Museums as Community Advocates Part II

In her previous post, Alicia Akins, Programmes Director at the Traditional Arts and Ethnology Center (TAEC), introduced us to TAEC and the community advocacy work the museum carries out. In this post, Alicia further explores TAEC’s unique context along with the opportunities and challenges it faces as an institution aiming for local and global impact. We invite you to share any questions you might have about TAEC and Alicia’s work in Laos in the comment section below.

Museums in Laos face a unique set of challenges. To begin with, museums are new and seen primarily as foreign tourist attractions. Also foreign is the idea of a museum reaching out to its community. Children do not visit museums growing up. We cannot assume an audience comfortable with self-guided exploration. Many rural ethnic populations we work with are not literate or simply do not read. Poor roads make out-of-town Lao travelers a rarity.

Despite these obstacles, TAEC still aims to ground its work in the country’s diverse communities. Relationship building lies at the core of our work. TAEC’s primary sources in exploring themes for future exhibits are communities themselves. For example, for our 2009 temporary exhibit on Taoism, senior community members from a nearby province we had worked with in the early stages of developing the exhibit came and worked side by side with us to install the exhibit and participated in its opening. In 2010, we put on an Ethnic Cultural Festival, where we had performances and demonstrations by 156 ethnic participants from 11 villages and 7 ethnic groups. This past summer we took one of our ethnic artisans to participate in the Santa Fe International Folk Art Market. Less traditional for a museum, we have also provided funds for emergency medical assistance on our visits to villages, and brought along books for children and glasses for weavers. Though we charge admission for foreigners, Lao visitors get in the museum for free.

Ethnic Youth Interns and Senior Resource Persons visiting the museum to help install the exhibit on Taoism. Photo Courtesy: TAEC.

Ethnic Youth Interns and Senior Resource Persons visiting the museum to help install the exhibit on Taoism. Photo Courtesy: TAEC.

When recruiting new staff, we strive for inclusion as well. The majority of our staff are ethnic minorities. In the office you can hear minority languages spoken and all staff can learn more about these cultural backgrounds through our exhibits and small library. In fact, one of our Hmong staff told me he was interested in becoming a traditional instrument maker. He explained that through working at TAEC, he had realized there was no one in his village to pass on the tradition once the older generation died. This sense of urgency and ownership are what we aim to share with the Lao people we work with. Ultimately, we would love for our mission to be propelled forward by our community and for heritage management efforts to be community-driven.

It is important for the museum to hire staff from different ethnic groups, as this diversity provides a range of benefits both to the museum and to these staff members. For instance, when reaching out to new communities, it is a great advantage to have someone who speaks the language and can help with relationship building. Additionally, having staff who can share personal stories and skills, both with Lao and international visitors, enhances the visitor experience.

Staff members from local ethnic groups also benefit from their involvement with the museum. The changes  in the country’s lifestyles are drastic and often occur without much thought given to the trade-offs. Our staff, by virtue of working at TAEC, have become very knowledgeable about the traditions of Laos’ various ethnic groups. Through summer research projects, conducting school outreach, and learning to be guides staff members have an opportunity to reflect on what these changes might mean for the country and its diverse community groups. Hopefully, through the process of becoming community advocates, local staff members may begin to see ways to contribute to, or even lead, efforts to revitalize traditional arts within their communities.

TAEC staff documenting a ceremony on a village trip. Photo courtesy: TAEC.

TAEC staff documenting a ceremony on a village trip. Photo courtesy: TAEC.

When we consider how TAEC’s experience might connect to the broader discussion of museums in the 21st century, we understand that no two communities—and therefore museums—are the same.  Because we are located in a developing country, our challenges will differ from those in more developed countries. Introducing anything “2.0” or too technology driven seems premature or even irrelevant (never mind that we often have power outages). Nevertheless, some of the lessons we’ve learned can apply to any museums. For example, museums that deal with living cultures should partner with  and listen to those communities as much as possible…and learning to do more with less can sometimes boost creativity. I also often think about how the resources and expertise found in museums in more developed countries could be shared with museums in developing economies, especially since many of the objects found in those museums came from abroad.

Alicia joined the Traditional Arts and Ethnology Centre as the Programmes Director in May 2012 and brings to the Centre a diverse background in education, international studies, and museology.  She has several years’ experience working in education both in the United States and in China and just completed a Master’s in International Studies focusing on Chinese cultural history and museums. In September, she was a speaker at the Asia-European Museums Association discussing TAEC’s approach to sustainability through education. At TAEC she is responsible for developing new school outreach and public programmes, fundraising, marketing, and making general recommendations for improvement about the organization’s sustainability, management, and operations. For questions or comments she can be reached at alicia@taeclaos.org.

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