The museum has never been a neutral place

A social role?

d'Lëtzebuerger Land du 17.05.2013

If, in a small country like Luxembourg, with its equally small cultural scene, two museums decide to show an exhibition around a similar issue, that issue must obviously be particularly interesting or relevant. But what do these exhibitions tell us about the role of the museum in our society? Or, more precisely, about the social role of the museum?

The exhibitions I am referring to are ABC – Luxembourg for beginners... and advanced! held at the Musée d’Histoire de la Ville de Luxembourg (8 June 2012 to 31 March 2013) and iLux. Identities in Luxembourg shown at the Musée Dräi Eechelen (M3E; until 31 July 2013). These exhibitions both deal, in one way or another, with Luxembourgish “identity”.

While ABC took a pragmatic approach, providing a basic glossary of Luxembourg’s social, cultural and historical peculiarities in the form of an alphabet (with themes such as Kachkéis and Suen), the iLux exhibition (developed by the University of Luxembourg) addresses the “diverse and ever-changing” nature of identity, or rather “identities” and “identification”, from a more philosophical – and definitely more academic – point of view.1 I will, however, proceed with neither extensive exhibition critiques nor an exploration of the (already much debated) notion of identity – a number of thought-provoking articles can be found in the Luxembourgish press.2 Instead, I will take these two exhibitions as a starting point for a general discussion about the “neutrality” of the museum and its social role, in Luxembourg and elsewhere.

If the first European museums were institutions reserved for connoisseurs and the educated elite, they have become more democratic as the centuries have passed, and their role has come to be largely educational. In the majority of Luxembourg’s museums, education is still seen as the major task. But education in museums should not be confused with learning alone: rather, it must be understood in its widest sense, as a combination of informing, learning, meaning-making and empowerment.3 Seen in this way, it becomes obvious how the educational and social roles coincide.

For many, the social role of the museum has become the role par excellence. Professor Richard Sandell, from the School of Museum Studies at the University of Leicester, believes that the museum must use its “cultural authority” for the benefit of society.4 He argues that it is the museum’s responsibility to “address [...] social issues and concerns” and to “contribut[e] towards the combating of social as well as cultural inequality”.5 Some of the previous exhibitions at the Musée d’Histoire de la Ville de Luxembourg (MHVL) have followed this trend (for example, Le grand pillage in 2005 and Attention, Tsiganes ! in 2007) to the same extent as the current exhibitions that address the subject of identity. Sandell acknowledges the museum’s limits, but sees its role as significant, nevertheless. Furthermore, he cautions against potential abuses: “[...] social responsibility does not require museums to become government tools for social engineering and control”.6

The issue at stake here is the museum’s alleged neutrality. This is also one of the reasons why the emphasis on function (conservation, among other things) rather than purpose (its social responsibility) has proven to be so tenacious. The late Stephen E. Weil, expert in art and museums, argued: “[...] to focus on function – on the good, seemingly value-free work of collecting, preserving and displaying – projects a sense of ideological neutrality (albeit, I suspect, a grossly deceptive sense) in which people of diverse social views are able to work more amiably together”.7

The museum has never been a neutral place. As a cultural, social and educational institution the museum has a certain authority and, consequently, considerable power of representation. Like the media, museums decide which version of reality they present to their visitors: “The struggle is not only over what is to be represented, but over who will control the means of representing”.8 This begins with curatorial teams and ends with employers and funders. It is important, therefore, to make these intentions and values as transparent as possible.9 Given the personal tone and critical stance adopted in some of the texts in ABC, authors’ names (and occupations, such as “historian”, “curator” and so on) could have been mentioned, for instance. Besides, back in 1996 authors did sign their texts in the MHVL’s first exhibitions.10 One may wonder why a museum that has the reputation of declaring a position in its exhibitions has not perpetuated this tradition.

