Museum papers at the Re-theorising heritage conference in Gothenburg 5-8 June

Guestblogger: Christer Felix

The conference took place in Gothenburg June 5th to 8th and was the inauguration of the Association of Critical Heritage Studies. It was held over the theme “Re-theorizing heritage” and hosted more than 500 participants from all continents of the world. During four sunny and cool days the faculty of science at the University of Gothenburg arranged speeches and sessions, social coffee-breaks and lunches at Wallenberg Conference Center as well as receptions and dinners at the town.

The conference covered critical views on a wide range of subject, reaching from theoretical aspects on world heritage, intangible heritage, policy making and professional work via copyright and ownership, post-colonial aspects on uses and abuses of heritage, representation and gender studies to intermediating heritage, touristic and urban development, architecture and questions of preservation. More than 400 papers were presented in more than 50 sessions.

In the keynotes speeches, Laurajane Smith looked back on the development of heritage and asked the crucial questions “Why critical” and “What is heritage”, opposing Samuels idea of heritage as a cultural and social phenomenon to traditional . Mikela Lundahl asked how we deal with difference and stressed the importance of recognizing the winner’s history created by power and reflecting over the way we represent “others”.  Lundahl saw a double threat to critical research from economic and instrumentalist practices and spotted dilemmas in relation to political trends. Tom Selwyn described heritage as fragments from a common ground and presented places from “Contested Mediterranean Spaces” where time and space are limited or expanded. He stressed that acts of recognition is crucial. Sharon Macdonald talked over “the heritage boom” and asked the rhetorical question “Will it be over soon?” Macdonald presented omens and questioned whether the heritage boom is coming to an end and in which way.  However, Macdonald saw new cosmopolite waves, needs of de-construction and recent questions of property and ownership making it necessary to come to terms with the past, even though one might expect a rather bumpy road ahead. Valdimar Tryggvi Hafstein was the last in line, telling an unexpected story of intangible heritage deriving from a letter to the UN and demonstrated in an amazing way the importance of putting stories, history and heritage into context.

Here follows a brief review of the session I visited; of course this is just my views of a minor part of the conference.

In the session Critical Research and the Quest for Policy Relevance Eunamus coordinator Peter Aronsson noted that the demand on research to be useful is central for European funding.  Katty Hauptmann from the Swedish National Museums talked over the methods of the initiative JÄMUS having the aim of gender and lbtq equality in museums.  Jakob Ingermann Parby, Copenhagen City Museum, presented the ideas of the exhibition Becoming a Copenhager, using the city as a phenomenon to analyze migration, hence setting migration as the norm instead of the exception. Andrea Witcomb stressed the need for listening as an approach in making museums including social movements.

In the session Theorizing Gender in Heritage Studies, Malin Grundberg, National Historic Museum of Sweden, asked whether integrated gender exhibitions or exhibitions of women as a group is the best way forward, or if there is a need for both; in that way both male domination and power relations could be questioned. Several papers in the session noted the male predomination in history writing and interpretations of the cultural environment, especially concerning women as professionals.  Comparing two case studies, Bodil Axelsson stressed the uneven power geometry within performance of the past.

In the session Professional Processes in Cultural Heritage Work, Ellen Marie Sæthre-McGuirk from Nordland University in Norway recognizes a threefold shift for the museums: a professionalization of the museums, more communication with the public and increased stress on issues of identity. Visiting museums is expected to contain activity and the making of meaning. The post-modern museum is a body of memory, re-creating memory together with the visitor, who needs to be an engaged Other. The spectator is forced out of a passive role and placed in the center, being a co-creator of knowledge as a way of empowering the user.

Magdalena Hillström talked about conflicts over the identities of the post-modern museums in the light of the professionalization of museum professions in Sweden and in the aftermath of the founder of the museum of cultural history Nordiska museet and the open air museum Skansen, Artur Hazelius. Hillström related the identity of the post-modern museums to four ideal types of museums: the museum as the treasure chamber, as the archive, as the school and as the theatre. The different types exist in combinations, side by side and overlap; hence they do not form a distinct chronology.

Eva Marie Rigné stressed the need for normative analysis of museology in order to create a new field of practice, making agreements with and settle boundaries to rival disciplines. Rigné argued this “boundary work” regarding fields, knowledge and methods is necessary in (re)professionalization of museology.

The Producing Heritage and Identities in Museums session discussed in which ways identities are created and represented in museums.  In the light of post-nationalism, Rhiannon Mason asked how museums deal with material culture, which settled earlier views of nations and colonialism. Mason argued that the issues of post-nationalism are related to the origins of European museums, as a way of managing cultural diversity, difference and exchange. A central issue was that representations of the Self and the Other remain in presentations of colonial artifacts, as was showed in Staffan Lundéns paper “Representing loot. The making of the Benin bronzes at the British Museum”. The museum has denied demands for return, arguing itself to be universal and objective, but in practice the museum presents the Benin artifacts in a prejudice way.

Finally, the session Post-Colonial Heritage brought up a transnational perspective on cultural heritage and discussed how indigenous cultural heritage could be represented and revitalized, both ethically and in practice. Setting a post-colonial perspective is becoming a dominant discourse within cultural heritage of which museums are an important part.

As a whole, the Conference was a very inspiring event and starting point of the international network.

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