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Museums can lead in civilizing society

Dr. Elaine Heumann Gurian explores inclusivity in a difficult world at Whistler conference



"Let me acknowledge the original inhabitants of this land and greet their living descendants."

Thus began Dr. Elaine Heumann Gurian, the keynote speaker at the BC Museums Association annual conference, as she explored the potential of museums as progressive and civilizing cultural places.

Around 160 British Columbian museum administrators and archivists — including many from Whistler — heard Heumann Gurian at the conference, which took place at the Hilton Whistler Resort from Oct. 12 to 14.

Heumann Gurian — former deputy director of the U.S. Holocaust Museum, former deputy assistant secretary providing oversight for all 14 Smithsonian Museums, and author of Civilizing the Museum — noted that many of the workshops opened with such an acknowledgement of the Squamish and Lil'wat peoples, the original indigenous inhabitants of Whistler.

She said such homages were increasingly common in Canada, Australia, New Zealand, the U.S. and elsewhere.

"The adoption of a protocol that is not yours is a very important piece, because protocol is a linguistic way of changing your brain," she said.

"To acknowledge the original inhabitants is to state... that we are related to the original inhabitants... that we are standing on property that is not ours but on loan to us."

This, Heumann Gurian says, is the "linguistic moment you begin to start the repatriation together."

Bringing the role of the museum into the concept of making society a better place for all has been the work of a lifetime for Heumann Gurian, who is now primarily a consultant.

She referred to the breakdown of current political discourse in the U.S., calling the 2016 presidential election "the most disturbing of my lifetime."

A first generation German-American Jew, she spoke of the increasingly emboldened moves towards racism as a "rollout I've seen before, and this notion that it was a joke I've (also) seen before."

And in the current historical moment, citing grassroots movements such as Black Lives Matter in the U.S., Heumann Gurian spoke of the importance of museums as locations of accessibility and welcome to all.

"Change starts with small and seemingly insignificant actions," she said, referring to the need to "redo work we already did (but forgot) and not be disheartened."

The way forward is to shape the opportunity, Heumann Gurian said, and provided delegates with a "Civility Worksheet," that explored assumptions about visitors to museums, assumptions about staff and assumptions about knowledge.

She cited late New York Times writer David Carr, who said: "Ethics is often used as a synonym for civility, but I contend it is not. Ethics is a standard that can be litigated, while civility is a fluid, normative behaviour condoned or curtailed by public pressure."

His observation had a strong impact on Heumann Gurian, who chose to pull together "a more active definition of civility" as "the etiquette needed to show respect (through practices like) 'I wish to acknowledge the original inhabitants of this land.'"

Actions like this could benefit both museums and the wider society, she added.

"The tools required for promoting active conciliation or discourse, especially when negotiating disputed topics, how these assumptions have been translated into actions and what museums can do now to assist in more proactive, equalizing and respecting relationships within many (types of) publics, including non-visitors," Heumann Gurian said.

Museums should provide peaceful environments and be places of amity, she added.

"In a fractious society, it could be argued that museums are already showing a level of sophisticated civility and should serve as models for community behaviour," she said.

But she argued there could be room for improvement because most museums present a model from an earlier era.

"When good manners were assumed to be part of the upper class, to which the rest of society aspired to. (Those) museums... do not want to be inclusive of the behaviours of a diversified culture that undermine their elevating effect," she added, referring to one museum whose guides and volunteers were annoyed with increased attendance "because they were noisy."

This, she said, was an example that continued to brand museums as places of elitism, despite good intentions.

"This museum culture might be about the conflation of inquisitiveness, collections, class, power, and taste. If vestiges of this pervading exclusivity remain, it may be in part because museums have been lacking in self-critical examination of their common etiquette and what it signals to others," she said.

For more information, visit www.egurian.com.


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