Reflections on objects and agency in contemporary museum practice
As the questions posed for the 2006 ICME conference suggest, most ethnographic museums today deal with matters of ‘expanding museum boundaries', ‘community needs and interests' and ‘community dialog, projects and activities' in one way or the other. To some extend we may regard the way the concerns with communities have been dealt with as a confrontation with the regime of objective (in both terms of the word) science that influenced ethnographic museums at least up till the 1970's and 80's. Objects, at least the ones found in the old museum collections, were not able to express the contemporary concerns and interests of the communities represented. This paper will suggest that we may see an opening today for making objects a central focus for the discussion of ‘difficult social topics' and community needs and interests. This opening is detected theoretically in recent observations on the agency of objects that assert that ‘art objects' (in a wide definition of the concept) are not simply materialisation of culture or identity, but deliberate attempts to change the social world. Furthermore, empirical examples of community ownership, and reinterpretation of museum collections may cause ethnographic museums to reconsider the relation between the front-stage and back-stage handling of objects. The paper will draw on observations from my ongoing research project on the role of objects in contemporary ethnographic exhibitions, and from reflections on an exhibition-in-the-making at Moesgård Museum about the transmission of memory of pre-1948 Palestine among Palestinian communities in Denmark.