Museologists, Communities, Crises and Commerce

This year I had the pleasure of co-organising two events around the 40 Year Anniversary celebrations at the Reinwardt Academy. On 11 November I was one of the Co-Curators/-Creators for the RTWA40 Years Festival and led a marathon session on building an exhibition in 11 hours. On 10 November I organised, in conjunction with two fellow Alumni Mark O’Neill and Erin Caswell, the Master of Museology Alumni Symposium on ‘Communities, Crisis, Commerce: When can Museologists Make a Difference in the World?’

Thinking Museum guide Danielle Carter attended the symposium on 10 November and reflects on the morning session here:

Museologists, Communities, Crises and Commerce: The 2016 Master of Museology Symposium

By Danielle Carter

Museums and museologists are often concerned with how museums can maintain their relevance in a rapidly changing world. The Reinwardt Academy hosted this symposium just a couple of days after the shocking and controversial United States presidential election, which made the theme of the conference—Communities, Crisis, Commerce: When can Museologists Make a Difference in the World?—especially pertinent.

The three keynote speakers each addressed one of the three sub-themes of the symposium: Marlous Willemsen from Imagine IC spoke about communities, Deborah Stolk from the Prince Claus Fund discussed crisis, and Taco Dibbits from the Rijksmuseum answered questions about commerce.

Sharon MacDonald, whose name you have likely seen as the author or editor of a fundamental museology article or book, opened the conversation with a presentation on co-criticality and creative engagement, new concepts that she is currently developing. MacDonald remained optimistic about the role of museums in the tumultuous landscape of contemporary society. Contrary to the sweeping trend of co-construction and visitors’ ability to contribute their knowledge, skills, and interpretations in the museum, MacDonald reminded us that museums should embrace expertise; not only the expertise of the museologist or the museum as a whole, however, but also the social and cultural expertise that visitors might hold as well, necessitating creative engagement with communities.

Courtesy of Anneke Groen

The Imagine IC organisation, as Marlous Willemsen elaborated, focuses on ‘heritage-making in super diverse contexts’ as well as ‘emotion networking’. Heritage can be a sticky subject in multicultural societies, but Willemsen pointed out that heritage is what we decide, it is simply what or how we give meaning to the term in reference to the past and with a conception of the future. Willemsen argued that emotion is the ‘social aspect of feeling’, meaning that heritage foundations that can instigate emotional shifts in its visitors or participants are likely encouraging these people to experience the everyday of someone else, developing empathy for different cultures.

During the question and answer panel following the speakers’ short keynote speeches, the speakers agreed that museums and cultural institutions should not try to impose a narrative, as Taco Dibbits, said ‘it doesn’t work’. Instead, these cultural and heritage institutions should encourage thought among visitors, which seems especially relevant in our increasingly polarised, ‘post-fact’ world.

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