Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Blueprint Book Club Part 2: Museums as Battlefields in the History Wars

This post is the second in a series of reactions to Blueprint, a book chronicling the rise and fall of the Dutch Museum of National History (INNL) in 2008-2011. This guest post was written by Regan Forrest, exhibition developer and visitor experience researcher at the University of Queensland in Australia. Regan was struck by the similarities between the controversy around the Dutch Museum of National History and the issues that surrounded the National Museum of Australia when it opened ten years ago. 

As someone who has worked on several “ground-up” museum projects, some that have made it to fruition, others not, I was particularly interested in the background context of INNL rather than the specifics of the planned museum. In my experience, there is often very little difference between the design and content of those that make it and those that don’t: it’s all about politics, economics, personalities and timing. A new national museum is a particularly ambitious undertaking, because what is being created is a highly visible and long-standing statement about national identity, national priorities and a projection of self-image to the world at large. Anyone with such a brief in this day and age has their work cut out for them. The days of the unidimensional grand narrative are behind us, replaced by ongoing debate and disagreement. It’s a far more complex picture to present.

The dismissal of the INNL’s plans as a ‘post-modern mish-mash’ (Blueprint, p219) immediately jumped out at me as something that might have been said in some quarters about the National Museum of Australia(NMA) when it opened in 2001. The NMA was a key battlefield in Australia’s “History Wars," a continuing national debate about how we recognise, teach and interpret the knottier aspects of Australia’s colonial past. The NMA was accused of presenting a “black armband” view of Australia’s history (i.e., dwelling on the predations of colonialism rather than celebrating national achievements).

Due to the political climate of the time, a review of the Museum was commissioned in 2003 to determine whether the museum had complied with the requirements of its charter. The 2003 review found that, while accusations of systematic political bias were on the whole unwarranted, there were considerable issues with respect to both the museum’s physical and conceptual orientation. Signage was inadequate and gallery titles were ambiguous and confusing. The outdoor courtyard was an ‘overwhelming’ expanse of concrete, with symbolism that was incomprehensible without considerable prior knowledge or the presence of a guide.

The review’s authors emphasised the importance of narrative (if not Grand Narrative) as a communication tool. In this sense, the NMA was deemed to have missed a trick. The linking themes and narratives of the museum were insufficiently explicit in many places, making the experience feel disjointed. In some cases, the lack of a strong collection to support the storylines emphasised narrative weaknesses. On the other hand, the review of the Museum’s programs was mostly favourable and the museum’s online presence was praised.

In response to the report, the NMA produced a Collections and Gallery Development Plan to address the issues highlighted. Changes to exhibitions and visitor orientation have been made, the museum’s programs continue to evolve, and there is a redevelopment to the building currently underway which will expand the public spaces and make it possible for the museum to display more of its iconic objects.

The history wars may not have ended, but they have moved on to other battlefields. Overall, the 2003 review recognised that the NMA was a work in progress. There was an acknowledgement that institutions need time and space to evolve. The expectation that everything should be bang-on right from the time of ribbon cutting is widespread but unrealistic.

So when considering plans on paper for a museum that didn’t even make it to the ribbon stage, some latitude is warranted. We don’t know how things would have evolved from opening day. How would the competing views of Dutch history have played out? To what extent would changing political tides have influenced the outcome? Would the interlocking storylines have made sense to the average visitor? Would it have captured the imagination of audiences? Would visitors have left feeling energised, or overwhelmed?

These questions may remain points of conjecture indefinitely. But if, as the authors hope, the museum eventually becomes reality, we may well have a chance to find out.
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