIC (the intensive contact with the intercultural communities, the working area and the project specifically developed to engage the target groups) are the organisations weaknesses at the same time. As an outsider, it is difficult to understand the key aim of the projects of ImagineIC and to see perceptible results. In museums this is relatively easier. The conception of a museum is way more significant to people. The word ‘museum’ by itself already evokes a wide range of interpretations. For example, many people assume museums always have a collection, others like to learn something in a museum and again others only think of museums as dusty and dull places. Nonetheless, the main difference between ImagineIC and these other institutions is that such an intensive bond like ImagineIC has with her community, is not feasible for many museums. Unfortunately, this is mainly caused by the policy and vision of the museums, as well as by the lack of time and money.

ImagineIC could be seen as a cultural centre, rather than as a museum. Yet, the term ‘cultural centre’ is not entirely suitable, because it is too comprehensive and therefore a little indistinct. Anyhow, heritage institutions could learn a lot from ImagineIC. The institution is, as it were, in between the intended target groups and the museums. Not as communication channel from the museum towards these groups or the other way round, but as a more accessible environment which does focus on culture and heritage, but is not as ‘white’ and elite as the museum. In trying to make target groups participate, exchange of information and cooperation between organisations is necessary. Map for ID is a great example and the Handbook on Museums and Intercultural Dialogue could be helpful in spreading the knowledge about multiculturalism and the development of a more professional attitude concerning cultural diversity within the heritage field.

Will there ever be a difference in the way of thinking in goals such as “the attaining of the immigrant target group” and “the participations of the new Dutch”? In my opinion the answer is “yes”, but it will not happen by itself. The entire heritage field should strive after the museum as a reflection of society where everyone is included and people think of the term ‘we’ in a whole different way. Groups will not be based on ethnic background or ‘majority’ and ‘minority’ cultures and a new term will be introduced: super-diversity. Only then target groups can be brought together and true participation and dialogue will follow. ImagineIC is at the right track, but what about the whole museum field? Let us start by integrating intercultural dialogue in the museum. After that, super-diversity will be the only logical next step.


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