Vignettes_Varine.JPG (5175 bytes) Tomorrow’s Community Museums

Hugues De Varine


He joined ICOM as Deputy Director to Georges Henri Rivière in 1962, became Interim-Director in 1964 and Director in 1967. He left ICOM in 1974. From 1982 to 1984 he was Director of the French-Portuguese Institute in Lisbon. He now runs his own community development business, Asdic, based at Lusigny-sur-Ouche.

His lecture was given on 15 October 1993, in the Senate Hall of the University of Utrecht.

The title of my lecture could be interpreted in at least three different ways and I hope I shall not be accused of trying to spread confusion if I say that all three are correct. Possibility One is that we already have community museums today, but that tomorrow’s will be different from today’s. Possibility Two is that the nature of what we call communities will have changed. In that case, what I might be discussing today would be museums for tomorrow’s communities. And Possibility Three would concentrate on the word ‘tomorrow’. What kind of society will exist in 10, 20, 30 years time? What will tomorrow be like and how can community museums help people to adjust to a new style of life?

I realise, of course, that the English language encourages what I might call ‘creative ambiguity’, that is, leaving the meaning of phrases and sentences deliberately open-ended, so that readers and listeners can exercise their minds in an attempt to discover the complexity of thought behind the words. This is less likely to occur in other languages, where nouns are not used as verbs or adjectives in the English manner and where the obligatory use of prepositions and suffixes makes clear what the relation is between one noun and another. I could say, if I wanted to flatter, that English is a very democratic language, which allows its customers to deduce and assume meaning for themselves - for ‘democratic’ one could, of course, substitute ‘anarchic’ - whereas my own language, French, first provides an education in the rules and then expects them to be followed. I imagine this is what is meant when the French claim to have a precise language, a language in which misunderstandings are impossible. Would only that it were so.

But today I am speaking in English, so I must be careful to establish definitions at the beginning. I define a community museum as one which grows from below, rather than being imposed from above. It arises in response to the needs and wishes of people living and working in the area and it actively involves them at every stage while it is being planned and created and afterwards when it is open and functioning. It makes use of experts, but it is essentially a co-operative venture, in which professionals are no more than partners in a total community effort.

I am sure that there is no need to remind you that most of Europe’s museums have not been created in this way at all. They have grown up in a haphazard fashion, sometimes financed by the State or by a municipality, sometimes established by Foundations, rich people or eccentrics, but nearly always without the slightest attempt to consult the museum’s future customers. One was expected to be grateful for what one was given and to regard museum-visiting as a privilege. The result, inevitably, has been that museums have remained a minority taste and that the mass of the population has been unaffected by their existence.

My work has provided me with opportunities to travel widely and I should like to say something about my experiences in four different parts of the world which have greatly influenced my thinking about community museums.

In 1965 I undertook a mission to Africa, on behalf of ICOM, and in the course of my travels I came across an open-air museum in the centre of Niamey, the capital of Niger. The country achieved full independence from France in 1960 and when I visited it the population was under five million. About 20 per cent of the inhabitants lived in rural areas. Niamey itself had about 350,000 people. The museum covered roughly four hectares. It had been created entirely by local enthusiasts, who had no special funds for the purpose and no qualified experts to help them. It is worth pointing out in this connection that the Republic’s annual GNP was about 300 American dollars a head and that there were only two hospitals and just over 100 doctors to serve the whole country. The National Museum in Naimey was a modest, colonial-type affair on the European model, and displayed a selection of natural history, archaeological and ethnographical material.

The new open-air museum had been encouraged and to a certain extent planned by the President, Hamani Diori. It was devoted to the local culture and it was seen as a way to increase the feeling of national identity. The buildings were of a traditional type and they were used as a focus of displays and demonstrations of art and handicrafts and of a wide range of activities, including music and dancing. The museum was regarded from the beginning as something which would appeal to all kinds and ages of people. It reflected the lives which they and their ancestors had led and were still leading. The presentation was in no way academic and the museum could be understood and appreciated by those with little or no formal education. It had been formed by ordinary people for ordinary people, with no preconceptions of what should not be shown. It made a deep impression on me and I began to understand that the conventional European way of running museums was not automatically the model for the rest of the world to follow.

