Curatorial Conversations IX: Challenging History

Our ongoing post series, Curatorial Conversations, has addressed a number of the challenging aspects of displaying and interpreting psychiatric collections. The notion of a challenge incorporates both the concern that such histories are difficult in and of themselves, but also that any interpretation should challenge received ideas of mental health history. The recent Challenging History conference at City University spoke to similar themes, arising from a previous network on the topic. Papers, workshops and keynote speakers addressed a variety of “difficult” histories, as well as sparking debate over the nature of the role held by museums in delivering ideas.

The conference opened to an inspiring address from David Fleming, Director of National Museums Liverpool, questioning the notion that the educational nature of museums requires them both to avoid difficult subjects and concentrate on intellectual ideas. Fleming, drawing on examples of museums as monuments to genocide, political turmoil and war, proposed that challenging subjects open up the opportunity to engage the emotions of audiences. Emotions, he argued, not objects, are at the heart of social history museums: why would any museum desire to be neutral and dispassionate, even if such an approach were possible? Of course, such an ideology contains further concerns. As one participant in the discussion pointed out, emotions can be divisive as well as shared, while attempts to invoke feeling might easily be viewed as manipulative or propagandist. Nonetheless, Fleming’s was an interesting reminder that the idea that a museum might present an entirely “objective” view of history is a widely held myth.  The museum, created by staff, governors and associated organisations and communities with social and political agendas, will certainly reflect the context in which it is created. Opening up discussion of this context, as we have aimed to do around the Bethlem Museum, becomes an important element of determining the content and message of the museum itself.

But who, ultimately, decides on this message? In the most thought-provoking talk of the conference, museum consultant Bernadette Lynch addressed the topic of community participation and consultation in the heritage sector. One interesting analogy, stemming from her recent report for the Paul Hamlyn Foundation, Whose Cake Is It Anyway?, was that of the “wheels on the bus” model, an easy trap to fall into in museum consultation. In this example, a museum worker designing an exhibition involves a local community group in consultation, asking them to contribute their own designs, adding wheels and windows to the existing bus outline. Such a task clearly leaves little room for interpretation and choice – it is obvious where wheels and windows should be placed. Nonetheless, the group attempt to contribute alternative ideas, which the museum worker receives with some trepidation. Ultimately, however, she discards all those contributions which don’t fit her initial idea, retaining only the few that do: a process that frequently, Dr Lynch argued, leaves external groups with a feeling of having contributed to their own marginalisation. The museum sets the limits of engagement from the outset, disempowering those whose voices it claims to champion.

This picture may seem unduly negative but, incorporated into the overall debate of the conference, it becomes a very positive reminder. It is all too easy, particularly for those working within “challenging” historical fields, to assume that their work is unquestionably worthy, due simply to its subject matter. Challenging History reminds us that what we ultimately need to challenge is ourselves: our opinions, ideas and – most importantly – our practice.

You can join the new Challenging History discussion list here. A forthcoming book will also further address the themes of the conference.

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