Inclusive Museum Conference

Mary Battle, Band in Grand Kadooment parade during Crop Over festival, Barbados, August 2012.

Sorry for the delay in blogging– but I have a good excuse! I have just returned from spending 11 days in Barbados where I presented at the annual International Conference on the Inclusive Museum (Aug 2-5) and conducted training on digital archiving procedures with LCDL’s Associate Director, Angela Flenner, at the Barbados Museum & Historical Society. In the midst of all that it was also Crop Over, a major annual festival in Barbados (see photo above). The historic origins of this festival are to celebrate the end of the sugar harvest on the island, which explains the festival’s strikingly straightforward name (though the event now occurs in August rather than after the actual harvest).

This was my third trip to Barbados–it was an amazing experience, and I am very grateful to College of Charleston and LCDL for supporting this trip. In later blogs I will further discuss our collaborative digital archiving training process and why we do it. But for this blog entry I would like to pass along some of the highlights of the conference.

Usually when I go to conferences I can cherry-pick which presentations I would like to see based on how relevant they are to my research interests. This time however, even though this conference was not very large, I wanted to attend everything. Everyone there was grappling with a similar struggle, albeit in various international contexts– how to develop a museum or public history site or exhibition that is inclusive not only in the types of diverse experiences, collections, and events it interprets, but also in how it engages the community where it is physically located. Presenters described sites and issues from around the world (for example, just on my own panel the presenter before me discussed challenges with designing a museum about Berber villages in Qatar, and the presenter after me discussed problems with excluding indigenous languages in museum text panels in Zimbabwe). Still similar themes emerged– particularly in how to confront histories that involve historic struggles over race and class. For many presenters from the United States and the Caribbean, interpreting the history of slavery and post-Emancipation racial struggles presented both similar and contrasting challenges. For example, keynote speaker Lonnie Bunch, director of the Smithsonian’s National Museum for African American History and Culture,  described how addressing histories of struggle and survival for African Americans during and after U.S. slavery can be difficult for museum fundraising. As he explained, he has heard complaints ranging from “I thought the Smithsonian was supposed to make us feel good about our country,” to “This will be a wonderful museum, just don’t talk about slavery.” Presenters such as Kevin Farmer and Alissandra Cummins from Barbados also described how the history of slavery has been traditionally diminished in the Caribbean context because many people believed that it was “shameful” and detracted from the pride and spirit of post-colonial nation building in the mid-nineteenth century (see their work in the upcoming publication Plantation to Nation: Caribbean Museums and National Identity, Chicago & Melbourne: Onmuseums Series, Common Ground Publishing, 2012).

My own presentation was on developing the International African American Museum in Charleston, South Carolina during an economic crisis, and particularly spoke to the cost-effective and widely influential opportunities of presenting museum interpretation through online exhibitions such as African Passages, Lowcountry Adaptations (which is being developed in partnership with IAAM). Listening to these various presentations from around the world helped me recognize that while many of Charleston’s diverse histories are in many ways specific to this area, we are not alone in the challenges and opportunities we face as we embrace inclusive public history representations.

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