Brasseur, Laurence: Who Are We? Searching for Indetities in Luxembourg

“Museums belong to all of us”

d'Lëtzebuerger Land du 11.03.2016

Before researching museums, Laurence Brasseur had, for Luxembourg standards, a quite banal occupation: she worked in the financial sector. But she decided to quit her job and do something completely different. She chose to pursue a master’s degree at the University of Leicester at the department of Museums Studies (which she obtained in 2013) and she is currently doing a PhD on youth, participation and inclusion in museums.

She received the Prix Fondation Robert Krieps for her master’s thesis and for turning it into a book. This format inevitably has some shortcomings: a master’s thesis has to meet academic standards that are not very “digestible” for a wider audience (the constant need to refer to academic texts, the need to discuss methods and limits, etc.). But turning a master’s thesis into a book nevertheless has the advantage of making academic work more accessible to a wider public and thus potentially advancing public debates.

Brasseur has made a brave but risky choice by focusing on a theme that is notoriously slippery, multiple, worn out, and politically-loaden: the topic of identity. And she does so by analysing and contrasting two exhibitions held in 2012/2013: ABC – Luxembourg for beginners... and advanced at the Musée de l’Histoire de la Ville de Luxembourg (MHVL) and iLux. Identities in Luxembourg at the Museum Dräi Eechelen. Her book offers a detailed discussion and comparison of the two exhibitions. Their content and targeted audience (quite broad in both cases), their scenography and materiality, their aesthetics and the language used are examined. She even analyses the “atmosphere” of both exhibitions (cosy and homelike for ABC, intellectual and rather cold for iLux).

Throughout her book, Brasseur also raises seve­ral criticisms: about texts that are too dense, about missing resting places, about the fact that there was no visitor book in iLux, and that ABC’s content was too compliant. She further notes – and this will be a familiar theme for readers of d’Lëtzebuerger Land – that in Luxembourg most articles about exhibitions are descriptive rather than critical and analytical, and that there is no culture of debate.

The key contribution of her book is her discussion about politics (pages 52-55). She shows, for instance, that for the Government, politics is often reduced to the idea of social cohesion. When secretary of culture Octavie Modert publicly explained the role of museums in society, she only referred to social cohesion. At the same time, Modert stressed that an exhibition like iLux should be independent, academic and objective. Brasseur’s discussion reveals an interesting paradox that she could have explored a bit further and that she will hopefully examine in more depth in her PhD. The paradox is the following one: while there are many visible efforts to keep politics out of the museum (by trying to seek independence, avoid bias, be neutral, etc.), museums inevitably are political institutions.

Here are some examples and reminders. Over the years, the MHVL has shown exhibitions about poverty, Romany people, the Council of State, and its ABC exhibition contained displays about the Luxembourgish flag. ILux included elements about asylum seekers for example. Some exhibits might also become political. One easily remembers two sculptures, Lady Rosa of Luxembourg (aka “Gëlle Fra 2”) by Sanja Ivekovic and Bitty by Olivier Blanckart (representing Jacques Chirac), that caused public controversy some years ago and called for reactions by a former minister of culture (Erna Hennicot). And there are, of course, many other ways through which politics might influence museums: through funding, through selecting the directors of museums, through the presence of (former) politicians on a board of directors, or through the choice of specific themes (i.e. the Ministry of culture more or less “imposed” an exhibition about perfume to the Natur Musée in 2001). Politics are thus not only present in the general role that museums can play (social cohesion, education, tourism, cultural identity, etc.), but politics can also be felt by museum staff and be a theme that is explicitly put on display. Trying to be “at arm’s length” from politics can be challenging for museums.

Laurence Brasseur makes a provoking suggestion. She proposes that “Curatorial teams should be composed of individuals from a variety of educational, social and ethnic backgrounds. Consulting and collaborating with people and communities form outside of the museum should be standard practice […and] would constitute a further step towards a truly inclusive, accessible, and democra­tic museum” (page 55).1 Hopefully this idea will be given some thought by museum staff rather than being rejected as being idealistic or as being a me­nace for museum staff’s expertise.

Brasseur’s book also points to another direction: some words that we commonly use to talk about museums are probably not very suitable. Talking about a museum’s “autonomy” or “independence” is misleading, since it can make us believe that an institution is either totally autonomous (or independent) or not, which is probably never really the case. A word like “democratic”, even though it sounds reasonable and positive, is also problematic as it is too vague and too widely used to provide a thorough analysis. We need, on the contrary, a richer vocabulary that allows us to capture the complexities and issues within museums in a more concrete way. “Representation” is probably one of these words, especially interesting since it refers to both a political and an aesthetic act. “Participation” is another useful term, as it calls for a discussion of what it is, exactly, that people can participate in. If museums belong to all of us, they need to talk about and to us!

1 Her argument is in line with Bandelli et al. who argue that “a new model of governance for science centers is needed where public participation and consultation activities are integral components alongside the board, director and staff”. See Bandelli et al. (2009) “The need for public participation in the governance of science centers”, Museum Management and Curatorship, 24(2).
Morgan Meyer
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