More room for social role museums

May 2008 -

Young museum professionals from Botswana, Great Britain, Indonesia, Argentina, Brazil, Germany, Turkey, Kenya, Jamaica and Zambia met with their Dutch counterparts on 15 and 16 April 2008 to discuss the role and relevance of museums in society. The meeting was initiated by the Tropenmuseum and the Reinwardt Academy. Despite significant differences of opinion, general conclusions were drawn. To begin with: fifty years ago no one would have suggested this as a topic of discussion, yet this is happening now. Certainly anthropological museums – or perhaps culture museums is more apt? - increasingly offer room for communication about social issues, values, memories and heritage.

The content of that role is clearer for non-Western museums than for Western museums. This was the second general conclusion. A museum in Zambia organises expositions about hiv/aids; one in Kenya about war and solving conflicts, and one in Botswana about combating poverty. In their turn, Western museums must decide whether or not they will continue to collect remnants from other peoples' cultures. Together, says the third conclusion, Western and non-Western museums must determine how they will cooperate. Can they work together as equals? How can museums in the South avoid putting more effort into contacts with Western museums than with their own environment?

Examples of successful cooperation can already be seen, but problems have also occurred. A Swedish museum and a Kenyan museum jointly collected urban culture objects in Kenya. The Swedish museum, the Museum of World Culture in Göteburg, worked with museums and communities in Bolivia and the Bolivian community in Sweden for more than a decade. More than two-thirds of the collection comes from Bolivia. President Evo Morales recently demanded that all of the objects be returned, told curator Adriana Muñoz. The museum is willing to return objects, but would prefer to do so based on dialogue with the local museums. Now the cooperation has ground to a halt. Sometimes - and this was the fourth conclusion – all of the museums are on the same side, and sometimes they are opponents.