Ποιειν Και Πραττειν - create and do

The role of museums and children - what narrative?

Article 12 of the Convention of the Rights of the Child states that "in all matters affecting the child, the views of the child…[should be] given due weight in accordance with the age and maturity of the child.“

The message of the Global Movement for Children: 'Say Yes for Children' is made clear in its 10-point pledge: Leave no child out. Put children first. Care for every child. Fight HIV/AIDS. Stop harming and exploiting children. Listen to children. Educate every child. Protect children from war. Protect the earth for children. Fight poverty: Invest in children.

Children can adopt a monument (including old houses, a church, an ancient bridge ewtc.) and write as they have done so in Palermo different texts (an architectural, a historical, a literary, etc.). By doing so they can learn to value the past and how to face ‘now as then’ future tasks e.g. how to restore the house and what would be a good use of the house.

Cultural heritage gives orientation when considered as containing ‘memories of the future’ with children the imaginary witnesses of the ongoing present.

In all of this museums can play a role by encouraging such exploration and valorization of cultural heritage by letting the narrative unfold and this with concrete examples e.g. children attempting to rebuild the house used by indigenous people for meeting.

Tangible and intangible cultural heritage: the narrative of life

The true cultural heritage of humanity, namely a love and compassion for people, has become a rare commodity or rather resource. Few convincing stories are told about other people.

The loss of the narrative due to cultural hegemony – skewed values of unchallenged interpretations - is much more than a mere loss of communication and dialogues between generations. If there is no one to pick up the story where the others left it, then there is no continuation.

How stories are told? The Fritzcarraldo Institute organized Feb. 2005 a conference about “story telling in museum context”. The aim was to expound upon the narrative as not merely protecting cultural heritage, but as a way to tell and explain the meaning of the works left behind as they are a testimony to human activity.

The reason for focusing on the need to preserve heritage through story telling and therefore keep the freedom of interpretation has to do with control over cultural heritage being exerted by experts, including academics. Hence another practice is needed which enables people and in particular children to ask further going questions about the objects collected and presented in not only a certain way but in such sequence as to establish a narrative line.

“Heritage is bought by the rich – though sometimes the rich might be the government. This process in the built heritage sector is known as gentrification, but is well known in all sectors. But there is a similar process by which those with cultural capital (academics, curators etc.) succeed in establishing intellectual hegemony over whole areas of heritage. In other words, academics have a clear agenda in their use of the heritage that is not that of other groups. Interpretation can be viewed as the experts’ attempt to establish this intellectual control.” [1]

Dialogue with the past

When creating stories as reflections of the past and more so as part of the ongoing dialogue with the past, then the art of communication outside schools can be tested inside museums or for that matter any other informal learning situation. However, it should be kept in mind what the philosopher Juergen Habermas articulated as thesis, namely that the reconstruction of the past is impossible. He may have said incomplete but we can still try with the help of our imagination and here certainly children do not have a lack thereof. Still, we succumb to negative cliches about the past once there is lacking something. This is especially the case if items found from the past do not stir enough our imagination. A solution could be to formulate a learning hypothesis so as to guide us when probing further and gathering, even collecting new evidences and items, in as much experiences with a certain story e.g. the Argonauts even though it lacks tangible evidence. Our abilities to tell a story is then tested as it cannot be connected with any object or if any at all then with the 'Argo' boat having been reconstructed in Volos 2006.

Interestingly enough Thomas Cahill in wishing to answer the question ‘Why the Greeks Matter’ believes that: “History must be learned in pieces. This is partly because we have only pieces of the past which give us glimpses of what has been but never the whole reality.”

Consequently he follows the methodology of imagining the real by intuitive guesses so that he can begin to tell the story:

“I assemble what pieces there are, contrast and compare, and try to remain in their presence till I can begin to see and hear and love what living men and women once saw and heard and loved, till from these scraps and fragments living men and women begin to emerge and move and live again – and then I try to communicate these sensations to my reader.” [2]

While children are like fish who do not know they swim in water while we adults “are seldom aware of the atmosphere of the times through which we move, how strange and singular they are.” This means a need to overcome being oblivious to things although they form the context of understanding. Here the lessons of categories combine to how we learn not only to put things in already given drawers but to let things come towards us. It means basing story telling on such methods as historical archaeology and realizing that “when we approach another age, its alienness stands out for us, almost as if that were its most obvious quality, and the sense of being on alien ground grows with the antiquity of age we are considering.”

