Museums and their communities
Sheila Watson (ed.), Routledge, 2007. 568 pp.
ISBN: 9780415402590

review by Fiona Cameron
Museums and their communities book cover

The anthology Museums and Their Communities, edited by Sheila Watson, uses case studies drawn from museum studies, history, anthropology and archaeology to explore the museum as a site of representation, identity and memory, and considers how institutions can influence their communities. Focusing on the museum as an institution, and its social and cultural setting, Watson examines how museums use their roles as informers and educators to empower, or ignore, communities.

Looking at current debates about the role of the museum, she considers contested values in museum functions and examines provision, power, ownership, responsibility, and institutional issues. Chapters by leading theorists and practitioners consider the concept of community in its various forms: national, regional and local. In the introduction, Watson as editor attempts to problematise the idea of community, developing typological descriptions drawn from the writing to frame disparate notions of 'community' discussed by various authors, and as a way of producing a conceptual framework for the volume.

The 39 chapters by 42 authors explore and challenge the long-held notion of the basis of museum–community relations couched in an acquisitive relationship, one founded in 'old' museological practices and philosophies, to one that seeks to upset this dynamic, and interrogate its inherent politically driven agendas. Informed by 'new' museological paradigms of cultural diversity and pluralism, and market mechanisms driving an audience-focused perspective, many of the writers explore new relations with communities based on the idea of shared authority, drawing on practical examples of institutions that consciously work with, and for a variety of communities.

In Part One, 'Changing roles of museums over time and current challenges', Stephen Weil, Marjorie Halpin, Peter Davis and Eilean Hooper-Greenhill explore the changing meaning of museums in the last 150 years. Each of these authors provides different perspectives on museum development and the challenges facing the institution in society attempting to become more responsive towards individuals and community groups. In Chapter 5 Richard Sandell considers how museum relationships with their communities are overtly political and asks to what extent museums can and should attempt to combat prejudice, social inequality and discrimination. Josie Appleton then challenges the views of Weil, Sandell and others, arguing that there is no consensus on the role of museums with their communities. Appleton details the impact of Thatcherism and cultural leftism, while positing that museums in the United Kingdom act as social engineers in the promotion of government policy initiatives. Moira Simpson interrogates indigenous concepts of the museum as an alternative space for representing community.

Chapters in Part Two, 'Who controls the museum?', deal with power struggles in museums, theories about knowledge and ways museums exhibit certain views of the world. Sharon Macdonald suggests that the representation of science in museums reflects power relations and helps to construct community identity. Conflicts between communities and museum representations are interrogated by Timothy Luke, who draws on the case example of the Enola Gay controversy. Innovations in terms of Indigenous community representation, the negotiation of competing representations by institutions, and the development of community spaces with museum spaces are discussed by Viv Szekeres.

Part Three, 'Museums and identities', deals with the roles museums play in the validation and making of community identities, and the notion of pluralism as it is played out within institutional space. George MacDonald's and Stephen Alsford's chapter examines the changing relationships between human history museums and aboriginal and ethnic communities within the context of Canadian multiculturalism. Dawn Casey discusses competing views of national history at the National Museum of Australia and resultant controversies. Elizabeth Crooke's chapter on Northern Ireland provides an analysis of the role of museums and community heritage initiatives in supporting personal and local as well as national identities.

Part Four, 'Communities remembering and forgetting', is a synopsis of writing and practice around the relationship between museums and memory, and the roles museums play in memory-making. Barbara Misztal explores ideas of collective and cultural memory, analysing theories of memory as a social and cultural process. Steven Lubar's analysis of the World War II: Sharing Memories exhibition at the National Museum of American History examines the way individuals wrote about memories of war. The expansion of holocaust memorial museums and their roles in world society as a moral paradigm for the human rights movement is discussed by Terence Duffy.

Part Five, 'Challenges: museums and communities in the twenty-first century', examines some of the key issues facing museums as they reflect on and work towards more equal and inclusive relationships with the communities they serve. Susan Ashley considers new models for power sharing using the exhibit on the Underground Railroad and African Canadian history at the Royal Ontario Museum, Toronto. Annette Van den Bosch examines the impact of globalisation on the concept and practice of community identity.

The collection draws together previously published works that span more than two decades, mapping the debates around the aforementioned themes. It operates more as an audit of pre-existing museum debates around the 'new' museology, essential as a reading resource for under- and postgraduate work, rather than exploring new scholarship that extends and/or critiques these debates beyond the confines of the established order. Having said this, the collection is an excellent contribution to the sector, particularly in its comprehensive analysis of existing thinking and practice models. Watson has done an exemplary job of bringing together key literature while undertaking a considered analysis, from both a theoretical and practical stance, of the multifaceted complexities bound by the question of museums and their relationships with their communities.

This volume and museological thinking as it currently stands is strongly informed by the 'new' museological paradigm based on post-structural and post-modern precepts. It is influenced primarily by Foucauldian analyses of governmentality brought to the museum field by theorist Tony Bennett: the framing of power relationships between museums and communities, and considerations of how to reformulate these interactions. And the writing of Derrida, one that questions the stability of meanings, as multiple and conditioned by past interpretations and present meanings.

The contributors to this volume discuss these concepts and translate them into notions of community, cultural diversity and pluralism, knowledge and power. The collection would have benefited from an additional section that examined new thinking around relations of community and museums bought about by emergent social conditions. That is, new levels of interconnectivity, digital technologies, the fluid, chaotic and complex relations that emerge in a world defined by global complexity, new formulations of producer and consumer, new conceptualisations of citizenship, the national and the transnational.

Fiona Cameron is research fellow, Museum and Cultural Heritage Studies, Centre for Cultural Research, University of Western Sydney.