Nor was the traditional way necessarily the most efficient or the most productive for Europe itself. In 1971 I was asked to create a museum in an area of Burgundy which was undergoing great and uncomfortably rapid social and economic changes. Since the late 18th century Le Creusot had been one of the most important industrial regions of France. Its prosperity had been built around the production of armaments and railway locomotives, with the Schneider family, which came originally from eastern France, as the highly successful entrepreneurs. After the Second World War, the Schneiders fell into disgrace, as a result of collaboration with the Germans, and their manufacturing empire collapsed, leaving Le Creusot destitute. The establishment of new forms of employment was, of course, the first priority, both for the municipality and for the Government, but raising the morale of the 150,000 people who lived in the district was also important. Georges Henri Rivière and I had the idea that a significant kind of eco-museum, a Museum of Man and Industry, could make a special contribution to this.

The new eco-museum, or ‘fragmented museum’ (‘musée éclaté’) as it was also called was concerned with an area of about 500 square kilometres, half rural and half industrial. It contained two urban communities, Le Creusot, which had been based on manufacturing, and Montceau-les-Mines, a coalmining town. The Schneiders had lived close to the works at Le Creusot, in a splendid 18th-century château, with a park. The château became the core of the new museum, its interpretation point.

Before the museum’s opening in 1974 I wrote this: ‘Any movable or unmovable object within the community’s perimeter is physiologically part of the museum. This introduces the idea of a kind of cultural property right , which has nothing to do with legal ownership. Accordingly, it is not the function of the museum as such to make acquisitions, since everything existing within its geographical area is already at its disposal.’ So every building, every person, every cow, every plant and every tree within the museum’s boundaries was to be considered as belonging to the collections, objects of potential interest and significance.

The aim of the museum was clear. There was serious unemployment in the region and morale was very low. Something was needed to make it possible for the local people to achieve some kind of common purpose and to use the past, with its successes and its disasters, as a way of discovering a new future. It was essentially a rescue job, an imaginative policy for dealing with an emergency situation and, inevitably, the structure and organisation of the museum would have to change in the course of time, as social and employment conditions improved and new industries were created to take the place of the old. But I look back on it all as a very important experiment, a museum-laboratory, if you like, and something I am proud to have been associated with

Ten years after we began working at Le Creusot, I found myself in Lisbon, where I was given an opportunity to set up a very unconventional kind of French institute. I moved around a lot during my years in Portugal and I got to know the people at Seixal, an old fishing port across the Tagus opposite Lisbon. It was in the process of being expanded into a modern town and, in order that the traditions and customs of the past should not be forgotten, a group of local people, led by a high-school teacher, had decided to form a museum. They had never travelled abroad and they were completely untrained in the usual museum techniques but, when I first knew the place, they were developing something essentially the same as Le Creusot, a museum for the community, not for tourists, although it is on a much smaller scale.

Since then, it has grown considerably and now occupies part of the ground floor of a block of working-class flats. The collections relate particularly to the fishing industry, but there is also a great deal of material illustrating the agricultural, political and social life of the district. The museum also owns a number of old fishing boats, which are being restored in a nearby harbour. They are used for taking school groups on educational tours of the harbour and the river. Seixal is certainly a community museum, created by the community for the community, but it is not an eco-museum. What it exhibits has been collected and brought to the museum. There is no fixed recipe for a community museum. What matters is the fact that it has, as I said earlier, grown from below, not been imposed from above.

And then much later, in 1992, I was in a village of 2000 inhabitants in the south of Brazil. Here both the problems and the opportunities were quite different. Many of the people belonged to families which had originally emigrated from Italy, mostly from the poorer regions of the south, but the population was mixed and it was hard to imagine how the village could be given much cultural cohesion. A community museum, brought into being by the people themselves, proved to be the answer.

As always in these circumstances there has to be someone with exceptional energy, courage and ability to see into the future in order to get the project off the ground in the first place. A leader of this type is essentially someone who is not satisfied with things as they are and who feels that life could and should be better and who is trusted by the people among whom he lives. To say that the resulting museum is amateur is beside the point, because it is not competing in a league composed of professionals. As I have noticed many times and in many different fields, people learn by doing and the right solutions so often emerge from a process of trial and error, not from trying to apply theories which have been created to fit quite different circumstances.

I should like to emphasise that the idea of community museums is not my invention. It existed before Le Creusot was thought of. Anacostia, the celebrated and influential museum in a black district of Washington D.C. was set up in 1967 with the help of the National Museum of History and Technology. It was conceived as what was then called a neighbourhood museum. The premises were a disused small cinema and the person chosen to plan and run the museum was a 30-year-old black youth worker, John Kinard. What he envisaged was something which had not existed previously, a museum which grew naturally from the life of the district, a museum with a creative flow of ideas, exhibits and people between itself and the outside world. Its task has been to give meaning to ordinary and familiar objects. These objects do not attract the attention of international gangs of thieves. They are significant only because the ability of the organisers and the designer has made them so. Anacostia could create an effective display to show the importance of rats in a slum neighbourhood, but the central feature of the exhibit, a dead rat, had no market value at all.