It is ‘oral tradition’ by which a first contact is made with these other worlds e.g. a mother passing on to a child sayings she has heard her grandmother saying: “You never know who’ll take the coal off your foot, when it’s burning you” (an Irish saying about courtship)

Nowadays museums find themselves at yet another cross road of civilizations insofar as the extent to which use can be made of multi media to tell a story has some significant impact.

Still children learn through their senses. They want to see – to smell – to touch – to listen - to taste – in order to understand the lessons of the past and what mattered most to such a past as perceived out of the present perspective. Such imagined linkages of how people must have lived back then lead on to other and new questions about life on earth.

There are two important tasks when wishing children to enter these stories through the dialogue of their imagination with the objects:

- there is a need to undo the horrible images children have to cope with daily
- the creation of a linkage of childhood memories to ‘collective memories’ is like steeping into the stream of humanity so as to touch upon an universal understanding of mankind

Cultural heritage and its messages requires a redefinition of literacy to include not only skills taught but to be able to read signs of both the cultural and physical world while using literature, the reading of texts, to develop out of interpretations further and deeper understanding of the world we are living in.

Philosophy must heed sense perception as source of truth and recognize what Thomas Kuhn said about technical innovation being no longer the steam engine, but a spark of electricity making transformation of energy hardly visible.

Today the world is seen through the microscope but also by digital means in the Planetarium another way to conceive and to travel through the universe is using new communication means e.g. how real is reality in virtual reality?

For instance, Maria Roussou is now developing for her Ph.D.Thesis a programme concerning “childrens’ better understanding notions etc." See on: http://www.makebelieve.gr/mr/www/mr_research.html

Real objects as limit to what technical assistance can do to convey stories is important when conveying messages from the past. There is talk about cave experiences and immersion techniques in a total virtual world, yet if it would leave out the dialog between real sense experiences and the imagined, then concepts and stories told would not mean anything in real life experiences.

The special something must be related to place, time, space before the story itself can unfold about cultural heritage.

It is critical that children can learn to imagine to enter the larger stream of humanity and know how to decide in which direction to go at the cross road of different civilizations. Such a place has not to be the British Museum. Everyone has his or her ‘imaginary museum’ (Andre Malraux).

Three steps are necessary according to Peter Higgins from landdesignstudio in the UK: unpacking the archive – unfolding of a story – web based extensions of experiences made while in the museum.

Any museum is an intellectual challenge on how to organize the collections and to communicate its internal culture to any visitor. (Giovanni Pinna)

What leaves an impression on a child: the story of what objects? The museum as memory institution – not meant to be exhaustive but a stimulation to go on and to explore e.g. Carol Becker’s experiences as a child when at the museum she was free to roam in different worlds to be visited in future (imagined – real time: the realization of a dream)

The example of children drawings at the Imperial War Museum – guns and only guns: the surroundings impress so much that the imagination does not seem to be strong enough to go beyond or even to protest against this curtailment of the imagination

Informal learning situations depend on taking interpretations further by showing how different texts are created. Listening to questions and hearing answers is a part of creating a knowledge base (Foucault’s ‘archaeology of knowledge’) but also a need of museums to address ‘subversively’ the imagination’ if ‘going beyond the spectacle’ (Carol Becker) is to be more than a sense impression.

Guidelines when telling stories:

i) know that not everything is always accessible e.g. bird sanctuary, protection of artifact from too many visitors;

ii) not a single story should be told but several from different disciplines while visitors’ experiences should not be impoverished;

and iii) “some forms of interpretation, especially live interpretation, can easily mislead the public into a false understanding of history – though it can also enliven and inspire”.

According to Peter J. Howard it would mean ‘minimal interpretation’ requires a new technique not blinding people with jargons. A story must be authentic, attentive to giving access to heritage under conscious constraints e.g. telling the story about a church from an architectural viewpoint and not from a religious or social historical angle.
Communication means not to add to the object which exists already but to bring out the inherent value of the objects. They are to be taken as significant signs in the communication process.

Unfortunately Francesso Antinucci thinks: “nowadays we do not communicate, we invent and come out of the silence only to fall into the free association of ‘emotional’ ideas, rendering the works (or cultural items) a worst service.” (In: 'How to tell stories')

[1] Peter J. Howard, Turin, 4 – 5.2.05

[2] Thomas Cahill, Sailing the Wine Dark Sea – Why the Greeks matter, (2003), London: Random House, p. 7 - 8

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