'Museums, communities and their practices: safeguarding Intangible cultural heritage in our urbanised worlds'

In most discussions about intangible cultural heritage, an emphasis is placed upon the ‘communities, in particular indigenous communities, groups and, in some cases, individuals, [who] play an important role in the production, safeguarding, maintenance and re-creation of the intangible cultural heritage, thus helping to enrich cultural diversity and human creativity’ (UNESCO 2003, Preamble). However, the Convention does not provide any further definition of these particular groups and individuals.

Emma Waterton and Laurajane Smith have shown in the International Journal of Heritage Studies (Waterton and Smith 2010) that the heritage sector ‘is dominated by a particular notion of community, one that overlooks the fact that representation of reality can have powerful effects on any group under construction’ (ibid, 9). They conclude that ‘real life communities are not only misrecognised but misrepresentations of identity become institutionalised in the heritage process (ibid, 12).’ What is the role of museums in this process? This presentation wants to emphasis the necessity to study the interaction between different interest groups and to critically reflect on the role of the museum professional.

The 2003 Convention identifies three categories of stakeholders. Apart from communities the Convention refers to national governments (the States Parties) and professionals. The Convention requires states to foster the ‘creation or strengthening of institutions for training in the management of the intangible cultural heritage and the transmission of such heritage through forums and spaces intended for the performance or expression thereof’ (UNESCO 2003, article 13). The 1989 Recommendation on the Safeguarding of Traditional Culture and Folklore, a precursor of the current Convention, is even more explicit on the role of professionals and professional institutions in the conservation of heritage. The Recommendation mentions archives and museums, as well as ‘collectors, archivists, documentalists, and other specialists in the conservation of folklore’ (UNESCO 1989, article C).

Unfortunately, the dynamics of the interaction between the three ‘players’ is hardly ever an issue in the professional debate. This position of heritage professionals has been described by Laurajane Smith as the ‘Authorised Heritage Discourse’ (Smith 2007, 5). Although critical heritage theory is already stressing this point for several years, this discourse does often trickle down to the museum practice and museum practitioners. Especially in a highly urbanized and highly diverse Europe, museums and museum professionals need to get into a dialogue with “real life communities” and start implementing a non-authoritive approach. This presentation will focus on the Jewish Museum Berlin as a case-study. A museum in one of the most cultural diverse neighborhoods in the German Capital.

Léontine Meijer-van Mensch is Deputy and Programme Director of the Jewish Museum in Berlin (Germany). Previously, she was Deputy Director of the Museum of European Cultures at Berlin and lecturer of heritage theory and professional ethics at the Reinwardt Academy (Amsterdam School of the Arts). She has worked in and for various museums and other heritage institutions in several European countries. She is active in the board of several (international) museum organizations. At the moment, she is member of the Executive Board of ICOM.