Representing shared cultural heritage in museum spaces
Recently, there has been a lot of debate on museums as spaces for representation of shared cultural heritage. Defining what constitutes ‘shared’ heritage is a sensitive issue.
It could be contested, born out of alliances or simply appropriated. Museums are reservoirs of knowledge and apart from displaying historic objects, tackling sensitive issues like representation of contested shared heritage play a crucial role for them. These spaces are rarely ‘neutral’ in preserving and presenting their history.
A few months back, French president Emmanuel Macron decided to open the archives on the torture against the Algerians during the war with Algeria, so as to allow the seeking of information regarding contested and untouched aspects of the war.
Debating and deliberating on similar concepts, an international training programme on ‘Sharing stories on contested histories’ for heritage professionals was recently conducted from December 2 to December 14, 2018 by the Cultural Heritage Agency, Ministry of Education, Culture and Science, Netherlands and the Reinwardt Academy, Netherlands. The emphasis was on Dutch history- its international relations, its shared heritage and the resulting ‘contested’ histories with its former colonies. Under the Dutch East India Company (VOC), the Dutch had several colonies in India (1605-1825), at present day Gujarat, Bengal, along the Coromandel Coast and areas around present day Tamil Nadu.
I was fortunate to represent India (and INTACH) in the training program along with representatives of other nations like South Africa, Brazil, Indonesia, Japan, Russia, Suriname, Sri Lanka and the United States, that were once important colonies and trading posts of the Dutch. Throughout this training, key concepts were discussed like the politics of display on representing the ‘other’, emotional networking, the role of narratives and storytelling, the effect of sympathy/empathy and perspectives, about the educational purposes of museum spaces, about museum collections and the issues around them.
Multiple lectures and interactive sessions around these key themes were conducted to create a base for the heritage professionals to deal with the shared heritages using a sensitive and well thought approach. A number of museums and institutions in Amsterdam and around i.e. the Amsterdam Museum, Rijksmuseum, the Tropenmuseum, the Black Archives, the Parliament and Mauritshuis, the National Archives at the Hague, and a neighbourhood organization called Imagine IC were visited as part of the training to study the above mentioned themes and concepts in depth.
The Amsterdam Museum served as a client for this training programme to use their exhibits and display as a case study. This embracing and open minded approach not only suggested the museum to rethink representation strategies from diverse fresh perspectives but also allowed the trainees to get a practical approach for the theoretical sessions that were lined for them.
The rooms of Amsterdam Museum’s newest exhibition titled ‘World City’, were divided among the trainees to study, discuss and present a set of ideas with relation to content and display using the learnings from the training.
When representing shared heritage the various stakeholders involved in the making process need to be well informed, the unbiased/unrepresented oral histories traced and inclusive approach implemented.
Gunjan Joshi, Programme Coordinator at the Intangible Cultural Heritage Division of the Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage attended the training as a representative of India. She has been working in the field of cultural heritage for the past five years.