Civilizing the museum: the collected writings of Elaine Heumann Gurian
Elaine Heumann Gurian, Routledge, 2006. Distributed in Australia by Palgrave Macmillan. ISBN 0415357624. RRP $59.95
review by Andrea Witcomb
Cover of Elaine Heumann Gurian's book 'Civilising the Museum'

Like many others in the Australian museum community, I remember first hearing Elaine Heumann Gurian speak at the 1996 Museums Australia conference in Sydney. That was the occasion many of us began to think of museums as 'safe spaces for unsafe ideas'.[1] That phrase encapsulates all that Gurian stands for and what her first book documents — her fervent belief that museums are civil institutions capable of addressing issues of social justice, playing a unique role in their communities and able, if they wish, to represent and advocate on behalf of minority and Indigenous groups.

In arguing for this understanding of the potential of museums, Elaine Heumann Gurian gently but firmly prods her colleagues, chastising them for losing faith, praising them when they are adventurous and experimental. She represents the social and moral conscience of the museum community at its best while avoiding the dangers of the high moral ground. Having lived through complex moments of cultural change within museums herself, Gurian never loses sight of the actual difficulties confronting those who wish to push for change. Nor is she frightened of changing her position on various issues. In fact, her book documents this process of change and is all the more engaging for it.

Civilizing the Museum: The Collected Writings of Elaine Heumann Gurian is a compilation of Gurian's speeches and writings developed during her working life in and around museums. Her offerings read not only as one individual's thinking in relation to museum issues over a period of time but as a more general record of a period in the history of museums. The book offers a kind of barometer which we can use to register the ups and downs of the cause we know as the new museology. Gurian is one of the new museology's earliest exponents from within the museum world and her own reflections on what that journey has been like are one of the strongest aspects of the book. Despite her almost ceaseless energy and commitment to the cause, her reflections are worrying, indicating as they do the increasingly difficult political context in which museums currently operate. While still committed to the notion that 'museums should welcome all because they house the collective memory of all', she worries that after nearly 40years of effort we have barely begun to scratch the surface, finding that it is all too easy to lose ground.

The book, which contains essays from as early as 1981 and as recently as 2005, is structured thematically rather than chronologically. Part one deals with definitional issues around the age-old question, 'what is a museum?' This section's main contribution is to insist on the importance of 'and' — which for Gurian equates to a resistance to the closing-down effect of definitions. A number of essays here are particularly useful for the graduate classroom, opening up a space for a more complex and situated understanding of museums. She resists definitions of museums that focus exclusively either on the role of objects or on the role of ideas.

The second part, entitled 'A safer place: museums in a civil society', lays out the principles she has consciously striven to work towards — those of social, cultural and economic inclusion. In the third part these principles are explored by analysing the ways they are reflected in museum spaces. Of particular note in this section is the way in which Gurian documents her openness to the continuities between museums and other spaces of display such as shopping malls, arguing eloquently for the need to learn from such spaces. The other clear influence here is the work of town planners such as Jane Jacobs who, in their response to the instrumentalist policies of modernist planners, argued for the importance of building and planning spaces that encouraged the creation of communities. Gurian shows us how these ideas are relevant to museum architecture if we wish to create more inclusive spaces that foster a sense of community.

The fourth part is an exploration of the process of exhibition making, contrasting dominant models such as the team approach — with its aims of creating more inclusive exhibitions — with those of the superstar curator that, Gurian argues, can surprise and delight their audiences, achieving inclusion by means normally associated with the exact opposite. This is one of the most exciting and provocative parts of the book, offering contrasting positions that open up and question previously held assumptions. There is, for example, a wonderful start to an essay which states simply, 'I was wrong'. The statement refers to the previous essay which presented an argument for the importance of a team approach to exhibitions in combating the authority of the curator over that of the audience. The second piece is an exploration of the possibilities of the superstar curator — the type of curator who is driven by an aesthetic vision as the main means through which to communicate meaning. Here Gurian documents her response to the direction imposed by the first director of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, Jeshajahu Weinberg. A theatre director by background, Weinberg privileged aesthetic modes of communicating narrative content within a fixed, linear narrative style. Gurian documents her surprise at the result which, contrary to her expectations, was very inclusive of audience needs and both demanded and received sensitive and emotional responses from a wide range of people. Could it be, she ponders, that the fixed narratives offered by this museum could actually provide a means to open up multiple meanings? Given the return to conservative values in most western societies, which makes it difficult to represent contested histories, this seems to me an important question. Is there a way in which diversity can be represented without recourse to models of equal but separate representation? Fully aware that the attempt to democratise the museum was based to a large extent on the argument that we needed to contextualise and explain our collections, Gurian is also open to the possibility that more creative approaches to exhibition development may elicit a wider range of meanings, particularly emotive responses to material culture and indeed historical experiences. Could this approach — which requires the involvement of artists within museums, even perhaps their leadership — offer more relevant ways to ensure the civic role of museums? Could it be that a team approach to exhibition development may not always offer cutting-edge exhibitions that break new ground, attentive though they are to audience needs?

The final section, 'Spirituality: The end of the age of the rational', engages with the proposition that the contemporary relations between Indigenous peoples and museums have had a deep impact on the rational frameworks within which museums have operated. Using her work for the National Museum of the American Indian, Gurian explores the emergence of different models of ownership of collections in response to the repatriation movement, the need to engage with intangible aspects of heritage, and changing attitudes to conservation and epistemologies. The tone of this final section is optimistic — it is here that the future of museums lies. It is a future that Gurian welcomes and seeks to encourage so that we may all participate in civil society.

Because of the nature of the chapters, which are based on speeches or conference presentations, the book does not offer a fully worked out argument or series of case studies with detailed descriptions and analyses of specific examples of institutional practices — with the possible exception of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, which receives more detailed attention. As a whole, the book is more like a meandering conversation. While at times I felt frustrated by the lack of detailed analysis and documentation, I appreciate that, as in most good conversations, important issues are opened up and discussed but left open as if for further discussion. The book is very much an invitation to a younger generation of practitioners to reflect on where museums have been and where they might be going, with the express desire that they might pick up the mantle and continue to fight the battle. It is an invitation to which we all should respond.

Andrea Witcomb is a senior lecturer in cultural heritage at Curtin University of Technology, Perth.

1 Gurian did speak in Australia in 1981 at a museum educators' conference in Melbourne, but many of us would not have heard her on that occasion. That paper, 'Answers to the ten questions I am most often asked: A review of exhibitions and learning', is included in this collection.