Narratives of community: Museums and ethnicity
MuseumsEtc, Edinburgh, 2010
ISBN 9781907697050 (pbk), 432 pp., RRP GBP£44.95
review by Marianna Auliciems
Cover image of Narratives of Community

Narratives of Community: Museums and Ethnicity is a collection of articles that serves as a useful guide for rethinking the changing role of museums in the twenty-first century. Museums the world over are today going beyond their classical role of givers of canonical truth and cultural authority. Instead they are redefining themselves to embrace the diversities, contradictions and multifaceted nature of the communities they exist within. Increased migration has enhanced cultural and ethnic diversity globally, producing growing numbers of migrants who do not unequivocally 'belong' to the countries where they live.

These processes have coincided with a shift towards more reflexivity and the individualisation of lifestyles and identities. As a result, identity is becoming more fragmentary, and more a matter of individual choice than ascription. This contemporary tendency for self-constructed identity has been accompanied by an upsurge of ethnicity and inter-ethnic self-consciousness. How are museums reacting to this contemporary construction of identity? The process of determining ethnic affiliation is a matter of debate, which is something that contemporary museums can help understand, as they are institutions that collect and display collective memory and knowledge, and force visitors to consider who they are as citizens, community members and individuals.

This anthology reviews the work of various museums engaging in this cross-cultural dialogue, in four different thematic sections. Part I, 'Counter-narratives of cultural knowledge', provides examples, in articles by Vicki Couzens and Kate Craddy, of how museums oppose popular ideas of culture. Klare Scarborough's conversation with Native American Indian contemporary artist James Luna emphasises the idea of multifaceted identity, and the related difficulties of presenting ethnicity in museums, particularly in terms of the objectification taking place in museums and society at large. A description by Patricia Davis of the work of the African American Civil War Memorial Freedom Foundation and Museum in Washington DC presents the museum's innovative approach to interpreting African American involvement in the civil war, with an emphasis on oratory and social space. This museum experience encourages the visitors, through dialogue with one another and the tour guide, to apply reflections about historical events to an analysis of contemporary issues and often difficult political subjects.

In Part II, 'New models of representing memory', articles by Julie Kendig-Lawrence, Victoria Dickenson, and Alison Taylor and Stacey Bains give examples of ways museums in Canada, the United States and the United Kingdom have presented alternative interpretations of the cultural landscape of a nation. Vicki Leibowitz describes how the building of the new Red Location Museum in South Africa has been developed to deliberately include community and facilitate personal narrative, in an attempt to regenerate the heart of the Red Location, an impoverished community. This article stands out as an extreme case of a museum being consciously redefined and redeveloped as a place for the community. For the Red Location museum, the content is not what is seen, but what happens in the space — what is generated there, rather than what is consumed.

In Part III, 'Involving voice, perspective and people', the methods of particular museums in engaging with communities are described by Magdalena Mieri, Carmita Eliza Icasiano and Annette B Fromm. The positive effect museums can have in cross-cultural encounters is demonstrated by Philipp Schorch, who describes the results of a long-term narrative study of international visitors to the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa. This study involved qualitative interviews to establish how the public engages with the presentation of Maori history in the museum. This article brilliantly illustrates the contrasting cultural, ethnic and experiential 'baggage' brought to museums by their visitors, and the difference in impact and interpretation of the museum's message according to these differing identities.

Part IV, 'Narratives of nation and imagination', explores how museums negotiate competing notions of race, ethnicity and place, with articles by Catherine Gomes, Olivia Guntarik and Oliver Benjamin Hemmerle discussing museums as tools used to promote larger national political agendas. Marzia Varutti takes an interesting look at Chinese museums and their presentations of ethnic minorities, illustrating the difficult dual and competing role often played by museums in promoting national cohesion while simultaneously giving a voice to ethnic minorities. Particularly noteworthy is Varutti's commentary on the problematic use of mannequins, dioramas and miniatures in these exhibitions, dehumanising the minorities displayed and so contributing to their silencing.

Narratives of Community is particularly useful for students and museum professionals who are considering the approaches to community inclusion and the shifting role of museums towards spaces that allow for the expression multiple interpretations of ethnicity and identity. Articles in the first two parts of the anthology provide simpler 'show and tell' descriptions of museum initiatives to involve communities. These papers outline the problems, special considerations and consequences that stem from this inclusive view of museums. The most rewarding articles, however, appear in the last two parts of the book, which place stronger emphasis on theory and on the problematics of this contemporary development in museum practice.

On reading Narratives of Community I was struck by the weak voice of European museums relating to community inclusion. The field appears to be dominated by the American and Asian museum experience. This, I suspect, is a consequence of Western European museums being strongholds of classical museum values, and possibly points to the fact that European (particularly continental European) museums are not yet as proactive as their counterparts in the modern world in rethinking and redefining, and most importantly, putting into practice the presentation of multiple identities and ethnicity.

This book will particularly inform my own experience as an Australian-Latvian curator, working with a team to develop a new museum in Riga, Latvia. Although living daily with issues of multiple ethnic identities and large ethnic minorities, museums in Eastern Europe, and particularly the former Soviet bloc countries, are still held back by their political past, and are struggling with simpler issues of modernising interpretation methods after years of Soviet rule. The proposal to give voice to ethnic minorities is a radical suggestion in this post-Soviet context. For museum workers in these countries, Narratives of Community provides a fascinating read into a vastly different world of museum practice.

Marianna Auliciems (Auliciema) is an Australian-Latvian curator for the Latvians Abroad — Museum and Research Centre, based in Riga, Latvia.