iLux provides an interesting example of a dialogic relationship between museums and politics. The plainness of the logo, the straightforward design of the exhibition itself, and the pre-eminence of the colour white together with bright lighting recall a laboratory-like environment: a scientific milieu with its connotations of “objectivity” and “genuine truth”.11 The association “science equals objectivity” is inextricably linked with public and political discourse. On two occasions at least, the Minister of Culture, Octavie Modert, referred to the exhibition’s “objective” nature. In a newspaper interview, while discussing the representation of identity in a museum, she declared: “Doch die Politik darf hier nicht die Antworten diktieren, und deshalb haben wir die Universität damit beauftragt, um in wissenschaftlicher Objektivität und akademischer Unabhängigkeit diese Thematik zu behandeln, auch Unbequemes zu thematisieren”.12 Furthermore, in her inaugural address at the Musée Dräi Eechelen’s (M3E’s) opening, the Minister referred to the University’s manner of approaching the subject as “flott a lieweg” but also as “wëssenschaftlech-objektiv”.13 As in her interview, she underlined the government’s policy of “non-intervention”: “An et gëtt sécherlech dobannen am Musée keng staatlech, offiziell a politesch diktéiert Meenung derzou”.

On the one hand, the Minister advocates the museum’s independence from politics. On the other hand, however, she emphasises the museum’s role in fostering social cohesion: “Eist Zesummeliewen oder Net-Zesummeliewen ze thematiséieren hëlleft, de wichtege sozialen Zesummenhalt, dee mir um Häerz läit an deen eis all esou wichteg ass, ze ënnerstëtzen”. In her interview she pointed out that, “In einem Land wie Luxemburg mit einem hohen Zuwanderungsgrad ist auch eines wesentlich: Wer sich selbst besser kennt, kann offener mit all seinen Mitbürgern umgehen – im Interesse auch der unabdingbaren und mir wichtigen sozialen Kohäsion”.14

In his 2008 article on a former research project conducted by the University of Luxembourg, the historian Paul Zahlen had already questioned the relationship between identity and the “quasi-concept” of social cohesion.15 As a matter of fact, the promotion of social cohesion is an integral part of the current governmental programme of both the Ministère de la Culture and, particularly, the Ministère de l’Enseignement supérieur et de la Recherche.16

“The alleged innate neutrality of museums and exhibitions [...] is the very quality that enables them to become instruments of power as well as instruments of education and experience”.17 As positive as it may seem, political discourse has, in my eyes, no place in museums. A museum should remain an autonomous and independent organisation; rather than promoting public issues, it should encourage audiences to question them – and reconcile, in this way, its educational role with its social responsibility.

Without doubt, iLux and ABC offer a variety of learning opportunities. But real learning also requires people to step out of their comfort zone.18 Visitors have to experience the “shock of non-recognition” in order to develop critical thinking.19 One way to achieve this is to present audiences with unexpected and uncomfortable ideas. Unfortunately, apart from a few hints (for example, the black “alterity” elements in iLux and the value-laden terms used for the different subjects in ABC: the word Heckefransous to refer to cross-border commuters, for instance), the exhibitions remain rather compliant.

The “museum effect” may have powerful potential,20 yet it is important to bear in mind that audiences are neither passive nor powerless. Visitors are very well able to interpret information in their own way and apply negotiated or oppositional readings.21 For example, the comments on certain exhibits – answers to the questions, “What do you think of the Tripartite?” (ABC) and “What is your favourite place?” (iLux) – show that, sometimes, visitors just say what they want to say and don’t necessarily react to what they have been asked about.22

While it might seem easier for certain museums – for example, history or natural history museums – to fulfil their social role, it is rather a matter of adequate mediation strategies than thematic exhibitions: a social approach can take many different, practical facets. A museum should cater for a variety of needs and expectations, and provide different learning possibilities and levels of depth, but it should also involve audiences in more direct and less direct ways. Incorporating open questions – as can be seen in “iLux” – is a very simple device that can help to prevent exhibition texts from appearing too didactic. Certain exhibits, like the ones mentioned above, can be designed to include and display visitor information. However, the absence of a visitors’ book at the M3E demonstrates that even this basic device is still not standard practice. Limited resources can make it difficult to carry out front-end, formative and summative evaluation, but this does not prevent museums from listening to and learning from their visitors; for example, by taking account of their feedback during guided tours.

Furthermore, museums should venture to take a look beyond the confines of their own walls. Considering a multiplicity of voices, from outside as well as inside the museum, is one of the keys to the development of the museum’s social and educational role. After all, don’t museums belong to all of us?

Laurence Brasseur has a BA in Art History and has just completed an MA in Museum Studies at the University of Leicester, UK. This article is an extract from her master’s dissertation.
Laurence Brasseur
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