We Share the Same Problems

P1030843_2In the sessions of the afternoon of September 10, we discovered how many issues we share transnationally;  how similar problems of our museums’ relationship to politics is both complex and important.

Hermann Schäfer of Germany began by taking on the task first of thinking about the conference title itself; saying that Germans would avoid using the word power in this context; but in Russian it has been.

He then proceeded to a fascinating explication of how the interests of museums and of politicians converge and diverge.  Museums are future oriented with our work of collection, preservation and education; while politicians are present-oriented, concerned with the next elections.

He explored what politicians expect of museums which was basically the same old, same old:  collecting, preserving, and exhibiting.  What might museums “expect” from politicians?

  • provide a liberal frame to work with sufficient means
  • support for our international activities
  • more changes for cooperation
  • avoid–or at least support us–against bureaucracy
  • respect the law
  • care for a better alignment between speeches and reality

But instead, of course, we work in a current situation of frozen budgets, no salary increases, and project support increased but little or no support for long-lasting museum tasks (Americans, sound familiar?)   But it wasn’t only politicians who got a little scolding from Shafer.  He spoke of the politicians’ urge to found new museums –and, rightly so, museum professionals hesitancy to do so.  The pie is limited; but established museums need to find more ways for cooperation and to match the standards of those new museums.  “It takes courage,”  he said, to find new approaches and solutions, and that a lack of financial means is no excuse for a lack of creativity.  A lack of means should be regarded as a challenge.   His parting words:  “If museums successfully manage to face the needs of the wider public, this would sensitize politicians to their [the museums’] needs.”

We then switched from a broad global view of museums’ work to a fascinating look at a particular global project with a presentation by Alexander Zhirkov of the Sakha Region of Russia.  Like many remote cultures with rich tangible and intangible cultural heritage, the Yakutiak culture’s objects have been removed from their original location and have ended up in museums from Boston to St. Petersburg to Berlin.  The government is spearheading an effort to locate and document those collections, leading to a print and virtual publication of a catalog of those collections.  He said Yakutia is a museum in itself, and invited us all to visit.  Wonder where it is?  Here’s a look.  His presentation had echoes of the work native communities in the Americas have done to document and understand the work of their material culture in far flung museums; and made me wonder if eventual repatriation is a part of the conversation here as well.

From the far East of Russia to the center of Europe:  Taja Vork van Vaal, director of the European House of History, spoke about the challenges of trying to create a museum that must meet the broad, and sometimes quite specific, concerns of all of Europe.  The team of historians explored various approaches, and decided against the idea of telling the stories of separate European nations; but rather will focus on the idea of the European phenomena.   I can hardly imagine–and can’t wait to see, how the museum addresses the issue she mentioned of providing interpretation in 27 languages!  But questions from the audience reminded us that even the idea of “Europe” is remains a contested one.  Dr. Van Gaal was asked, since Russia was included, why no Russian historian was on the team with the audience member feeling that it was impossible to understand Europe without the participation of such a historian.  She reiterated the idea that this project was less about specific perspectives and more about broad views, and acknowledged that, when the final document is presented in 2015; and then the museum itself, that she fully expects, and welcomes, lively debate about the content.

And the final session of the afternoon was our own; with the four of us presenting on our initial goals for this social media project; the process of making it happen; our results, both quantifiable and qualitative; and our hopes for the future of such projects.  We’ll be uploading our presentation to Slideshare soon.

For many, the chance to take an excursion in the Winter Palace was our first chance to experience the Hermitage’s amazing collection and building, truly one of the great museums of the world.  And for me, the long, interesting day ended with a reminder of how all of us make grand public places our own. As we walked to dinner, street hockey players were in fast and furious action across the grand square in front of the Hermitage.

On Thursday, the individual sections begin, and we’ll be reporting from all four.  Thanks to all those who have tweeted, retweeted, followed on FB and otherwise joined in the conversation from around the world already.

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