What I do feel able to claim to have invented, however, is the name ‘eco-museum’, a general-purpose word which was intended to cover all types and sizes of community museums, in both town and rural areas. The fact that the word has been so often misused is not my fault. There are those, for example, who fail to distinguish between an eco-museum and an open-air museum, ignoring the fact that a true eco-museum, like a true community museum, is essentially and at its best a museum which contains and reflects a double input, an input from the community itself and an input from outside advisers.

In 1962, when I joined ICOM, the museum world was, by today’s standards, remarkably homogeneous. It consisted of a small international class of people who understood one another’s motives and practices and who found it possible to work together without too much difficulty. At that time, nearly all the museums in the world were professional organisations. 30 years later, when ICOM held its meeting in Quebec, the situation had radically changed. By then the museum-mix included both big American museums, with incomes running into millions of dollars, and Third World museums with hardly any income at all. I need hardly say that museums belonging to the first category were well represented in Quebec, in contrast to those of the Third World type, whose spokesmen were mostly without the funds needed to make their attendance possible.

I am anxious not to give the impression that what I am calling community museums are a development which is only to be found in low-income parts of the world. In Western Europe we now have many museums which are based on local initiative and which exist in order to bring new life to the community. These museums are not geared either to scholarship or to professionalism. They do not have the research function which is so prized by the traditional type of museum, they engage in very few publication activities and they do not show evidence of the professional qualities which are so greatly valued nowadays by ICOM and the various national museum associations and, even more, by those who organise museum training courses. The appearance of some of their exhibits could perhaps be described as amateur, but I do not think this is inevitable. A little professional advice at the right time can help to raise the standards of presentation considerably, especially in the matter of explanatory texts and graphics. Style is not a crime and the lack of it is not a proof of virtue. It is very important that the term ‘community museum’ should not be automatically taken to imply a museum of poor quality, in which the heart is considered superior to the head.

Every museum exists in its own context. Rural Brazil is not Amsterdam and Niger is not central Sweden or Ontario. The whole point of a community museum is that it does what the local situation demands. The situation is constantly changing and the community museum should possess sufficient flexibility to respond to these changes. The traditional museum’s assumption of permanence is a source of weakness. ‘Permanent exhibitions’ are an anachronism, if indeed they were ever relevant.

Le Creusot provided an excellent example of a museum’s need to be adaptable. There the community was based for many years on an industrial complex created by the Schneider family, the members of which lived near the works and were themselves, as employers, part of the community. After the 1939-45 War, the enterprise passed into the hands of a multinational organisation with its control centre in Paris and from then on much of the manufacturing was carried out way from Burgundy. In this situation, local people had to take their destiny into their own hands.

The initial task of the new museum was to discover the past of their abandoned community and to strengthen its roots. The eco-museum in its original form grew out of that situation and reflected it. But at Le Creusot, as elsewhere, a museum, no matter what its age, can never be an achieved product. It has to change as the community changes. Its task is always what I might call the mobilisation of the community for cultural self-help, but it must never forget that it exists to serve today’s community, not yesterday’s. If it fails to be sensitive to social changes, it will die and deserves to die.

At this point I feel I should say something about my own occupation today. It is not easy to explain briefly what I do and try to do, but I think it would be reasonable to describe myself as ‘a consultant in community development’. I work on contract for local authorities which want to improve the atmosphere in which the people for whom they are responsible live their lives and to encourage the feeling that these people have common interests which are worth cultivating. The word ‘community’ should imply something more and better than a collection of individuals and families who happen to be living in the same place. Where local traditions have continued unbroken for several generations and where people have tended to live their lives in the place where they were born, ‘community’ is a real word. It describes a social unit which has been strengthened by the passage of time. But in Western society this situation is rate nowadays. People are constantly on the move and, as a result, are likely to feel that they do not belong anywhere.

I am well aware of the risks which my rather specialised profession involves. My colleagues and I have always to remember that we are educated, literate people talking to men and women who read very little and have a basically oral culture. The ingredients and the expressions of their culture are not the same as ours. So we have to learn their language in order to communicate our ideas to them and, in the process, they may come to follow our language a little better. The process of mutual understanding always involves compromise and, with luck, this can be stimulating for both parties.

But there is always a danger that we may be too successful. Our efforts and those of the people we work with can combine to produce a community in which there is too much community feeling, too great a degree of common purpose and cohesion, a community which has closed in on itself. if and when this happens, I consider that I have failed. The measure of my success is to open windows to the world outside the community and in this way to enrich the local culture and to prevent it from becoming inbred and incestuous, a fate which is as likely to occur in France as it is in Africa or South America.

