Ποιειν Και Πραττειν - create and do

A New Role for Museums

From catalyst for territorial development to a new role in the suburbs

Museum of Civilization, Paris

The new role can be conceived to become a mediator between different forms of communities in the making, in particular in response to the need to integrate migrant communities. This should be done as part of a cultural adaptation process to a common society capable of sharing resources. It can also be understood as making a modest, but important contribution to a different understanding of integration. Culture has always to do with understanding the other by comprehending the nuances of differences without becoming afraid of that difference.

H-Museum made following announcement for a conference with following title:

“Cultural facilities. Catalysts for territorial development”

Vitry-sur-Seine, Musée d'Art Contemporain

16-17 November 2005

It was explained that the conference will focus on four main themes:


It carried two possible questions or statements as undertitle:

  1. Can a museum be an instrument to the service of urban and regional promotion?
  2. Regional cultural projects for a poly-centric territory

H-Net Network for Museums and Museum Studie (http://www.h-museum.net), provides always interesting information about ongoing events, workshops, conferences, research projects, job announcements etc.. All the information pertains to the museum sector and, therefore, of interest to people who work in this sector, but not only. For everyone is advised to be informed what is happening in museums and thereby link up to the discourse practised on this list. It can convey what are internationally trends and possible future prospects for ongoing and new work done best by museums as they seek to find their new roles in a changing envrionment.

To give but one example, there was announced a new approach to museums via the H-Museum network by the INTA International Secretariat (Address: Toussaintkade 71, NL-2513 CL, The Hague, The Netherlands Tel. int. + 31-70-324 45 26 Fax: int. + 31-70-328 07 27, E-mail: intainfo@inta-net.org ). They announced that it will hold a 3 day international conference with a program which shall cover following sub-topics:

  1. "Cultural facilities for territorial development" - Growth, quality of life and sustainable development are core elements of urban development strategies; they support the vision of territorial excellence. These visions express strong collective identities that translate themselves into major urban projects in the cultural sphere.

  2. "Cultural equipment in territorial dynamics" - How to make major public cultural equipment, being a key urban component, an instrument for development that is a leverage for both social coherence and economic promotion?

  3. "Culture as an engine for territorial cohesion" - A major cultural facility serving a population of various identities is perceived from many standpoints and could become a factor of social cohesion. The facility creates by itself an economic momentum giving rise to a process of economic regeneration based on the reactivation of retail and commerce and the opening of new urban tourism opportunities.

  4. "Cultural facilities and new centrality" - How could the cultural facilities help in creating new centrality in the context of metropolisation and competition between territories?

As for the ambitious overall title, namely "Economic promotion through culture" – and this within the context of a contemporary urban economy – the conference departs from the fact that nowadays the creation of wealth leans more and more on knowledge, know-how, education and information . If that is the case, then how could cultural initiatives contribute to the shaping of an environment supportive of innovation and development?

Note: Registration Form: http://www.inta-aivn.org/CityCulture2005/RegformE.pdf

Linked to this 3-day conference, a special occasion is planned as explained by the organisers:

“The County council of Val-de-Marne (Conseil general du Departement) will open its new museum of Modern Art on the 15th of Novmber 2005. The existing collection of the museum covers contemporary art in France, from the 50's to present; and contains over 1,000 pieces (Soto, Monory, Messager, Arman, Jouve). It's the fruit of a public acquisition from the department and it's quality brought it the label 'Musée deFrance'. The museum has a built surface of 13.000 m²; with over 1350 m² for temporary exhibitions and 2600 m² for the display of its permanent collection. These exhibition rooms allow for exchanges of collections and will foster partnership projects among different cultural institutions. This will be the first museum of its kind to open in the suburbs of Paris in dozens of years. On this occasion, the council has engaged a reflection on how a museum can be more than a public institution in the service of society, how such a major public cultural facility can contribute to local and regional development?”

Alone this intention gives already an inkling of what new roles museums might prepare for, or what challenges lie ahead even if they are not really as of yet prepared to assume such a role. Definitely it reflects a new trend which shall alter the museum landscape with greater emphasis being placed on direct interaction with the community in which they are located.

As for France, and especially in light of those events which took place in the suburbs of Paris, the role of museums changes once located in such areas. For they are marked by violent conflicts which can flare up at any moment due to cultural minorities making up the fringe population living there. These minorities are not only at the fringe, but outside the rest of society. They live at or even well below poverty level. While not yet an integrated community, they are beset by a confusion between the 'official' culture and their own background. That social, cultural and economic problem of unrest needs to be addressed. Can museums do that?

