Simona Bodo is an independent researcher and consultant who co-created and edits Patrimonio and Intercultura, a rich on-line resource devoted to the intercultural potential of heritage education projects. This week we are continuing with Part II of her guest blog post (read Part I here) in which Bodo shares some lessons she has learned about how museums can promote and support dialogue and exchange between people of varied cultural backgrounds, also referred to as intercultural dialogue.
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This sort of stalemate (accepting in theory but not acting on the fact that individuals have “multiple identities”) is partly due to the over-simplistic assumption on the part of many museum professionals that a community will be automatically interested only in objects that are directly related to its cultural background. But in other cases, this failure to ingrain the concepts of “intercultural space” or “multiple identities” into museum practices is also due to a strong resistance on the part of communities themselves against what they see as a “dilution” of difference, or even worse as a denial of their claims for recognition and representation – a battle some of these groups have fought for decades, and rightly so.
So how can museums overcome this tendency to “simplify” on the one hand, and win this resistance and scepticism on the other?
There is no simple answer to this question, but I would suggest that the notion of “participation” underlying intercultural work is a good starting point for addressing it – not the sort of “empowerment-lite” adopted by many institutions, but a relationship where real reciprocity is fostered between the museum and its diverse audiences, by bringing into dialogue their different perspectives, experiences and knowledge bases, and providing everyone with genuine opportunities for self-representation and collaborative meaning-making.
An extremely interesting context in which to explore new paradigms for participatory work in an intercultural perspective is represented by the most recent developments in Italian museums’ thinking and working practices, as highlighted in Fondazione ISMU’s programme and website “Patrimonio e Intercultura – Heritage and Interculture”. Based on this constantly updated online resource as well as on a growing body of literature (see bibliographic references), some significant strands of experimental practice which are informed by the above-mentioned notion of “participation” can be highlighted:
- the training and active involvement of cultural mediators with an immigrant background in the planning of narrative trails, collaborative exhibitions etc., with a view to exploring a more dialogical, multi-vocal interpretation of collections (e.g. “Brera: another story”, Brera National Picture Gallery, Milan; “TAM TAM – The Museum for All”, Museum of Peoples and Cultures + Fondazione ISMU, Milan; “Tongue to Tongue. A collaborative exhibition”, Museum of Anthropology and Ethnography of the University of Turin + Centre for African Studies; training course for “Mediators of Intercultural Heritages”, Centre for African Studies, Turin)
- the active engagement of mixed groups in the development of new, shared narratives around collections through methodologies such as storytelling, starting from the premise that participants can provide a significant contribution to the knowledge, understanding and interpretation of museum objects (e.g. “Plural Stories”, Ettore Guatelli Museum Foundation, Ozzano Taro di Collecchio; “A Brera anch’io. The museum as a vehicle of intercultural dialogue”, Brera National Picture Gallery, Milan)
- the initiation of a dialogue between museum objects and personal objects with a view to creating a shared heritage of stories and life experiences of individuals with different cultural and social backgrounds (e.g. “TAM TAM – The Museum for All”, Museum of Peoples and Cultures + Fondazione ISMU, Milan)
- the symbolic adoption of objects as a means of building new bridges, creating a new “resonance”, revealing unexpected links between artefacts and individuals beyond the boundaries of “belonging” (e.g. “Choose the Piece”, City of Modena Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology)
- the interaction with contemporary artists in order to develop new perspectives on the notions of heritage or identity, and to experiment with unconventional communication and relational methodologies, mediated through contemporary art languages (e.g. “The art of making difference”, Museum of Anthropology and Ethnography of the University of Turin + Associazione Arteco; “A Vision of My Own” and “City Telling”, Fondazione Sandretto Re Rebaudengo, Turin).
As different as they may seem, these experimental practices are all based on the recognition of the museum not only as a cultural space for interaction, but first and foremost as an institution encouraging participatory and cooperative planning – a place where knowledge is not only “transmitted”, but co-produced. Not surprisingly, the most genuinely “intercultural” projects are those which are rooted in the museum’s ability to listen and give voice to the needs, expectations, life experiences and knowledge systems of individuals and communities, rather than those driven by transitory political agendas.
 In 2007, Milan-based Fondazione ISMU (Initiatives and Studies on Multiethnicity) launched Patrimonio e Intercultura (www.ismu.org/patrimonioeintercultura, English version available), an online resource exclusively devoted to heritage education in an intercultural perspective, which regularly monitors projects carried out in Italian museums.
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Simona Bodo is an independent researcher and consultant with a particular interest in the social agency of museums and their role in the promotion of intercultural dialogue. On these issues she acts as an advisor to public and private institutions (e.g. Italian Ministry for Cultural Heritage and Activities, Brera National Picture Gallery, Istituto per i Beni Culturali of the Emilia Romagna Region, Fondazione ISMU – Initiatives and Studies on Multiethnicity, Fondazione Cariplo), and has recently taken part in a number of international research projects commissioned by the European Union and the Council of Europe. She is co-creator and editor of Patrimonio and Intercultura, an on-line resource promoted by Fondazione ISMU and specifically devoted to the intercultural potential of heritage education projects. See bibliographic references for her most recent publications and essays here.