Political Museum!

Alexandra Bounia - The Ethics of Collecting Trauma.

An interview by Diana Fehr / March, 2022

Alexandra is Professor of Museology at the University of the Aegean in Greece. She currently serves as the secretary of the Board of the International Committee of ICOM on Contemporary Collecting (ICOM-COMCOL). From 2017 until 2020 she was an Associate Professor of Museum and Gallery Practice in UCL (campus in Qatar). She has published in Greek and international journals and participates in research projects in Greece and abroad. Her research interests focus on the history, theory and management of collections and museums, museum ethics, museum sustainability as well as the role of museums in dealing with difficult and political issues.


Diana: You are the author and co-author of many books and have participated in various research projects in Greece and abroad. These projects focus especially on museum ethics, museum sustainability, as well as the role of museums in dealing with difficult and political issues. Why are these topics so important to you?


Alexandra: I think that these topics are very much interconnected. It all starts from sustainability; culture is very important for sustainable development, it has a supporting, a connecting and mediating as well as a transformative role: culture creates new paradigms for sustainability, it can become a driver for sustainable development that transcends the other pillars of sustainability, i.e. the financial, the environmental and the social.

Museums have a central role in cultural sustainability; they create complex networks of time-place-power relations and thus influence sustainable development. However, and despite the connection, very limited research has examined how exactly museums fit into cultural sustainability, how different stakeholders might contribute to different aspects of cultural sustainability, and what the implications are for cultural policy.


Furthermore, there is a lack of measuring instruments and adequate indicators that would allow the impact of cultural institutions like museum to be completely understood and measured. Therefore, further research is necessary to be able to understand cultural sustainability and plan the cultural policy that will lead to such a goal.


Therefore, sustainability is linked to difficult and political issues as addressing these issues and navigating through multiple stakeholders and their agendas is part of the role and goal of institutions. Ethics is critical in this process. As a result, I feel that these areas of research are interconnected and it is not possible to look at these topics separately.


Diana: And this is why you also published your latest book “Emerging Technologies and Museums – Mediating Difficult Heritage“?

Alexandra: Absolutely! This is an edited volume that we worked on with my colleagues and very good friends, Theopisti Stylianou-Lambert and Antigone Heraclidou, from the Technological University of Cyprus and CYENS Centre of Excellence.


Technology in museums has already been shown to present content in a more interactive and engaging manner, provide an entry point to visitors who do not usually engage with museums and introduce items and experiences that would not otherwise be possible to introduce. This edited volume, which was prepared during the quarantine of 2020, explores the potential of a specific function of emerging technologies: that of mediating difficult heritage. It presents different theoretical approaches and case studies from many parts of the world that demonstrate how emerging technologies can display, reveal and negotiate difficult, dissonant, negative or undesirable heritage. More specifically, we try to explore how emerging technologies in museums can reveal unheard or silenced stories, challenge preconceptions, encourage emotional and empathetic responses, create a sense of presence, immersion, or embodiment, and ultimately provide unique experiences.


Can museums use emerging technologies to present voices that have been silenced in the past? Can they be used to create more empathy, and convey more ethical messages about the societies that we live in? Can emerging technologies help institutions tackle issues of presence? How can we use these technologies to rethink and reconsider the role of museums? How can we use AI to retrieve items from archival resources and bring them into our stories? These are some of the questions that the book tries to address through various case studies from around the world.


I believe that these issues are particularly relevant after the experiences we had and continue having with the pandemic, since museums have turned more towards new technologies, and we have experienced digital acceleration in public service institutions.


As we were working on this book, I also collaborated with another colleague from the University of the Aegean, Despina Catapoti and we edited another volume, this time in Greek, that also focuses on emerging technologies and cultural heritage, although in that case, we do not focus on difficult heritage, but on how we need to move towards a post-digital approach to heritage.