For instance, the problem of 'cultural adaptation' arises already out of the simple fact that they are many immigrants without any legal status. Hence many of them are not secure enough to take up the long process of integration, never mind finding a legal, never mind meaningful job. Anyone without a proper legal status, and therefore him- or herself unsure as to what Rights one has, is immediately subject to potential abuse and exploitation. It can go as far as women caught up in trafficking rackets or drug addicts. Also in such a situation other rules exist, rules set by the strongest one or group but with the tendency to be even more repressive than the official society. By making sure that stays enemy number one, it serves the purpose of distracting from own repressive and discriminatory practices. Any individual can end up quickly between two fronts. Tremendous efforts must be undertaken not only to retain one's identity, but also to know how to act sensible without being subjected to ridicule by the others for merely fulfilling 'social norms', and therefore do what the oppressors want. Often in absence of real experiences and true narratives, overt models of colony like status are reproduced and thereby things driven readily to the extreme in both language and reaction.

Consequently there exists the question, but how will a museum located in the suburbs communicate with these people who feel themselves being excluded from their own and the French society? That question is even more pertinent when the museum's collection has nothing to do with that situation the people of the suburbs live daily, and which has almost no relation to what contemporary artists of France express. As is more often the case, many contemporary artistic expressions are themselves overtly expressions of a search for quick solutions as they reveal a kind of laziness when it comes to bringing about a substantial work of art. Something more like a piece to entertain can amuse perhaps for five minutes, and then is quickly forgotten as this is the fate in a fast consuming society which never has time to really look at life and nature.

As one resident of those suburb district put it plainly, no one talks to the people. Equally he feels that it is not good, if only then attention is given to these suburbs when problems like riots erupt. For sure, there is all kinds of vandalism happening every day.

Of course, the recent death of two boys who felt pursued by the police and, therefore, jumped out of despair and wish to escape upon tracks only to be electrocuted, that did bring about media attention. Yet does it have to be always the same, namely for society to respond only when it is too late, the lives of those two boys never really safeguarded but rather at risk to be driven into death not only by the police but by their own fear to surrender to the other side?

Something has to be said about the lack of cultural possibilities to integrate into society, if everything is reduced to an either/or. A young man coming from Algiers to France cannot decide to be one or the other, while both together are also not easy. Here a third dimension is needed for integration to work, or rather a mediation between the Algerian and French culture. Europe can offer this. Yet in the aftermath of France’s rejection of the European Constitutional Treaty by refusing to ratify it in 2005, that third European dimension was rejected as well. Proponents of wishing to keep only the French culture had won the day. Interestingly enough it was a coalition of radical Left and extreme Right political orientations which made up that unexpected majority, and which meant the defeat of the EU Constitutional Treaty. After that, the options for any immigrant were reduced to staying completely Algerian by never integrating, if not returning back to Algiers or else to assimilate completely into the French society and thereby deny the own cultural background. Such an either/or never works. Since that ratification was turned down, it has become ever more problematic for socially disenfranchised people to feel they have a chance to be integrate themselves but without abandoning completely their own culture. That can also explain the upsurge of violence in the suburbs.

One reason for this may be that the either/or situation empowers them to ever more protest. This is especially the case if the response by the authorities gets harder, as promised by the current minister of the Interior. If the French society presents itself only in the form of more police patrols, then peaceful ways to resolve conflicts are blocked. At the same time, if pressing issues will remain unresolved, and at personal level many more delays are experienced when it comes to obtain all the 'legal papers', and this mainly due to a slow working bureaucracy (some would say, that is deliberate to make the lives of the immigrants as difficult as possible), then it is only too natural for frustration easily becoming 'rage'. This is the case when having to wait not for two months, in order to get the security papers any immigrant needs, but four or more months just because someone in the administration discovered at the end of the two months some paper is still missing, and therefore the process of waiting starts all over again. As the missing papers block in turn the chances for that immigrant to take up a legal job, how to survive in the meantime? Most of the time the answers are only found in the street, even though there are not reliable ones and can end up being caught in a net of still further contrived forms of existence. The various forms of organization and counter organizations are mostly 'invisible', but just as effective in their coercive power, if not more than that of the police. What is missing moreover are social and informal control mechanisms to ensure the safety and integrity of the person is safeguarded.

To the French society this other world is hardly accessible and, therefore, not at all understandable. But a wrong treatment thereof, or a constant neglect, will not resolve the situation. It might be a beginning if the museum would pick up the theme of the myth of the street, in order to begin questioning in a constructive way what alternative experiences can be created to offer another 'memory lane' rather than meaning merely the down trodden path for the one who has nothing to look at but a dirty pavement. Naturally the exhibit must be careful what materials and therefore language it chooses, in order to communicate. Also a naïve presentation would become immediately questionable in face of the harder questions, such as but where to sleep, to wash and to obtain some food, never mind time for making thoughts about the future and what tasks lie ahead?

