Ecomuseums 2014

Interested in the cultural, ecological, and knowledge potentials of museums? Interested in how museums can bring together and sustain communities? If so, you might be interested in the Ecomuseums conference. The call for papers for Ecomuseums 2014 is now open and will accept submissions until the end of February. Here’s how the conference organizers describe the conference’s focus and roots:

Ecomuseums 2014 – 2nd International Conference on Ecomuseums, Community Museums and Living Communities follows the path established by its first conference and (as the predecessor) aims at gathering scholars, academics and practitioners working in the areas of Ecomuseums and Community Museums all over the world in an event that may contribute to the global discussion and understanding of the ecomuseums and community museums phenomena.

The ecomuseum movement has its origins in late 1960’s France when the roles museums can play in linking people, their heritage expressions and places, as well as affecting social change, were examined. At this time, traditional museum activities, which centered on the collection of heritage to be interpreted by curators and other museum professionals within a museum building, were viewed as both limited and exclusive in approach.

 In more recent decades, ecomuseums have been established throughout the world and are guided by a variety of differing aims and objectives. For example, an ecomuseum may resemble a more conventional museum in appearance or, in other cases, an open–air community-controlled heritage project, depending on the place.

 It can be considered that this wide range of ecomuseological and community-based museological initiatives demonstrates an international interest in alternative heritage management approaches. For this reason, Ecomuseums 2012 seeks to bring together scholars, researchers, architects and heritage professionals to discuss the commonalities, differences and future of safeguarding practices that are holistic and community oriented in scope.

Conference presentations and panels are accepted from those in any stage of their career or research process, as long as they are somewhat along the following themes:

  1. Community-based museological approaches: challenges, opportunities, practices
  2. The evolution and geographical diaspora of ecomuseum practices
  3. Beyond ecomuseums: Sociomuseology, its theory and practice
  4. Place, communities and heritage: relationships and ecomuseological interventions
  5. Nature,culture and communities: making connections through ecomuseology
  6. The economuseum movement: conserving traditional crafts
  7. Tourism, environment and sustainability: ecomuseological approaches
  8. Working with ethnic minorities: community museology and indigenous curation
  9. Intangible cultural heritage: its significance to local communities and how museums/ecomuseums can assist in safeguarding
  10. Architecture and spatial planning: ecomuseological and inclusive approaches
  11. Urban ecomuseums: conceptual issues, challenges and opportunities
  12. Industrial communities: inclusive approaches to conservation and interpretation of industrial heritage

Individual abstracts are due 28 February 2014 and can be submitted online.

I love the word ecomuseological, don’t you?

Postsocialist Realism

We live in a world of many kinds of realism, some magical, some socialist, some capitalist, and some that are yet to be named. These generic realisms have their provinces of origin: magical realism in Latin American fiction in the past two decades; socialist realism in the Soviet Union of the 1930s; and capitalist realism, a term coined by Michael Schudson (1984), in the visual and verbal rhetoric of contemporary American advertising.[1]

I’ve recently been going over some old field notes regarding the culture of postsocialism in the Czech Republic. I came across an interesting reflection regarding commercialism and advertising.

Communist party billboard in Brno, 2006

A billboard advertising “attainable living” (if you voted for the Communist Party) in 2006, but someone has added “in a panelák,” which suggests not that much changed. The beautiful young things, however, are certainly part of the commercialist realist section of an ad agency’s stock photo collection, are they not?

“Capitalist realism,” I thought to myself, “That’s an interesting concept. Funny.” Then I kept reading. Then I left my apartment and saw a billboard with a tanned, scantily clad couple on a tropical beach; underneath it was an ad from a bank for car loans—“Think you can’t afford a new car? Every second driver has loaned money from us. No credit checks.”—; further down the street, a gigantic advertisement for Alfa Romeo luxury racecars covered the side of a building; under it was a small ad for a tanning salon; next door was an appliance store selling washing machines and refrigerators of an Austrian manufacture—“get a free 24-pack of beer when you buy a large refrigerator; payment plans available.” Every day I see glossy annual reports and billboards from banks and investment companies with fit, happy, people enjoying themselves and their bottomless bank accounts; there are happy ladies on posters at the pharmacy declaring the great things about the wonders of hair dyes and weight loss medications. And suddenly I had a new way to articulate some of the things that I wish hadn’t come along with the fall of communism and the advent of capitalism. I can see the attractions of this commercial realism, yet I can’t help wondering about how much of a difference exists between the square and spiky modern steel and glass apartment blocks and the paneláks (the Communists’ answer to the housing shortage).

