Wednesday, October 15, 2014

From Multicultural to Intercultural: Evolution or Spectrum of Engagement?

How do you balance the value of honoring specific multicultural practices and bridging them to build new connections?

At the Inclusive Museum conference this summer, Dr. Rick West introduced this question through a tale of two museums.

He described the National Museum of the American Indian--where he was founding director--as a multicultural institution, celebrating the diversity of Native peoples throughout the Americas. He envisions The Autry--his current gig--as an intercultural institution, telling all the stories of the American West. Rick explained intercultural work as an opportunity for museums to evolve beyond multiculturalism. To actively weave together cultures across differences instead of accentuating the distinctions among them.

This was the first time I'd heard the term intercultural. Researching further, I found this helpful set of definitions and diagrams:
  • In multicultural communities, we live alongside each other.
  • In cross-cultural communities, there is some reaching across boundaries.
  • In intercultural communities, there is comprehensive mutuality, reciprocity, and equality. 
These definitions present a clear bias towards interculturality as the "best" form of interaction. As someone who strives and works for social bridging (a form of intercultural practice), I'm drawn to that.

But I also appreciate the complexity and interdependence of these constructs--especially in cultural institutions. Working in an intercultural way means focusing on the relations among people. That can come at the cost of celebrating and learning about distinctive cultural practices.

For example, consider an ethnographic museum. Is it better to organize the content by cultural group or by theme?

Organizing content by cultural group immerses visitors in distinct artifacts, artwork, historical context, and people. It helps visitors get a sense of the diversity and differences among us. It can showcase the glory of a particular place or practice. It could be useful in a world of rapidly changing demographics and culture.

Organizing by theme immerses visitors in an idea common to humans around the world. It builds empathy and common ground. It could be useful in a world of multi-racial, multi-migratory people.

I have experienced extraordinary ethnographic museums of both kinds. Glorious exhibitions that immersed me in the intricacies of diversity. Powerful exhibitions that presented intersections that I never would have linked.

I think of the Museum of World Cultures (Gothenberg, Sweden) as an institution that masterfully explores both types. They organize many exhibitions about cultural groups (e.g. Wiphala, about a flag of a medicine man in the Andes mountains). But they also present exhibitions like Destination X, a thematic exploration of forced and voluntary international travel and migration.

Similarly, I've experienced performing arts organizations that do both well: projects that showcase the extraordinary specificity of a cultural experience or practice, and projects that present many diverse artists around a shared theme.

At my museum, we have a mission that explicitly pushes us to intercultural practice. But it's not obvious to me that this should be a field-wide strategy. I question whether cultural institutions should "evolve" from multicultural to intercultural practice, or whether these are just different approaches on a spectrum.

At its best, a multicultural institution honors the diversity of cultural practice.
At its worst, a multicultural institution tokenizes different cultures with siloed projects.

At its best, an intercultural institution draws unexpected connections to bring us together across difference.
At its worst, it wallows in relativism, using cultural artifacts as dots in invented constellations.

So what's best?
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