Museum frictions: Public cultures/global transformations
Ivan Karp, Corinne A Kratz, Lynn Szwaja, and Tomás Ybarra-Frausto (eds), Duke University Press, 2006.
632 pp, ISBN: 0822338947 (pbk)

review by Jay Arthur
Museum frictions book cover

This book is the result a series of meetings on museums and globalising processes convened over six years by the Rockefeller Foundation in New York, Buenos Aires, Cape Town and Bellagio, Italy. It builds on two earlier conferences and volumes produced by the same group of scholars, Exhibiting Cultures (1991) and Museums and Communities (1992).

The new volume seeks to address new concerns of museums identified since those first volumes. The editors see globalisation as the main challenge and catalyst to museum practice today. They wanted to reflect what they saw as the two faces of globalisation; the positives of new technologies — especially the abilities to create and sustain communities across geographic and political boundaries, a focus on the preservation and re-emergence of traditions and voices; and the negatives — the homogeneity of the mass media and the associated loss of cultural diversity, and the increasing inequality across the world community.

The editors are at pains to point out that this book is only part of the results of these meetings around the topic of globalisation. Regional workshops were organised in Buenos Aires, Cape Town and Bellagio, Italy and three participants from each of these workshops was part of the editorial committee.

'Globalisation' is interpreted in the book to mean the 'global preoccupations' of museums — such as the representation of multiple voices and the changing conversation as previously excluded histories become part of the mainstream discussion. Possibly, as many editors of collected essays find, the final collection of material from the conference included work which did not fit the narrower interpretation of globalisation so they widened the focus to include this material. A wide range of representational and experiential institutions is included in the discussion — theme parks, community museums and heritage landscape are topics of some of the essays. There are reflections on public scholarship, museum forums and other aspects of the wider museum practice outside the exhibition.

In an attempt to have the book reflect more closely the meetings and workshops that the editors speak of so positively, the volume widens its focus through the use of interspersed documents to augment the diversity of voices. The documents also act as a commentary on the essays and provide a change of pace and texture in an otherwise traditional format of collected essays. There is an article for example by the artist Vincente Razo on his Museo Salinas, and its play on and critique of the concepts inherent in the word 'museum', which is printed in both Spanish and English.

Some essays deal powerfully with the more accepted sense of globalisation. Christine Muller Kreamer tells the story of the Cape Coast Castle in Ghana — a site, among other events, for the processing of slaves on their way to America. African American concerns to preserve and display this episode in the Castle history conflict with the local Ghanaians, who are more interested in promoting the region's culture and the full range of the Castle's history. They are also uneasy with the focus on this period on their history, seeing a disconnect between themselves and the African collaborators with the slavers. However the African Americans have the money and Ghana needs to the tourist dollar.

Other essays deal with the second view of globalisation — that of common global preoccupations, such as the inclusion of previously silenced voices. There is an excellent essay by Fath Davis Ruffins on the process of the inclusion of the history of slavery in major American museums — an inclusion almost shockingly recent.

Australia is represented by articles by Fred Myers and Howard Morphy. Myers looks at symposia as part of the exhibition process, taking as his subject the occasion when a group of Aboriginal artists he had been working with present to a New York audience. The occasion gives him to reflect particularly on the roles played by anthropologists in relation both to the Indigenous people they are supporting in such situations and the wider audience. Morphy discusses the way Indigenous cultures operating in a museum context can be seen either as a tamed colonised product or a way of a very adaptive and creative culture taking a new situation into its own world view.

The Preface, Foreword and Introduction speak at great length about the involvement of a 'global' community in the production of this book and this volume contains a greater weighting of international cases and authors than did the previous two volumes. However, it seems to me that there is confusion in this work about what it means to talk about the 'six continents' and what it means to have voices from these six continents. Seven of the 15 authors are based in the United States and only two are from one of the proclaimed 'centres of interest', Latin America. So despite their best intentions, the book reflects one of those negative effects of globalisation — the dominance of the powerful — that the editors were speaking of.

Reading this book reminded me of how Australia is positioned in this discussion of globalisation. Despite the internet, despite the ease of electronic communication, Australia's physical isolation still affects its museum practice. Visiting overseas museums and meeting with international peers is for most Australian practioners a relatively rare experience. There is no substitute for the kind of conversation a museum practioner can have about an exhibition that they have physically seen. Museum practice is still primarily about a physically experiential relation with an object — whether it will remain so is another matter. As I read this volume gave me the feeling of a person watching from a distance a group of people engaging in a lively conversation of which only fragments float across to be heard. This book is a reminder to Australian curators of their situation and of the need to be aware of this limitation; but on the other hand at least it also allows us to overhear that lively conversation more clearly.

This volume gives those interested in museum practice a diverse range of considered reflections from a group deeply concerned with that practice. However, in the end what haunted me from the book was not those reflections but a concrete example of the power of objects. Martin Hall, in his exploration of 'the authentic', recounts an event from the wars that dismembered the former Yugoslavia. A group of Serbian soldiers broke into a Croatian artist's studio to steal money and equipment. Initially enraged by an Islamic motif on the wall, they then took all the artist's paintings, drawings and sketches, lined them up against the front wall of the house and executed them with machine-gun fire until they were in shreds.[1]

Jay Arthur is a curator at the National Museum of Australia.

1 Ivan Lovrenovic 'The hatred of memory: in Sarajevo, Burned Books and Murdered Pictures', New York Times, 28 May 1994.