Diana: In another book entitled „The Political Museum“ from 2016 you reveal how politics permeates all facets of museum practice, particularly in regions of political conflict. Why do you think that especially in these settings, museums can be extraordinarily influential in the shaping identity and the support of peace building?


Alexandra: This book, which I co-authored with Theopisti Stylianou-Lambert, is based on our work on European national museums, an FP7 funded programme called EuNaMus. Within that project, we studied how national museums all over Europe have being changing as societies change, as the world turns more complicated, transnational and representation challenges are increasing.  


What I realized during this research, especially through the case study on Cyprus, was that the role of museums is highly political: it affects the way people think about themselves and the others, and therefore museums may have a direct impact on political decisions, and share public opinion in a critical way.

The argument of the book, therefore, is that if we change our narratives, if we consider the stories told through museums in a political context, we understand that this is not neutral knowledge, but that it has a huge impact on politics and on how people understand their society, themselves, and the whole environment they live in. Instead of being powers that reproduce conflict, museums can become powers that reproduce ideas of peace, of coexistence, of mutual respect, and of mutual understanding. They can be institutions of peace instead of institutions of conflict, and therefore places of discussion and dialogue.


Diana: And what is the specific role that national museums play in here?


Alexandra: National museums have a huge responsibility, as they are very respected institutions. They are very much trusted places, that people refer to find truth and some kind of stability, especially in the times we live in.


Until very recently national museums in most parts of the world, had a tendency to tell a   story that the leadership of their country wanted them to tell. For example, I am currently working on a new project on how migration is presented in museums. There have been many exhibitions in Europe, about the refugee issues during 2015 / 2016, for example.. But not many exhibitions actually spoke about the fact that it was a European reception crisis and not a “refugee crisis”. The way that this was approached was from a more humane perspective; it was about how we can or have to support refugees. But there was no discussion about the political layers, in other words, about why these people left their place. There was no discussion about who was responsible for forcing these people to leave their country. Or, about how important it was (and still is, as we are experience another “refugee crisis” these days within Europe) for the European governments and societies to address the political dimensions of this. So, in most cases, the institutions did not go back to the reasons of what they presented, they just told the “sympathy story”.


I believe that national museums (and I do not mean those that have the word national in their title, but those who are supported by the State and paid by the taxpayers) have strong responsibilities: there are issues that need to be discussed, political issues that are related again to ethics, sustainability and the role of institutions within society.
Created by Charlene Kasdorf

Diana: Who should or can initiate this transformation?


Alexandra: I believe in the power of the people and in grassroots initiatives. Of course, governments have the power to affect how institutions work, as they provide the funding, but at the same time, the people who go to these institutions have a voice and they should make their voice heard. And there is also a responsibility there for museum professionals which we should not forget.


We have to find a balance, which is not easy. But if we want museums to be relevant, we have to see them as places where discussions are happening, where debates are initiated and where democracy is actually practiced. From my perspective, this is what ethical institutions need to be doing.


Diana: Which would mean that it has to come from both sides, the people and the institutions?


Alexandra: Absolutely! Because relevance comes from both sides. People have to see the relevance in the institution, and the institution has to see the importance of the relevance. And this takes us to a new kind of museum, which is not only about collecting and displaying beautiful objects. It is much more than that. Museums are places with beautiful, important, valuable collections. But these should be used as a beginning for telling more stories, complicated stories, as starting points for discussions and not as their end.

Diana: Before you were talking about refugees. In a recent article you discuss a Museum of Refugee Memories, that was established in Lesbos, one of the Greek islands near the coast of Asia facing Turkey. The museum founders who take visitors around, provide more than just a tour. Is this an example on how recognition and the inclusion of migrants in museum exhibitions can be realised?


Alexandra: The museum you refer to is a small community museum on the island of Lesbos, where I teach. And yes, what I find particularly interesting at this small museum, which is one of my favourites, is that the local community has made decisions about what they want to commemorate and how they want to present the story of themselves, their land, and their past.