The problem exists not only in France, but prevails everywhere. Already in the aftermath to the London bombing on July 7th, it was said that museums must use the ‘soft power’ of culture to give more recognition to those forces which contribute to a community building process inside of these cultural ghettos. That would mean altering not only the collections so that they contain signs of creativity within those communities, but also having on the staff experts who can decode and convey the meaning of these other artefacts to a wider audience. Of interest would be to depict alone borders of the ghettos which are not only marked by outside forces, but reflect also the inner ones meant to uphold a cohesion of the group. Group norms inside these communities have a way to suppress the individual even more so. There is always the excuse that because the enemy is so strong, we have to stick together. Any deviation from that is immediately labelled as an act of betrayal and can be punished most severely with just being beaten up a mild form thereof. A museum would have to work with ethnologies and anthropologists, but also social workers if the exhibition is to show the self imposed cultural values and norms e.g. dress code, of such a community. As form of reflection it must also find a way to come to terms with the religious fervour many of these communities tend to adopt e.g Islamic culture. Since a mixture of religious and social organisational norms means the cultivation of a collective attitude towards the rest of the world i.e., the delineation process from what exists outside the ghetto can be shown and made accessible to both those living inside that culture and those outside. That would be an act of cultural mediation which a museum can undertake.

If the task of mediation is not undertaken by a museum, society will be driven by hard attitudes of the either/or kind. The impression would prevail nothing can be done to alleviate the situation. Also general or even caricature like images will prevail as if everyone is being victimized by the indifference and onslaught of a society driven towards consumption, PR exercises and other trivial ways to distract people. It is cheap entertainment which does not give these people the cultural tools to come to terms with a complex situation. Of interest is that not only those who are being discriminated against will adopt these attitudes, but also those who grow up privileged within society but decide to drop out due to boredom and using the role of being a victim as a mask to excuse and to hide own failings with regards to integration. And since 'integration' is often misunderstood, there needs to be added the thought that it has a lot to do with staying 'human', rather than succumbing to the many false alternatives. But since there are not strong enough narratives to guide the children and youth past these dangers, many fall into the trap and are 'lost'.

Extremism is fed by a radical feeling of being lost, and since it means literally being pushed against the wall, the only alternative seems to be to fight back with all the might one has. Fear gives this strength but to this is added a conviction only certain things count in society, and therefore own rules are set. For this reason groups tend towards a rigorous imposition of moral standards thought to be progressive when in fact the very implementation thereof makes it into a highly contentious and reactionary force. A closer observation can quickly tell if there is at all still any sense of justice as this would mean a sense of proportions and fairness prevails, while practical wisdom is not silenced when various issues and possible responses are discussed. Over time, there will be followed a certain pattern as this indicates things are done more out of not knowing what to do next, and therefore they fall back to what they know already is possible to be done.

Once key needs are no longer satisfied, movements and forces combine in an attempt to break into the present. This is when the immediate seems to count above anything else, but since not accessible it is like feeling to be without any air. Like any drowning person, that can produce an enormous strength out of sheer fear. It translates easily into demonstrations which turn violent and which leave in their path many broken glasses, burned out cars and especially demolished public utilities e.g. metro stations. Since anger and fear have become 'rage', the mental disposition is only overtly directed against society’s greater indifference; rather it is much more anger at the own helplessness made evident by not being apparently able to resolve the problem of existence in society. It amounts to be something like a desperate effort to break out of being mere passive victims in a development process shaped by other forces. Since these forces are mainly invisible and expressed especially through having or not having money, everything linked with that is simultaneously rejected as much as desired. What suffers in such a perception is a positive relationship to work. It excludes the work on oneself in order to mature as a human being. Instead work is only equated with having to earn money but under completely unacceptable i.e. self humiliating conditions. Added to that is the general sense the whole society and system is corrupt and exists only to exploit the individual and the poor classes.

It can be foreseen how the existence of such a deficit in life can be gain for those who believe the only answer is radical, direct and even violent actions. By tending towards an extreme articulation of positions, they will be a mere copy of the worst form of politics possible. Like the US government building its coalition around this dictum ‘who is not for us is against us’, forces wishing to fight the system will not wish to uphold any deliberation or mediation process. Even though they will claim at times that they wish to develop and retain their own vision of an alternative society, they will not take the very cultural differences out of which developed this potential of conflict into consideration. Rather they need an oversimplified situation, in order to hide all other failures. It is here that a museum can play a role, namely in the humanization of failures as expression of culture seeking to open up new spaces to ensure an ongoing learning process and thereby a way to improve cultural adaptation to new circumstances.

Hatto Fischer

Originally written for heritageradio (3.11.2005) - revised 19.2.2013


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