Challenges for the Construction of Museum Territories_ACSIS_SEMEDO2011

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Paper from the Conference “Current Issues in European Cultural Studies”, organised by the Advanced Cultural Studies Institute of Sweden (ACSIS) in Norrköping 15-17 June 2011. Conference Proceedings published by Linköping University Electronic Press: © The Author. Challenges for the Construction of Museum Territories Alice Semedo & Inês Ferreira University of Porto & Câmara Municipal do Porto,
    Paper from the Conference “Current Issues in European Cultural Studies”, organised by the Advanced CulturalStudies Institute of Sweden (ACSIS) in Norrköping 15-17 June 2011. Conference Proceedings published byLinköping University Electronic Press: © The Author.223 Challenges for the Construction of Museum Territories Alice Semedo & Inês FerreiraUniversity of Porto & Câmara Municipal do,  In this article we present the main structural guidelines and contexts for anongoing research project being carried out by the authors and which deals with thenature of social impact and museum functions in a collaborative background. Webegin by briefly presenting the main contexts and challenges the project attemptsto address while also considering methodological options. A discussion of theunderlying concepts is also offered at this point. Drawing from the action-researchand interactive-participation traditions, the field of action of this research projectdeals with Porto’s museums and, particularly, with professionals, as social actors,devoted to the work of mediation. It aims to promote sustainable collaborationwithin museum professionals, that is, the proposal involves mainly thedevelopment of a collaborative space and a community of practice that supportscritical and creative thinking, promoting change.  224 INTRODUCTION The title of this article reflects our conviction that museums experience a profound conceptual revolution (Hein, 2000: viii ), revolution that questions some fundamental premises on whichmuseums (and our work as museum professionals and with museum professionals) areestablished and which are strongly associated to its intrinsic and unquestionable value.Metamorphoses in social structures, cultural alliances and personal identities can beassociated to changes in the nature and functions of knowledge; transformations that havesupported research not only about museums’ missions but also about the places that its makers , the collections and the audiences inhabit as discursive elements.For that reason, this article will start with a short incursion into some of the restlessnesscontexts and values that have determined the raison d’être of the research project which is themain object of this discussion. More than describing work methodologies, what we will beattempting to share at this point will be some of the contexts that have guided this moment of speculation as well as the development of the research undertaking. Suffice to say, this workis being drawn by many hands and the concerns that we will be talking about have constantlyreferred us either to questions of professional and museum identity / curricular revisions, or tothe conceptual fundamentals themselves, principles which have been in discussion for severalyears in the field of museum studies. In a second moment, we will delineate the objectivesand guidelines of the research project that prompt this discussion. EXTRAORDINARY DAYS: REPOSITIONING In international terms – and in the context of a museums’ explosion – we have been living extraordinary days . In the beginning of the late 90s of the late twentieth century we lived (and have lived) a particular thoughtful moment that has led to the questioning of the natureof the museum itself. If the 60-70s decades of the late twentieth century were a fertile groundfor a first phase of self-assessment – essentially related to political and social activism (and strong external criticism) in the world of museums – the end of the following decade – butmainly the 90s – were essential for this re-positioning of museums in relation to society (see,for example, the seminal volumes: Karp e Lavine, 1991; Karp, Kreamer e Lavine, 1992).This is a reinvention in progress that should also be understood in relation to an increasingdemand from different sectors to actively participate in the reconstruction and reproductionof practices of signification. Reinvention that has compelled museums to beresponsible not only for the resources in its care, but also by the results achieved throughthese resources. Museums are no longer merely evaluated by their resources (e.g. collections,collections research) to be increasingly valued for its programmatic use, ability to plan andreach target audiences, diversification and quality of services and products. Even though thestudy, documentation and preservation are – more than ever – a key and basic requirementfor the development of any museum project, more attention is focused onother aspects, expressing its anxiety to demonstrate a social conscience and – perhaps –even a maturity of the profession (see, for example: Weil 1995; Department of Culture Mediaand Sport 2000). Likewise, the roles museums play in the development of society (see, forexample, Gurian 2006) and the relation, more or less obvious, with the educational andlearning role in museums has been one of the central themes of this discussion (Falk eDierking 1995 2000; Falk et al 2006; Hein 1998, 2000; Hooper-Greenhill, 1992, 1996). Thevision of the museum as a learning place is frequently described as a free-choice learningenvironment used by differentiated audiences (Falk e Dierking 2000).Through objects andknowledge, visitors create relations, meaning and learn (Hein 1998). Museums compete,nevertheless, with other learning and leisure experiences (Falk e Dierking 2000; Kelly 2004)in what has been termed the experience economy, in which people involve themselves invaluable experiences in different contexts (Pines e Gilmore, 1999). Museums have always  225 claimed for themselves a meaningful educational role and, as a matter of fact, they are oftenfounded in view of these premises. Currently, researchers point to the trend of a conceptualchange within which museums tend to be transformed from places of education into places of learning, responding – in this way – to the needs and interests of those who visit and use theirservices (Weil, 1995; Bradburne, 1998; Falk e Dierking, 2000). Museums aspire to cease tobe repositories of knowledge and objects to become places of wonder, encounter, discussion,creativity and learning, making part simultaneously of other forms of learning and promotingthemselves as an integral part of the infrastructure of learning.However, by unlocking themselves to the policies of experience museums gradually moveaway from the traditional field of institutions with whom they share knowledge paradigms.This has opened up new fields and allowed museums to rediscover other arenas that can benot only complementary but ultimately may produce new types of museums. Along theselines, contemporary