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A dialogue between the cultures of the world

Imagine a cultural institution that sees itself as “dedicated to a dialogue between the cultures of the world.” Dialogue: talking between people, engagement, involvement, action. What might such a cultural institution be?

Last year I had the pleasure of being part of a workshop with representatives of the Humboldt Forum, the very institution that has set itself the laudable goal set out above, now being created in Berlin and due to open in 2019. Some of the Forum representatives set out their reflections on the workshop, and associated travel in Australia and the Pacific, in an article in KULTUR (ref?).

My words here are in part a response to that article, in part a reflection on the challenge that is the Humboldt forum, and in part a plea for the museum of the future.

A key element of the Humboldt Forum will be the collections of Berlin’s major ethnographic museums, that is, the material culture and stories of many first peoples of different parts of the world.

The Forum is facing the complex question of how it should speak of and with (and I use those expressions rather than just “exhibit”) those many, living, cultures. And it will be doing this in a country from which none of those cultures originated, and where many are not represented in the community at all.

I’m writing this article from the perspective of Australia, a country with vibrant and complex first peoples, which was invaded by Europeans only a little over 200 years ago. A key characteristic of the museum of the future in Australia will be a very different way of engaging with our first peoples.

I can describe the current way of doing this at a typical “ethnographic” museum as “we the authoritative mainly European museum specialists will tell you, the visitor, about them, those very different people”. I’m guessing that this is largely how those cultures are portrayed in the existing museums in Berlin, as they still largely are in Australia.

In the museum of the future it will be “we the first peoples of Australia, in the venue that is this museum, will have a conversation with you about us, on our terms”. The museum of the future will use collections from and about first peoples to enable conversations and engagement, rather than the one way communication we have now.

But there is one other big factor in particular that will shape the future of museums, and that is the changing digital world. Given smart phones, social media and the web in general, a person’s engagement with a museum starts well before a physical visit, and increasingly doesn’t involve a physical visit at all.

It’s hard to overemphasise the all pervasive impact of the digital world on museums, and the exploration of how digital will be part of the museum of the future is just beginning.

One of my own sayings is that the more the world gets digital, the more people will want to see (and touch!) real things. This yin and yang will be for the good but will force museums to change how they engage visitors with their collections.

Full virtual access to collections will in itself answer the questions of many interested people, but for many visitors, virtual access will drive a desire to see the see the real thing, whether it’s on display or not.

I foresee a time when museums will provide “on demand” access to collection items for all, not just specialists and researchers. They will need to be set up very differently to be able to do this.

How will the Humboldt Forum respond to demands for access to all of its collections and their associated stories, not just by Berliners, but also by the members of the communities that created them?

Digital will also enable museums to shift from a one way monologue with people, to becoming facilitators of conversations, which the museum may or may not be part of. Many museum blogs and websites now contain virtual conversations between interested people; this will become the norm.

Visitors will also “mash up” collection items from multiple museums to form their own virtual collections for a whole range of purposes.

Let’s come back directly to the Humboldt Forum. Clearly there is a very laudable aspiration to engage with creator communities, but in the Kultur article there is the statement that “Australian culture at the Humboldt Forum will have to be addressed as part of what is essentially a faraway world.”

I sense an assumption that because most of the communities of first people represented

in the Forum are indeed on the other side of the world, actual involvement of the communities in telling their stories will be practically impossible. This should not, and need not be the case.

Those very digital tools I mentioned above will enable direct involvement of originating communities in how the Forum tells their stories. In fact, I suspect those cultures will demand access, and involvement, because the Forum is custodian of their heritage.

It’s great to see the Forum representatives visiting Australia and Pacific nations, but there must be ongoing involvement of those cultures in the creation of the Forum, in how the now quite old collections are used to tell stories, and in bringing to Berliners the vibrancy of those nations as they are now, and not just as they were at the time of collecting.

The Humboldt Forum is an opportunity to make a difference, to change the paradigm of museums as passive collectors, cataloguers and observers, so that they become central to societal wellbeing, not a marginal nice-to-have.

Museums need to stop being about things in cases and on pedestals. Museums need to use their collections to create conversations, with audiences now, physical and virtual, and even more importantly, with the creators of the collections, living or their descendants, near and far.

The power of the digital world removes the excuse that the creator communities are not physically near the museum – they can engage virtually, and the museum must reach out to them. This means that the role of the curator must change, and no longer be solely a subject matter expert, but become a custodian for someone, a facilitator, a story teller, a catalyst, and broker of true cultural engagement.

This is the challenge for the Humboldt Forum, and one way for it to really bring to life “a dialogue between the cultures of the world”.

(Article for the magazine of the Goethe Institute in Australia, KULTUR no 25, 2014.)

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