Questioning Ourselves - by Nicole Deufel

Duckomenta - from Oldenburg Museums
Earlier this year I reported on THE PROMISED LAND project of which I am part. At the end of September, the steering group met to reflect on the project to date and also to discuss and prepare the training that we will host in Germany at the beginning of next year.

I am so pleased to be part of this project. Here are some reasons why.

1. The importance of looking beyond our own discourses and methods

One external criticism that I’ve heard frequently and forcefully of this project is that ‘a theatre/university/business consultancy has nothing to do with museum work’. The argument is that we – museums – cannot learn from these other sectors.

In reality, I have learnt loads. What is more, I have learnt entirely unexpected things, precisely because the work of the partners is rooted in a different way of thinking about culture, its socio-political position, and the role that people play in all of this. That all partners are also from different countries adds another critical layer to this. So, for example, activism is a natural part of theatre practice, where in our sector this is still to a large degree theoretical, leading to much head-scratching and questioning. The Turkish perspective, too, is sufficiently different to give flesh to the notion of ‘eurocentrism’.

In consequence, seriously challenging questions are posed of all of our practices. In being open to discussing these questions, and probing deep into our discursive framings, I find that supposedly self-evident constellations are beginning to unravel. This is the prerequisite to developing a discipline and field of practice further into the future. Otherwise, we are simply staying in our own echo chambers. Let that bubble burst.

2. The privilege to explore some painful truths in a supportive environment

On the second day of our two-day committee meeting, we focused on discussing the training week in Germany. This meant it was all about the German context, and some of the things we will look at while the group is here. This quickly and unexpectedly became really personal. For example, I described the #MeTwo movement to the committee, in which Germans born to migrant parents share their experiences of not being regarded as ‘real’ Germans. I tried to relate a story of speaking to a friend, and – lo and behold – I had to stop when I realized that I was just about to describe him as ‘Italian’. Yes, I had critically examined my own position as a majority German in all of this for some time, but it was through the questions of the group, and the actual participation of the Italian partners, that I realized just how much further I still have to travel, not the least in dealing with language and the concepts it forces on us.

How necessary this confrontation with our own positioning and limitations is, is also captured in a brief exchange, when the group explored a particularly sensitive issue in the German context. I found myself saying, “I’m becoming really uncomfortable with this discussion”, to which another partner replied, “But that is what it is all about.” And it is. It gives us a different perspective, which in turn makes it possible for us to gain a different insight altogether, and perhaps a different appreciation for another’s position – even if we do not espouse that position ourselves. Of particular note was that all of us together by now have managed to create an environment that is as supportive and caring as it is critical and challenging. In so many ways, this is precisely what the agonistic exchange is all about, and what I am advocating in agonistic interpretive practice.

3. Letting a project take you places

Undoubtedly one of the most immediate impacts of the project on me personally, but I think also on our institution, is that we have reached out to partners locally that we wouldn’t normally have reached out to. Through seeing the work of the partners, but also through engaging with the topics that have come up through the project, and thinking about how we can move these conversations forward when the group comes to Germany, we have been motivated to search out institutions and organisations locally that deal with some of these issues. Each time, we have had new and interesting conversations, which have brought insights and ideas that we could not have anticipated beforehand. At the moment, it looks like this will lead to follow-on projects, too, which gives THE PROMISED LAND project a rather nice sustainability.

4. And why not do things differently?

There is an undoubted challenge in applying to museums the different methods we have seen in use at the partners’ organisations. The easy thing would be to say it’s not possible, or worse, not relevant. However, the more fitting approach is to consider how some of these methods could be adapted to change our own practice for the better. I am thinking for example of the exercises we did at the beginning of the training in Bologna, hosted by the theatre company Teatro dell’Argine. Their intention was to help people get to know each other – which surely is what we want to do at museums and heritage sites too. We ‘performed’ our own names to each other, each time with a different emotion; we, as a group, moved closely together as we ‘looked’ through a window, trying to see what the person in front described. It worked fantastically well to quickly establish an emotional connection between us. Why shouldn’t we do something similar at the start of a guided tour or a workshop in a museum? Wouldn’t this help us create the agonistic public space in which people trust and respect one another? We always talk about museums and heritage sites being places for connecting with and meeting others. The methods used in theatre practice to me are definitely worth a shot.