They talk in their museum about the exchange of populations in 1922 and they follow a very inclusive approach. They do not only recognize the refugees who came to the island of Lesbos that is themselves and their families, but also the pain of those who left the island to live on the other coast. It is not something that is just presented through a collection of objects, as there is an empathy there that goes beyond the material culture on display.


I have visited this museum many times with many different groups of people and many times with my students. Every time we go there, I see these connections, when the people of the museum take us around and tell us their stories. My students, who come from different parts of Greece, and sometimes from other parts of the world, understand these stories without even sharing the language; there is an emotional communication that goes beyond the traditional means of interpretation. Here you can really see how these tours in a small community museum have the power to become catalysts for creating an identity, and an understanding, for humanity. Therefore, I think that this is a very good example of the power of museums on a very small community level.

Diana: But you also research how certain groups of visitors resist or even reject the institutional power of museums. How is this happening and why, and what can be done?


Alexandra: This is another example from our research in Cyprus. Theopisti and I wrote about this using the example of a group of women who visit the St. Barnabas Museum in the northern part of the island. We realized that community memories and beliefs are stronger than political top-down decisions. This group of women visit the monastery, which is today a museum, but they do not consider it a museum, but rather as a space that retains its religious character. We are talking about the power of the community, and how communities make their memories and experience their memories and emotions. In a way, the argument is very similar to the one about the small museum in Lesvos: it is about the power of institutions like museums to bring people together, to allow them to express their feelings and beliefs.


Diana: In Dec. 2021 you participated in the 11th CoMuseum International Conference – “(Re)Positioning the Museum of Tomorrow” on the topic “Measuring the Social Impact of Museums. Why is this subject becoming more and more important for museums?


Alexandra: I think that this relates back to sustainability, social and financial. Two aspects are important here. Firstly, the fact that museums need to be able to prove their power and their role. We are living in times when competition for funding is increasing and cultural heritage is becoming more and more fragile. It is therefore even more important than before for institutions to be able to measure what they do, and to provide proofs for their impact and power.


On the other hand, framing what museums do for their communities, within the idea of well-being, whilst promoting social cohesion is not a new thing: museums have been doing it forever! But now, they are able to reframe it and systematize it. It is the combination of these two facts that drives the recent interest in the social impact of museums and ways to measure it.


Together with my colleagues, Sofia Handaka and Matina Magkou, we are currently working on a project that will aims to support the museum community in Greece to reframe their work within this well-being and social impact framework. Together with the museum professionals community, we are trying to develop a tool that will allow museums to measure their impact, and use these measurements for private and governmental funding. These measurements will become fundamental for reaching out to funding bodies, and for getting more support for their work.

Diana: What is your next goal and where are you going to place your focus in your research?


Alexandra: I know I am biased, but I believe in the power of museums and I am very passionate about all the things that will help museums realize their full potential, for the benefit of their communities.


Currently I am working on an edited volume with Andrea Witcomb on the ethics of collecting trauma, which we hope will be ready later this year. Our focus lies on contemporary collections, especially those of difficult contemporary histories, like terrorist attacks, the pandemic, environmental disasters, refugee crises and other migration topics. Our concern is how museums can collect to represent these contemporary events while take into consideration the complicated ethical issues involved in collecting such stories.


We are very privileged to have an amazing group of colleagues working with us in presenting different case studies from different parts of the world. As I said at the beginning, it is a combination of politics, ethics, and the power of museums, and the question on how to collect information today that we will use tomorrow, representing in an ethical manner our communities and their traumatic experiences.


Diana: Under the current circumstances this is an extremely important project and I wish you the best of luck with your work!


Alexandra: Thank you very much, Diana.

Images: Banner (Reflection Photography), Image 1 – Portrait (53Tom ONEbyONE Community Portrait AAM New Orleans 2019), Image 4 – Sketch (Charlene Kasdorf), Image 5 & 6 (Reflection Photography)