Participation and the Museum

Working Space

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The Ideal Museum
by Simon Schultz von Dratzig

After wandering around during the last days and learning about the amazing events at the venue of Världskulturmuseet, the beautiful treasures in the collection, the difficult history of the museum, the complicated organizational structure of the state authority, the diplomatic struggles and all those painful stories connected to the objects I finally feel depressed. Finding a solution or at least a decent way out of these conflicted and complex terrains seems to be out of reach. I am asking myself if there are any options, any reasonable opportunities that we can take in order to get out of the ethical misery of keeping something having a bloody history of suppression, exploitation, and colonization. But in spite of wallowing in self-pity, I'm convinced that there must be something left to do, something that we cannot see from our point of view, limited by self-set boundaries of bureaucracy and eurocentric continuity. Let's start freeing ourselves from these paternalistic boundaries and take a step over them. Though it might seem a bit crazy at first sight, it might be worth having it in mind as one extreme, one of the (more than just two) poles creating a range of possibilities. A proposition that is the first of its kind always has the aura of the most profound change. So let's be radical.

As a museum with ethnographic collection, we are in possession of objects that have been displaced from a specific place and use in a certain context. This happened mostly by violent and non-voluntary methods whereupon these objects were put them under the regulations of the museum which has the task to conserve and preserve them. By this their use and function was changed completely towards the sole representation. In the museum narrative they become a pars pro toto for the place and culture they come from.
The only possibility we have to recontextualize these objects in a manner they can show their complete capabilities and fulfill a function outside of Western concepts and concepts of Eurocentrism is to repatriate every single object that has not been produced as an object of representation of that culture in a museum context. Though there are certain cases with ambiguous data or conflicted political situations that don't allow a consequent and definite attribution of the object to the demandants. There might be difficulties answering the question of ownership. But these are political questions in particular cases that cannot be solved neither in a general discussion nor by describing an utopian cause. And they don't hinder us from repatriating the other objects.

The question on the future of a museum without objects may arise. But a museum repatriating its ethnographic collection doesn't necessarily result in an empty museum. Additionally to the artifacts with a legitimate provenance, those repatriated objects can be recreated.
By holding workshops on replicating the objects from the collection the shape and form of these objects can be preserved. Hereby these recreated objects can serve as inspiration to create new things or showcase history and culture. Additionally the memory that the original objects have been part of the museum, which is an important historic fact to mark and remember, cannot be overseen or forgotten.
Also replicating the objects creates knowledge about the creational process these objects have run through. Such knowledge is not a static but a living one. As they were the recreators, the visitors have a direct connection and vivid access to the knowledge. One can claim that the transfer and adaption of the knowledge of the object's production by the local people is appropriation. In my opinion it is rather an act of showing respect to the producers, as it is not the exotized beauty of the objects that we focus on but the process and the technical and social prerequisites of making the object.
We still don't change anything in the task of giving back the function to the original objects or at least reconstruct it in the museum space. But this issue raises other questions, e.g. if it is possible to reconstruct an original function that vanished hundreds of years ago, or how to bring the people involved into the museum, and if the answers change anything for any side (the people, the object, the museum etc.). So it would be worth considering another seminar.
The task is not to imitate the production or the life of people but to practically learn about the reasons why and the methods how people produced things (whereby I mean solved problems). And the results/problems they faced by doing so. This is a task the museum can fulfill without reproducing a eurocentric continuity. Following that task may resolve in the idea that people have the same thinking though they have different modes and methods and ways to express it. As a beautiful side effect, the museum turns from being a location of collected objects from the world that are taken out of their context to be the place of objects made by locals for that specific context.

What happens to the museum in a big shift that turns out to be a fundamental change? While the museum before was a place where fixed objects from fixed worlds and the visitor was fascinated by all these exotic things and may wonder about the strangeness of the cultures they had come from, it is something different now. A place where people can explore the connections of the place they live in to other places and spaces on a cultural, historic and geographic level. It will also be a place where they can - with participatory methods in our minds – contribute to the collection of their museum. These collections are now not only the physical objects in the displays or the storage, they are enhanced by stories, histories and ideas - and by the people.
The narratives run not only through the objects in the museum but also through their visitors, the museum staff, the producers of the old and the new originals. They interweave and connect these modes and make it possible for the knowledge to grow and spread rhizomatically in this network. As a person involved, you support the development of ideas inside the museum - for the museum may support you with these ideas.

From a visitor's point of view, the museum is not only a place you can visit, leave again and maybe return to someday. It becomes a place to tell your own (hi)story by telling the story of other people, a place to gain another point of view on your own community and by this on other communities. A place to challenge your ideas and ways of solving problems by experiencing the ones other persons developed, close or far. It becomes a place for you to face yourself by facing others.

Repatriation is a difficult, expensive and durational process that is certainly not the single solution, maybe not even the very best. But thinking about it as a consequently applied though utopian project at least shows us a way out of our paralyzing misery. To break it down into a single sentence thought: alternative ways of treating the object exist, in order to change the perception of a museum from the owner and conservator of the object to a guardian of the object and – even more important - of the knowledge it is connected to.
For our museums, the object itself is a big challenge but also a huge opportunity, especially for those having an ethnographic collection. It bears tremendous risks to allow oneself to think outside a traditional setting of displaying and explaining, but the possibility to approach the challenges from a different point of view is worth it.



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