Creativity, Ethnic Communities and the Curious Case of Museumsn
Entr’acte: Art as an ambassador for insights into Islam  discusses the post September 11 trend in European and American museums to exhibit Islamic art as a way to promote greater understanding and help bridge the cultural gap between Judeo-Christian and Muslim worlds. Some important and relevant questions are posed including whether historical exhibitions can provide any fresh insight into what is happening in the Middle East today and the vital question of “… are we asking too much of art, giving it too much political weight?”.
Museums, predominantly storehouses of the stolen treasures of the world’s cultures, have a duty to work for the good of communities to a far greater extent than many other institutions . Many museums nominally state in their mission statements that they are culturally diverse institutions. In practice, however, there is little support for this in terms of real institutional support including adequate staffing and budgets. Cultural diversity is frequently deprioritized and viewed as peripheral to core museum business. This is confusing considering current world events which remind us of the importance of these issues in our national and international development. Museums, which often posses rich collections, expert staff and purpose-built buildings for public events, are perfect sites for such discussions.
For several years I organized Auckland Museum’s Living Treasures series which aimed to celebrate people – those individual and collective “living treasures” intrinsically connected to every object/taonga the Museum houses. Monthly, day-long events celebrated the culture of different communities – nearly thirty in all. In the beginning these events, such as such as Chinese New Year, featured purely traditional content. Over time, however, we learnt to incorporate more contemporary content including Chinese New Zealand rap and graffiti art, and increasingly more debate such as this year’s Asia: Aotearoa which discussed how cultural institutions can engage more effectively with the Chinese community.
Certain events were particularly memorable, such as the Art of Islam exhibition and public program series where we focused not only on explaining traditional art of the Muslim world but also on the stereotypes the media was propagating with some intensity at the time. The Living Treasures series aimed to educate visitors about different cultures. It also taught Museum staff about ways we could continually strive to improve how we worked with communities. One major issue (which festivals also face) was the problem of maintaining long-term relationships with communities. Another was that most of these events were purely public program based rather than exhibition oriented. Te Papa provides a good model in this regard as their dedicated Community Gallery features a different community exhibition every three years, allowing community relationships some time to develop.
Last year I was fortunate enough to undertake an internship at the Smithsonian Centre for Folklife and Cultural Heritage in Washington D.C. and visit cultural institutions in six major U.S. cities, investigating their work in the area of cultural diversity and community engagement. Despite its obvious challenges, I found America to be an interesting model in this regard as it has been a multicultural society for far longer than New Zealand . In addition, in cities like New York, diverse immigrants have lived in much closer quarters to each other, as displayed historically at the Lower East Side Tenement Museum . Likewise, the Ellis Island Immigration Museum leaves the visitor with the impression that America is indeed a nation of immigrants. Many Americans seem to feel comfortable with being American while also being at home with their own unique cultural identity. This discussion of multiple identities is still obviously unfolding in the United States as it is in Britain and in New Zealand .
Even in smaller, very much less cosmopolitan environments like Salem, Massachusetts, progressive institutions such as the Peabody Essex Museum are a source of social change. The Museum runs an outreach program to Asian and Latino communities incorporating an innovative internship program targeting Latino youth and including the development of a major film project. Such international museums offer positive models for us to learn from in terms of cultural diversity – although naturally we will have to carefully adapt examples to the specifics of our local environment.
Another important development in American museums is programs that encourage inter-cultural activity, where different cultures can meet, learn about each other and experience genuine exchange . One model in the United States which has been particularly successful is the First Saturdays program at Brooklyn Museum. The Museum attempted to engage with its community by creating diverse programs that reflect and showcase them. They also waived admission fees to break down further audience barriers. The program started in 1997 and after continuous evaluation, by 1999 the basic outline for the evening included world music, film/performance, gallery talks and a dance party. Time Out New York applauded the “impressively diverse crowds” who attend these events .
Another strength in the American museum sector is that different institutions collaborate to discuss these common issues. The Field Museum in Chicago launched an inspiring program called Urban Network: Museums Embracing Communities. This has resulted in a consortium of ten major museums in five metropolitan areas across the United States that produce innovative programs and strategies to attract, serve and engage diverse audiences. Urban Network members share effective practices, strategies, and resources and advance a national dialogue on civic engagement.
