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Community Museums Past & Present

Study 1 (post-doc): Communities and their Museums:
the Development of an Institution and its Discourses

The position which the phenomenon ‘museum’ has achieved in the 250 years of its existence is such that it would be difficult to imagine a world without museums. Including an object in a museum collection or presenting it in a temporary exhibition lends the object itself, its maker, or the society in which it originated a certain status. The museum also fulfils an important function through the recognition and appreciation of the cultural heritage of various groups within our society. Thanks to its public function – and funding – the museum can represent The Other, and bestow on groups the recognition of their own individuality.
Heritage is forever being redefined, together with the form in which it is preserved and presented. This research examines the various definitions which communities and their spokesmen employ in the selection of their own heritage. One of the questions centres on the background of the shifts which have taken place in recent decades, from tangible to intangible, from traditional, historical, and often costly heritage to contemporary cultural heritage from the world of leisure, the media and sport.
A recent consideration in the museum selection is the canon as an expression and an instrument of identity. In the past few years, there has been a noticeable increase in the designation of heritage, both tangible and intangible, as one of the canons of a shared culture. This is due largely to the expectation that, as in the teaching of history, the canons will promote the process of integration. The designation of the heritage of the communities, as advocated by the Council of Europe, will in time result in a common European identity, and is even seen as a pre-condition for achieving that unity (Bruneel 2006, see also Jacobs 2006). Canons have a way of releasing a chain reaction: from limited to all-encompassing, and the other way around, from national canons back to the provincial and local level. One of the issues to be addressed here is whether and, if so, how this thinking in terms of canons influences museum practice. The designation of heritage objects presupposes not only on a vision of the past, but also a vision of the future. Collection policy presupposes a vision of how groups will develop within a society, which forms of cultural expression we should be collecting and recording for later generations, where we should be looking, and who can give us the information we need.
The definition of cultural heritage and the problems surrounding collection and conservation is in the hands of trained professionals. This calls up another question: what is the role of these experts within the communities whose cultural heritage is presented within a museum context? The research of the post-doc examines the interaction between communities and experts, and the degree to which the participants borrow from each other’s agendas, so that the need is often formulated in terms of the prevailing heritage dialogue.
The discourse is determined not only by those who are the ‘owners’ of the heritage: the ‘heritage community’ can be interpreted much more broadly. It is not determined by rigid geographical or ethnic borders, but rather by those who want to conserve that heritage and pass it on to future generations within the framework of public action, as articulated in the Faro Convention of the Council of Europe in 2005. Thus Germany is a partner in efforts to preserve the heritage of the so-called Saxon villages in Romania, even though very few Germans live there (Bruneel 2006).
The discourse on the various levels carried on by the various participants in the heritage world is shaped by such recurring concepts as identity, community, durability, human rights, visibility, awareness, and dialogue. The core of this quality-based research is the development and coherence of this ever expanding heritage discourse. The study by Smith (2007) focuses on ‘authorised heritage discourse’, but – like Foucault – she approaches this discourse mainly in terms of power structures, rather than examining the positions of the various participants. (In her view, they are all ‘experts’.) Nor does she examine how the dynamics and development of this discourse are linked to the economic and social shifts within the field, in terms of Bourdieu’s field theory. In this respect, sociology (De Swaan 1988, Bevers 1993) and social geography (Van der Aa 2004) offer possibilities for further research into the relation between heritage discourse, agendas, professionalization, the growing influence of international and worldwide gremia, and the impact of all these factors on the functioning of museums in general, and community museums in particular.