museums attempt to include and expose themselves to the embodied andthe experienced (memory and experience) which is characteristic of models inspired by theconcepts of pedagogy and performativity of Homi Bhabha (2004) – known as  performativedemocracy in contraposition to a more pedagogic version – which privileged other type of approaches and conceptualizations (Chakrabarty, 2002). Indeed, this approach promoteseither experience or abstract knowledge and that is exactly the type of museological attitudethat possibly better rebalances the debate about functions and missions of museums.If it is true that in our days museums are subjected to many demands which make themperform other functions, it is also true that these same challenges allow them to play otherroles in new worlds . However, these are worlds where the previous indisputable values areconstantly cross-examined and in which museums in seeking to demonstrate their visibilityand take on democracy, encounter profound internal tensions that have led to a passionatedebate both in the professional arena and in the media. Nonetheless, it is believed thatthis reinvention has had significant consequences. Especially in relation to the distance of thecentrality of objects towards an emphasis on promoting experience, leading sometimes to adevaluation of museum collections as a source of true meaning and value and to a tyingaround the museum experience (Hein, 2000: viii ); emphasis that reveals new ethical,epistemological and aesthetic horizons. Nonetheless, it also evident in the museum world areturn to the world of collections and to a central role of collections’ research producingmuseum embodiments that do not merely focus on the cognitive experience but are rooted –identically – on the embodied and sensitive experiences (sensitive, affective and moral) of visitors and of curators / researchers /  connaisseurs themselves, speaking openly about,discussing; opening up spaces of visibility within discourse for – for example – the situated   processes of research and collecting as experience and history . In this manner, the demand forrelevance outside their usual contexts is one of the central axes of this museologicaltransformation, confirming museological research as a non-delimitating questioning spacemuch in agreement with Corynne McSherry’s proposition that a boundary object ‘holdsdifferent meanings in different social worlds, yet it is imbued with enough shared meaning tofacilitate its translation across those worlds’ (McSherry, 2001: 69, cited in Strathern, 2004:45; cf. with Message, 2009).This relevance is called for at the different levels of the public sphere: that is, the macro-meso space and at the micro public space; this last space is probably more of interest herebecause it is mainly at this level that one can better appreciate the coordination of communication and the involvement of spaces of civic participation. On the other hand, thisdemand for significance in museums can be associated to the construction of new forms of public dialogue and civic participation, requiring not only reciprocity but also continuity andit is at the local level that these partnerships with the community probably better work andbecome sustainable. Museums are attempting to create relevance trough the constitution of   226 networks that work as critical resources of places, places they intend to inhabit. Offering notonly their assets (collections, spaces, research…) – understood in a rather limitedly approach– but acting also as forums and, ultimately, developing innovative ways in addressingquestions characteristic of the public space and of contemporaneity. Interrogations which areoften fracturing, as indeed recent debate as demonstrated (see, for example: Knell et al. , 2007;Cameron e Kelly, 2010). We are talking, explicitly, about museums as actors of the third space  (Soja, 2000) that participate actively in urban policies and intervene in the constructionof the public space and democracy (Kirchberg, 2003); we are referring, then, to “  performative places ”; places of “ communicative action ” that, somehow, materialize the values of the“ rationalized utopia ” announced by Bourdieu (1998: 128); hence, places admittedly politicaland of action.Nonetheless, these considerations are not any novelty and have been profuselydisseminated through university courses, conferences and through bibliography authored bymany associated both to new museology and to critical museology   (whatever you want to callit) and are part of  knowledge to be acquired by  professionals-to-be. Indeed the production of an important body of bibliography related to the study of museums, as well as to thedevelopment of a series of accreditation and evaluation museum programs, constitute vitalelements for the deepening of this discussion. These studies address the challenges offered bynew museology 1 to – in this second  assessment moment – extend the scope of its questions,expanding and deepening their methodological approaches and empirical basis. If we glanceat any international publisher catalogue, such as Routledge, we will see that after almosttwenty years since Eilean Hooper-Greenhill wrote that the museum as a research topic waspractically invisible (Hooper-Greenhill, 1992: 3) it is no more so and this topic has becomingincreasingly sexy 2 . Undeniably a growing group of researchers from different fieldsinvestigate and write about this social artefact. Nevertheless, the dissonance between thesediscussions and the development of reflexive and collaborative practices continues – at leastin Portugal – to be evident.The Museology Course at the University of Porto opened during the first years of the1990s, starting its  journey , thus,    just at a time one saw this exceptional editorial growth onthis topic. Books on various subjects, readers, conference proceedings about museumsflourished since then in the context of  the museum phenomenon , to quote Gordon Fyfe (2006:40) and as Sharon MacDonald already mentioned in her excellent Companion for MuseumStudies (2006). Phenomenon that can be largely related to the processes that has beencharacterized as post-industrial, post-capitalist, late-modernity or post-modern and usuallycombine, among others, motivations and anxieties related to social amnesia, search forauthenticity and antidotes in relation to consumer society, attempts to deal with thefragmentation of identity and individualization, desires of lifelong learning and experientiallearning. But and as already mentioned, this was and has been a particular moment of fragmentation and profound examination of this world. Different studies in Portugal, France,United States and United Kingdom refer, for example, tensions and identity crises in theprofessional model of the curators (see, for example, Octobre, 2001; Semedo, 2003; Zolberg, 1 For a discussion of these terms see, for example, Davis, 1999; Martinez, 2006. 2 As Scott Lash has said during his talk at the “Museus, Discursos e Representações” Conference, in Porto, in2004.
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