New Zealand museums would also benefit from working more effectively across sectors. The Center for Cultural Understanding and Change at the Field Museum (with the Cultural Connections partners, a partnership of museums and cultural centres) created the Cultural Diversity Alliance. In its strategic plan the alliance sets out to be “a consortium of Chicago-area ethnic museums, cultural centres, and historical societies in partnership with external institutional stakeholders dedicated to promoting the value and public understanding of cultural diversity” . The Cultural Connections 2004 program explains Cultural Connections as a unique way to experience and learn about the rich cultural diversity in Chicago. Participants travel to ethnic museums and cultural centres in and around Chicago to explore the reasons for cultural differences and to uncover connections to “others”. Examples include “Something Old, Something New, Something Borrowed, Something Blue… or Red? – Cultural Perspectives on Unity and Ceremony”  This event was held at the Korean American Resource and Cultural Center and the Swedish American Museum Center and served traditional Korean and Swedish foods to complement the conversation.
In New Zealand, Te Papa has been an excellent forerunner in the celebration of cultural diversity, especially in terms of its bicultural mandate. Pataka is also producing some wonderful programs that connect with both local and global communities. Recent local highlights also include Rare View which provided an insight into one of our growing immigrant groups, the Somali community . I salute such exhibitions and hope they reflect a new generation of brave young curators who actively initiate projects and genuinely attempt to work in partnership with communities. Curators must retain this healthy self-reflexivity and avoid revisiting projects with vitriolic smugness, instead facing them as a learning process in which institutions continuously reevaluate themselves.
There are many activities beyond community exhibitions that museums can engage in to promote positive ethnic relations. Festivals such as Matariki (Māori New Year) can become platforms for a better understanding of Māori culture and values . This comes with the proviso that festivals offer more than pure spectacle, where no real engagement or deep level of cultural understanding is achieved. Festivals and museums can work well in partnership. Although festivals share the same problem of temporary exhibitions in ensuring long-term relationships with communities, they can help bring culture to life in a less restricted way beyond the museums walls. I experienced this while working on the 2005 Oman theme at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival. Staged on the National Mall in Washington D.C. the Festival featured over 100 musicians, dancers, craftspeople and cooks representing cultural traditions from the desert, oasis and sea . Surely such models could be adapted to our own Auckland Domain with cultural festivals spilling outside the Museum walls. This would capitalize upon the Museum’s excellent collections and expert staff and create an opportunity for education and enjoyment for the wider public in one of Auckland’s finest civic locations.
Public programs also present an excellent opportunity for promoting positive race relations as they enable communities to reconnect with their taonga, breathing back life and meaning to the objects that museum’s house. Such programs can manifest in many varieties – performance, artists demonstrations, workshops, talks and debates. This is an area with few limits (besides the imagination) and a huge amount of potential in the field of cultural understanding. Somewhat fittingly, a worker in this area was traditionally an “interpreter” – not in terms of language but rather as a medium between the object and the visitor. Such roles present an important opportunity for bridging cultures through deeper understanding of cultural artefacts, traditional practices and current realities. Museums offer relatively neutral sites for at times heated debate and discussion. Te Papa started off this trend soon after it opened, with the controversial “Virgin in a Condom” exhibition and has continued by hosting important events such as the Human Rights Commission’s Cultural Diversity Forum. I look forward to this increasing into the future, with our national museum being utilized as a key site for cutting-edge debate.
Both my internship on the Folklife Festival and research on Woodford Festival in Brisbane last year reminded me that people love to hear other people’s stories. Storytelling is not just the domain of children. It provides an opportunity for us to truly learn and engage with each other. Dr. Manying Ip recently impressed this upon me in terms of how museums can engage better with the Chinese community . Andrew Young’s rendition of going back to China to visit his relatives and the overwhelming impression this left on him bought many to tears at this year’s Banana Conference. People also want to tell and hear their own unique stories. The success of the recent New Zealand Film Archive screenings of Illustrious Energy at Auckland Museum and Te Tuhi the Mark were testament to this.
As Mervyn Singham noted at his recent address to the Going Bananas Conference, New Zealand needs to see a purposeful process of change rather than a “multicultural drift”. Museums present excellent sites for this as hosts of community exhibitions and a wide range of public programs including discussion and debate, festivals, intercultural meeting-places and the sharing of personal histories. By working in close partnership with cultures and communities in the future, museums can attempt to “re-present cultures” more authentically. Another important future pathway for museums is the employment of diverse staff members reflecting the demographic makeup of their local communities and collections, as well as those specialized in the field of cross-cultural relations. A further key challenge will be to keep the celebration of cultural diversity at the core of museum business. Museums must also reach out beyond their walls, literally spilling out into their grounds with cultural festivals and further collaborating both within and beyond their sector. They also need to position themselves firmly within not only the local but the global community context, keeping themselves up to date with examples of best practice internationally. To quote the aforementioned article on Islamic Art, “culture has always served as a political tool”. Why, therefore, can’t creativity be used as a positive force for social change? By following some of these key steps, museums could well become important advocates in the celebration of cultural diversity and promotion of positive race relations in New Zealand/Aotearoa. Indeed, they have a duty to fulfill this role.
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