(I should say first that I haven’t forgotten about our Prima Facie write-ups for The Small Museum V1. I really didn’t think through how much effort it would be to take on the format we chose. Perhaps I’ll change it a bit so I can write about everything that’s left before the memory fades!)
I’ve been trying to find examples of Asian museums doing open data-y work because I’m giving a keynote at Museums and The Web Asia in Melbourne this year, and want to build some background. (If you know of any, please let me know!) There I was, futzing about looking over Google results for “china open access museum”. Sort of a ludicrous search in some ways, but, it helped me find the amazing Museological Review, a journal out of the University of Leicester. I’m embarrassed to say I hadn’t heard of. I’m sure you have. If you haven’t, go and read it immediately.
As I was browsing past issues, I stumbled on Do It Yourself (DIY) Museums: Study on Small Museums in Estonia and the People Behind Them by Liisi Taimre (PDF). It’s an article about the author’s interviews with the people running (and often funding) their own small museums in the Harju County region of Estonia. Three main notable points emerged for me:
1. The creation of new museums in Estonia was connected to the emerging national identity.
“Many of today’s small museums were founded in the 1980s. It was a time when the Soviet Union began to collapse and for the first time in 50 years people had the possibility to speak publicly about their past and heritage and interpret it freely. All over the country, different kinds of village societies, heritage organisations and museums were formed… The second wave of small museums and other local institutions began to emerge in 2000. It can be seen as a sign of the developing citizen society.”
2. Small museums are special because they allow personal contact.
The presentation of one’s personal worldview is a good starting point for making contact with a visitor. In DIY museums the head of the museum, curator, collection manager, guide and warden is often the same person. As real enthusiasts, they love explaining how their exhibitions are compiled, how their museum functions and telling additional stories about the exhibition.
(We definitely witnessed this at The Small Museum V1 in Somerset House. It was great fun.)
3. I’ve discovered Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, and her essay, The Museum – a Refuge for Utopian Thought (PDF)
It’s possibly unnatural how well this essay is resonating with me. It’s exciting to gradually discover the academic and intellectual thinking about what museum means, and a lot of the points she raises about utopian thinking, art and museum sit in the centre of what I want to be making.
Museums are important here, first, because those with long histories and old collections are in a good position to illuminate the history of “how intellectual work is saturated with moral, emotional and aesthetic elements at a collective, and not just biographical level.” Museums are not only instruments for the shaping of sensibility, as Tony Bennett and others have argued, but also their collections hold within them a history of sensibilities, their rise, demise, and potential for recuperation. How might an older constellation of wonder, curiosity, and intense attention animate the museum as a contemporary utopian laboratory? This is an invitation to find the utopian potential of the museum not only in the achievements of the past, but also in its history as a materialized subjunctive space. It is in the museum’s capacity to provoke and sustain speculation, reflection, retrospection, prospection, whether reasoned or dreamed, that its utopian possibilities lie.
I feel like I need to find a home for this work, a place. I’m working on it.
There’s this idea of “object as witness,” where objects can reflect some kind of evidence of the world around them. Ms. Kirshenblatt-Gimblett’s essay made me want to create or represent A Curious Object, one that was looking for evidence and reflections of itself, in particular, on the web. I love the challenge she leaves us with:
How does the museum, despite its best efforts to create certainty, produce unpredictability? Through fragmentation, aggregration, selection, juxtaposition, connection, contrast, excess, and confusion.
Now I’m off to read another of her essays, From Ethnology to Heritage: The Role of the Museum (PDF).