The Role of Museums in an Evolving World

A Reflection on the ‘Museums, Citizenship and Belonging in a Changing Europe’ Conference

by Danielle Carter

29 November 2016

The ‘Museums, Citizenship and Belonging in a Changing Europe’ Conference took place at the Museum Volkenkunde in Leiden as part of a larger effort supported by Sharing a World of Inclusion, Creativity and Heritage (SWICH) and the Research Center for Material Culture (RCMC).

This is one of a string of conferences this year (see our recent posts on the Inclusive Museum Conference and the Reinwardt Academy Symposium) that has focused on the ethical responsibility of museums when faced with a world in which demographics are rapidly changing. In the words of Wayne Modest, the head of the RCMC, museums must seek to speak to the ‘differentiated citizens’ of contemporary Europe.

Over the past half-century, museums have steadily turned their focus more towards visitors. This becomes increasingly difficult, however, when the demographic of desired museum visitors is changing. How can museums differentiate their approaches for each individual museum visitor? And how can they do so in a way that is inclusive, significant, and meaningful?

The conference also featured a variety of speakers—reflecting the theme of the conference—, including professors and researchers in anthropology, museology, politics, and sociology; artists from Lebanon and the Sápmi tribe of northern Sweden; as well as museum professionals from Canada, the Netherlands, and beyond. This variety of perspectives moulded a nuanced voice on the history of ethnographic museums, the demographic of contemporary visitors, and the potential pathways for (ethnographic) museums into the future.

Although it is impossible to summarise the entire conference here, I found the words of Assistant Professor of Sociology, Dr. Rolando Vázquez, and the director of the National Museum of World Cultures, Stijn Schoonderwoend, particularly pertinent.

As a sociologist, Dr. Vázquez’s expertise lies within colonial thinking. Ethnographic museums have almost entirely sprung out of colonial collections; the Tropenmuseum in Amsterdam, for example, was established as the Colonial Museum in 1864 to display objects of cultures from Dutch exploration and conquests around the world. Dr. Vázquez, however, made a distinction between ‘colonisation’ and ‘coloniality’. Although colonisation has technically ended for much of the world, coloniality—including residual effects of colonisation such as racism, discrimination, and the dominance of the mono-cultural, Western perspective—still continues. As institutions embedded in this history—many ethnographic museums were established in order to commemorate world cultures that were soon to be erased and absorbed into or replaced with the colonising Western culture—, ethnographic museums must be especially aware of their role in educating about the history of colonisation, as well as helping to dismantle coloniality.

The director of the National Museum of World Cultures, Stijn Schoonderwoend, gave an overview of his vision for how ethnographic museums can move forward into the future, evolving from their colonial histories into a more diverse and progressive future. The ethnographic collections that he leads have formed a mission ‘to inspire world citizenship’. Rather than having a clear definition of what this is, however, he has an idea in mind of where he wants to go, a point on the horizon to which the ethnographic institutions aspire.

Significantly, Dr. Vázquez also pointed out the phenomenon of the ‘double erasure of coloniality’. This double erasure refers to the initial attempt to erase foreign cultures and replace them with the dominant colonizing culture as well as to the unwillingness to admit to the colonial past. Furthermore, he stated that there can be no justice without epistemic justice; thus museums as educational institutions have the power—and the responsibility?—to make a difference. As Schoonderwoend stated, ‘education is central in the concept of world citizenship’. In educating about colonisation as well as attempting to incorporate multiple voices into the museum and its collections, ethnographic museums can pave a brighter future for both their collections and their populations.

The SWICH project is supported by the European Union’s Creative Europe programme. It brings together ten partner museums over the course of four years (2014-2018) to discuss and develop ideas about how ethnographic museums can participate in the establishment of forward-looking practises confronting the increasingly diverse populations of Europe. You can find out more about SWICH project activities by visiting their website.

The RCMC is an institution embedded within the National Museum of World Cultures, which includes the Tropenmuseum located in Amsterdam, the Museum Volkenkunde in Leiden, and the Afrika Museum in Berg en Dal. The National Museum of World Cultures describes itself as a ‘museum over mensen’ (a museum about people), which was especially relevant for the focus of this conference. The RCMC stimulates interdisciplinary research about the ethnographic collections of the three institutions of the National Museum of World Cultures.