Are these new office blocks so much better? Are they any less than sleeker and more comfortable versions of the old “rabbit hutch” model? Isn’t it just old wine in new bottles? What’s different but an illusion of “freedom” more visible outside the glass walls of the apartment? Most people are just as beholden to and entrapped in the quest for a comfortable life as the next person. This “comfortable life” is the Czech euphemism for adequate wealth to lead life as good as possible with the least amount of work, which is what a lot of people in a lot of places want. (Of course, there are a lot of people in a lot of places who fight tooth and nail for it, as well, because they don’t want the “adequate” amount but just more, more, more.)

The new office blocks are physical anchors for the strands of culture that, as anthropologist Clifford Geertz wrote, we ourselves have spun. The whole of all those strong little binding strands that give us an illusion of security that constrict as much as support our actions. These strands may look different in the twentieth century (glossier, more youthful, more consumerist, and certainly more corporate), but I can’t stop wondering whether their substance of those strands has really changed.

This was probably written around the time I posted about Brno’s new office park a while ago. Of note, the entire office park that I was writing about is slated to be completed in 2012 (i.e., right about now).

1Arjun Appadurai, Modernity at Large: Cultural Dimensions of Globalization (Minneapolis: Univ. of Minnesota Press, 1996), p. 53 (emphasis mine).

Myth or Merit?

The "Messiah" Stradivarius (1716), Ashmolean Museum, Oxford.

The "Messiah" Stradivarius (1716), held in the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford.

Is the reputation of famous musical instruments a myth, or do some exceptional instruments just sound better? Legendary Stradivarius violins have been the subject of almost mythological interest. Last year, the recovery of a “missing” Strad sparked interest in London. This brought up many of the peculiarities of musical instruments as objects. While “a violin” is a more or less run-of-the-mill musical instrument, “a Strad” is worth millions and considered to be irreplaceable. (Though not necessarily impossible to replicate.)

So, what are Strads so expensive? Are Stradivarius violins “better” than other violins? Do particular musical instruments have intrinsic, special characteristics that cannot be recreated on any others? These complex questions have been subject to long debate and are the topic of an article by Daniel Wakin in the NYTimes this weekend. Wakin describes the “Strad wars,” which pit the true believers (the players and the owners) against the skeptics (particularly violin makers and players who are not benefiting from a wealthy patron’s largesse) in a “long-running debate over whether the enormous worth of such instruments is rooted in myth or merit.” Although there are powerful ideas about wealth, prestige, and status that make playing a venerated object “valuable,” Wakin also points out that while the “mystique” of the great violin has been subject to profound scrutiny, “it remains powerful in our increasingly digitized and disposable world, where 300-year-old wood objects used to express deep emotion seem ever more precious.” In other words, if the digital world is more ephemeral, something about an ancient wooden instrument has automatic appeal.

A useful FAQ has been made available by acoustics researchers at the University of New South Wales, which takes up the question “What is the ‘secret of Stradivarius’?” They point to a number of complicating factors in answering such a question, notably the highly individual skills and approaches that vary between players. Moreover, since Strads have been used to define optimum sound for multiple generations of players, these instruments have come to more or less define good violins. Would it be possible to do better if they are the standard? Finally, despite what Wakin points out in the article (that these instruments are 300 years old), every surviving Stradivarius and other old master has been extensively rebuilt over the years to the extent that no living person or player really knows what a Stradivarius “really” sounded like. The UNSW lab also points to other studies that have investigated the varnish of the instruments and other theories that have been advanced to explain the Stradivarius phenomenon. (Read their statements here.)