24 April 2014

MEG Conference Review

MEG Conference – University of Aberdeen, 7/8 April 2014 Collections, Collaboration and Communities

Delegates arrive for conference registration
The 2014 Museum Ethnographers Group conference at the University of Aberdeen attracted a wide range of participants including curators, researchers, artists and educators from across the UK, Europe, Canada and the US. The theme – Collections, Collaboration and Communities – seemed especially pertinent to our times and generated thought-provoking presentations and stimulating discussions.

Astrid Knight presents the first paper of the conference 'Miniatures, Ambiguity and Distortion in Nunavut: The delicate art of sharing values and knowledge in collections-based research on historic Inuit material culture'
First speaker Astrid Knight set the tone for the two days with her paper ‘Miniatures, Ambiguity and Distortion in Nunavut: The delicate art of sharing values and knowledge in collections-based research on historic Inuit material culture’. Her efforts to elicit collections knowledge through collaborative work with members of a Nunavut Arctic community revealed a fundamental disjuncture between museum and indigenous understandings of what ‘knowledge’ is, who has the authority to ‘give’ it and with whom it can and should be shared. Knight’s useful reminder that ‘collaborative projects do not inevitably bring benefits to the community’ was revisited several times over the course of the conference.

Tobias Sperlich and Lace Marie Brogden, in recounting their research into the history and interpretation of First Nations material culture in small museums in Saskatchewan, Canada, talked about the agency of objects to evoke historic relationships formed under colonialism as well as their potential to promote intercultural understanding in a political landscape ‘not yet post-colonial’. Magdalena Buchczyk also addressed the impact of governmental policy in the forming of communities (here the craft communities of Romania) and collections in her discussion of a ceramic collection given by the Romanian government to the Horniman Museum in the 1950s as part of a programme of Cold War reciprocity and cultural relations.

Phillip Schorch presents his paper 'Assembling communities: Curatorial practices, material culture and meanings'
Phillip Schorch, in ‘Assembling communities: Curatorial practices, material culture, and meanings’, explored how the application of theory, particularly assemblage theory and hermeneutics, can offer a more nuanced perspective on museums’ work with communities. Communities which, as Eve Haddow showed in her discussion of a project to review Pacific material in Scottish museums, can exist between museums as well as within them, as Sarah Brown and Keiko Higashi from the Powell-Cotton Museum, Kent, were to demonstrate later. June Jones, in her reflections on the repatriation of Maori human remains from a medical collection, and Pauline van der Zee, in addressing the ‘taboo’ of colonialism within Belgian museums, emphasised the emotive aspects of museum work with communities, whether through the process of healing described by Jones or the revulsion felt by van der Zee in encountering the crude manifestations of colonial ideology at the Royal Museum for Central Africa, Tervuren, Belgium.

Pauline Van der Zee presents her paper 'Il faut prendre patience Ethnographic collections and the taboo of colonialism in Belgium' The slide shows the Museum of Central Africa, Tervuren. The Museum is currently undergoing a major renovation. 
A series of presentations by artists working with museums (literally and conceptually) – Katie Smith, Christopher McHugh and Alana Jelinek – revealed some of the tensions inherent in arts practice which attempts to span collections, collaboration and communities. They expressed a concern about the instrumentalism of arts practice and a reluctance to submit themselves and project participants to the agendas of others, including museums or art funders. ‘In general, it does not create good art’ Jelinek noted while Smith reflected positively on a self-initiated museum project, ‘The Moveable Museum of Found Objects’, the result of ‘just sending an idea out’.

Socially engaged artist Katie Smith presents her paper 'The movable museum of found objects' The slide shows some of the found objects which were donated by members of the public
In her recounting of the British Museum’s experience of running its youth engagement initiative, Talking Objects (TO), Lorna Cruikshanks raised the issue of legacy for museums’ collaborative work with communities. The British Museum had struggled to maintain interest from project participants and for some their Talking Objects experience remained an isolated one. Cruikshanks also hinted at the tension between museum agendas and community ones: most of the TO outcomes remain online rather than in-gallery.

Ross Irving presents his short report 'Just a couple of pots: a collection from Papua New Guinea now in National Museums Scotland'
While not directly addressed to the conference theme, many of the ‘work in progress’ / ‘short report’ presentations also highlighted the rich seam of activity being conducted by museums in terms of collaborative collections-based work, whether through exploring the ‘relevance to contemporary audiences’ of historic material from the Pacific (Alison Clark), the social worlds that produced a collection of Papuan pots recently acquired by National Museums Scotland (Ross Irving), re-imaginings of the past informed by contemporary realities at the Folklife and Ethnological Museum, Macedonia & Thrace (northern Greece) (Eleni Bintsi), and the creation of new digital heritage resources for Yupik consumption (Jacquelyn Graham).

A selection of papers from the conference will be available in the next issue of the Journal of Museum Ethnography (JME) (available to MEG members from April 2015) ensuring the conference findings and discussions contribute to this topical, provocative and productive area of museum discourse.

Helen Mears, Keeper of World Art
Royal Pavilion & Museums, Brighton & Hove

Read a review by conference delegate and speaker Lorna Cruikshanks on her blog Sensible Culture Follow Lorna and the blogging team on twitter @SensibleCultr

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