In order to stop this closing-in process from happening, a new breed of museum professional is required. This consists of people within the community who have taken the trouble to acquire special qualifications, which are not necessarily those produced by conventional museum training courses. In Canada, for example, such people are being produced, after much trial and error, by means of classes in popular museology, for which the teachers have had to develop a language based on the experience of ordinary people. Conventional museum language is not always appropriate. It often has to be translated, paraphrased or even abandoned altogether.

The community museum, in order to be a museum at all, must have exhibits and collections of some sort. In order to achieve this, it has to discover what objects people have in their own homes and workplaces and to make an inventory of them, so that they can be used for exhibition purposes if and when the museum needs them. There is no need to move these objects into the museum as soon as one locates them. The community itself is the store and for this reason every household and every business has continuous links with the museum. The community is the museum.

When we tried to apply this principle at Le Creusot, we soon fell foul of the traditional museum world and its centralised authority in Paris. We were made aware that we were breaking all the rules and that we should have to be excommunicated. The regulations, sanctified by the passage of time, laid down, among other things, that museums must have collections, and they must have visitors, a public. But Le Creusot had no collections, no mass of objects which had been entrusted to the museum for safe keeping, and it had no public. The public, that is, the community, was the museum and the museum was the public. No clear line could be drawn between the two, nor was it our intention to do so. The whole point of the eco-museum, as we conceived it, was that there was no division between the two.

Our offence, and the reason for our excommunication, appeared to be rooted in the fact that museums were officially controlled by a powerful network of priests and bishops, with an accepted theology to justify their status and the structure of the organisation they controlled. We at Le Creusot had decided to establish a new kind of non-conformist, democratic museum-church, in which the congregation was the church and vice-versa. We fought a long and hard battle over this and its effects have been felt all over the museum world. Nothing, I like to think, has been the same since Le Creusot. It attracted a large number of pilgrims and it bred disciples in a number of countries, who in turn set up their own kind of eco-museum, without always using the name. With hindsight we can see that the real value of Le Creusot was to be a research laboratory, in which new museum theories and practices were developed, argued about and evaluated.

But in Le Creusot the social situation and the public were changing all the time. A new snake was developing under the skin of the old one. In 1985 the economy collapsed for the second time, despite all the efforts to revitalise it, and the museum employees lost their jobs. The old activists, those who had been in their thirties and forties in the early 1970s, were no longer prominent in the rescue and development of the community. A new generation of people with different ideals, priorities and allegiances had taken their place. the eco-museum had been created by their fathers and mothers, not by them, and they lacked the enthusiasm of the pioneers. The Museum was too slow in adapting itself to the needs of a new age. Consequently it lost its power to influence events and the thinking which surrounds events and is a product of them.

Last year, in 1992, the Eco-museum at Le Creusot decided to revise its objectives, which were beginning to look distinctly Utopian and out-of-date, and it is now in the process of adapting its structure and programming to the present needs of the community. Much the same situation is arising, I understand, in the village I visited in Brazil, where the museum seemed to be so solidly established and to be performing a valuable social function. The problem was very similar to the one we had experienced earlier at Le Creusot. Yesterday’s revolutionaries had become today’s conservatives. They were too proud of their museum and resisted any attempts to change it, in spite of obvious evidence that the nature of the community had changed and that the new generation did not have to face the same problems.

Fossilised thinking is a serious and often fatal disadvantage to any museum, but it is most disastrous when the museum is dependent on its own resources, with no public funds to protect it from collapse. Many publicly-finance museums have been quietly dying for years, but the process has often not been noticed, because it has been so gradual. But with museums like Le Creusot, where success depends on talent and enthusiasm as much as on money, disaster strikes more quickly and is more obvious.

The great weakness of the traditional museum, the museum in a building, with collections and curators and an emphasis on acquisition, conservation, research, interpretation and publications, is that it is cut off from the culture of most of the people in the area in which it is located and which it pretends to serve. It belongs to a past age. It continues to look for solutions which are based on a basic understanding of museum objects. It is, to use the jargon-term, object-centred. The situation of the community museum is quite different. It begins with people, not with objects. Its philosophy and its practice are based on the relationship between local people and their heritage. That heritage is regarded as being local, national and global. The purely parochial local museum contains the seeds of failure. Unless the familiar and the known are constantly linked to the strange and the foreign, the community museum is destined to die of anaemia. It will suffer a similar fate if it abandons its duty to be people-centred and becomes object-centred.

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