Monday, 16 April 2012

The stories we tell ourselves

Afyonkarahisar, Turkey

When I was 11 years old and our car broke down during a visit to Constantinople, I was very surprised that a number of people came to assist us and they neither gave up nor did they attack us when they found out we were Greeks (we were supposed to be hating each other). At the age of 12, I was shocked to hear in a foreign documentary that Alexander the Great was an imperialist and a people´s murderer (everybody was supposed to admire and acknowledge his greatness). At 19, again in Turkey, in Smyrna, I felt puzzled when an old fisherman started crying when he found out we were Greeks and said he was from Crete (wasn´t he supposed to speak greek then?). During that same trip, arriving at Afyonkarahisar, I felt disturbed when I saw in the central square a statue representing a battle between a Turk and a Greek, the latter being on the ground (the Greeks were supposed to be always on their feet). At 23, while visiting a history museum in the town of Halifax (UK), I felt outraged when I saw photos of fighters of the Cypriot resistance against British rule where they were being identified as “terrorists” (they were supposed to be honoured by everyone as heroes).

These are some of the moments when ‘my story’ was challenged. The clash was considerable at all of them. Useful, as well. Because, as the surprise, the shock, the puzzlement or the outrage subsided – but, also, the more I traveled, the more people I got to know – I was becoming more and more conscious of the existance of more stories, apart from mine, but which related to me too, they came to complement my own, at times contradicting it. There have been more moments like these, but now they are somehow ‘expected’, they are welcome, they bring the pleasure of discovery and knowledge, they provide an approach, a different understanding, without necessarily resulting into an agreement.

In one way or the other, museums of all kinds tell stories, make interpretations. Almost 20 years ago, I was starting my studies in museology. In my first readings, preparing my first courseworks, I often came across references regarding the fact that people acknowledged the ‘authority’ of museums, were looking for the ‘truth’ in them, trusted them and recognized their importance, even those who didn´t visit. At that time, it seemed to me that that's how it should be and I recognised the enormous responsibility this trust brought upon museum professionals when interpreting collections, an interpretation that should be ‘objective’. Almost 20 years later, the museums I like the best are those which don't consider themselves to be an ‘authority’, don't aim to be ‘objective’, accept the plurality of narratives (coming also from non-specialists) and are not afraid to provide space for them to be expressed and shared. The museums I like the most are those which question themselves and question me, question ‘my story’.

A recent visit to the Musée do Quai Branly, my first, made me think again about these issues. I remembered all the controversy that surrounded the creation of this museum, that brought together the collections of the ethnology laboratory of the Musée de l´Homme and of the Musée des Arts de l´Afrique et de l´Océanie. In the words of President Jacques Chirac at the inauguration, this museum represents the rejection of ethnocentrism, of this unreasonable and unacceptable pretension of the West to hold within itself the destiny of humanity. It represents the rejection of the false evolutionism that claims that some peoples remain in a previous stage of human evolution and that their so-called “primitive” cultures are merely worth serving as objects of study for the anthropologist or, at best, as an inspiration for the Western artist.

In the period that preceded the opening of the museum, a survey was carried out with the aim to find out what was the public´s point of view regarding its creation. The results, presented in the article Du MAAO au Musée du Quai-Branly: Le point de vue des publics sur une mutation culturelle, allow us to conclude that the citizens´ worries and expectations concentrated on two issues: should Quai Branly be an art or an ethnology museum; and should it be a museum about colonialism or rather a kind of full stop in an uncomfortable and painful story and a new starting point. These same issues were the object of reflection and criticism on behalf of the specialists too.

In Quai Branly´s permanent exhibition I found an art museum. A museum that invited me to simply contemplate and appreciate beautiful objects. This wasn´t what I was looking for and I don´t think that through this kind of approach one manages to “reject ethnocentrism” and elevate the cultures of other peoples to the status they “deserve”. The permanent exhibition does not actually tell any story, much less that of the creation of this collection.

(Image taken from the Musée du Quai Branly website)

Nevertheless, Quai Branly offers much more: temporary exhibitions (those, yes, inquisitive, perplexing, surprising, such as, at this moment, Exhibitions: L´invention du sauvage), conferences, guided tours, workshops, cinema, theatre, dance, music. A very rich parallel programme that aims to complement the permanent exhibition, explore it, scrutinize it, to actually bring cultures to dialogue (the museum motto is Là où dialoguent les cultures).

Even though, I felt that there might still exist a ‘but’. I felt that the dialogue might just be between ‘our’ culture and ‘theirs’ (and maybe even a kind of apology, ‘ours’ towards ‘them’). In the article The Opening of the Musée du Quai Branly: Valuing/Displaying the "Other" in Post-Colonial France, of 2006, one can read that the museum was conceived and built without getting in touch with the minorities, except in the week of inauguration – a marketing manoeuvre, according to an interviewee -, in order to guarantee a positive response. On the other hand, in The Public Sphere as Wilderness: Le Musée du Quai Branly (which dates from 2009 and is a very interesting account of the museum´s first years of existance, with an extensive list of references in the end), we can see that, at the time, just one third of the museum visitors were tourists (meaning ‘foreign tourists´), while among the rest, 60% were frequent museum goers and 40% a new museum-going public, attracted by the links the museum provided between them and their cultures of origin. These are the statistics. In a very entertaining session with an African storyteller on a Sunday morning, I just saw white families. In the photos that illustrate the brochure of the March-May programme we also see just white audiences. Could this be a coincidence?

(Photo: mv)
Although the challenge of shared ‘authority’ is common to all museums, I always felt that the task was somehow more complex in what concerned history or ethnology museums. Museums which deal with life stories, with political events, with traumas, conflicts, hatred, with ‘us’ and ‘the others’, with people. I always visit them with the enormous curiosity to find out if they accepted the challenge and how they dealt with it. By coincidence, a few weeks before visiting Quai Branly, I watched this video with Nigerian writer Chimamanda Adichie about “The stories Europe tells itself about its colonial history”. Knowing the ‘other’ is hearing his voice. In the first person. And in order for this to happen, an encounter must be provided. This is what good museums know how to do: create spaces of encounter. Of dialogue, as well.

Still on this blog

More readings
Jeremy Harding, At Quai Branly

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