Museums have the potential to change lives and strengthen communities. In recent years, it seems the interest in this part of their brief (“in the service of society”) and the evidence for it has increased, with many discussions and books dedicated to this topic. The new book Heritage and peacebuilding, which brings together essays from many of the field’s leading thinkers and practitioners, looks at the relation between cultural heritage, museums and – according to contributor Peter van Dungen – one of humanity’s oldest and most lofty goals: world peace. In the words of the editors, and my experience after reading it, it is a hopeful book, full of case studies and examples of how heritage can contribute to peacebuilding.
In order not to bury the lead: Cultural heritage and museums can contribute to peacebuilding. Throughout the book, cases ranging from Kenya to Israel and from the Western Balkans to Northern Ireland show the role cultural heritage institutions and professionals can play in peacebuilding. And should play. As Diana Walters writes, peace is too large a topic to be left to official peace makers such as UNESCO, ICOM, and Cultural Councils. Museums, being used to dealing with slippery subjects, may take on enhancing the conditions for peace as one of their purposes.
Many authors show how this role can even occur in conflict situations. Sultan Somjee explains that even during conflicts, there exist pockets in society that maintain their heritage of peacebuilding. We need to strengthen these pockets and individuals. Timothy Gachanga gives examples of communities in Kenya that have continued to use heritage for peacebuilding and conflict transformation, even in moments of turmoil.
The main asset cultural heritage has to contribute to peacebuilding, is that is can be a safe place where different people and ideas meet and can have a dialogue. Elaine Heumann Gurian contends that civility is built upon or helped by having public spaces where strangers can safely view or pass by each other, even if there is no interaction. If groups watch others and can build a narrative of commonality, people begin to trust each other. Even cultural tourism can contribute to having a more positive attitude towards each other, as Alon Gelbman mentions, thus paving the way form more harmonious relations on both a person-to-person and a government-to-government level. According to Will Glendinning, such safe places are places where a person feels comfortable, free from pressure or any form of threat. This may seem like a simple idea, but peacebuilding may have to start in small and seemingly insignificant ways that, taken together, have a pervasive atmospheric effect.
Conflict grows from disconnection, writes Seth Frankel, while Diana Walters underscores that peacebuilding relies heavily on dialogue. Museums often position themselves as places where dialogue can take place. Beyond dialogue, cultural heritage can help communities discover what they share with others. Feras Hammami and Daniel Laven show, through inspirational cases from Israel and Palestine, how heritage development has the potential to help created shared interests among the different cultural groups in the region. Heritage can help shape potential spaces that are embedded in multiple histories, cultures and memories.
Peace is not a common theme for museums. While war is everywhere, peace is hard to find. Peace is also a tricky subject: It is not merely the absence of war, but a living, active, diverse tradition, with roots in many cultures. Diana Walters quotes Lederach, who says that peace is not seen as merely a stage in time or a condition. Instead, peace is a dynamic social construct. Consequently, peacebuilding is a broad enterprise that succeeds when it engages people across many strata of society, and involves many different ideas and approaches. Peace is not easy, or – as Bernadette Lynch mentions in her honest chapter exploring her own endeavours in peacebuilding – there is no shortcut to peace.
Maybe because of this, many current efforts of museums and others to contribute to peace fall short, or have an adverse effect. Seth Frankel explains how too many museums operate from untested assumptions, and don’t have the culture of unbiased evaluation that is needed to achieve ambitious goals such as peace. With such difficult topics, falling short is expected, and needs to be analysed. Often, museums organise their spaces and activities to protect against assumed dangers (such as groups that may hold opposite opinions) and the desire to avert complaints from those who feel threatened by these dangers. According to Elaine Heumann Gurian this prevents museum from truly welcoming ‘all’ into their buildings and groups.
Bernadette Lynch quotes research from Laurajane Smith, which shows that visitors who visited exhibitions related to Britain’s Slave Trade Act showed emotional avoidance and disengagement with the exhibition content. “We look in silence, we walk away, nothing happens.” The approach of many museums of victimising groups in society, such as refugees, according to Lynch, may be a convenient approach for museums (as victims are not necessarily full partners in a conversation), but insufficient for true dialogue. The reality is that to overcome conflict, a museum has to be comfortable with conflict and ‘neither eliminate passion and partisanship, nor relegate them to the private sphere’ (Mouffe, 2002). ‘Life is messy, controversial, fluid, contentious – lots of things a museum has difficulty with’ (Lynch, 2011).
Consequently, being active in peacebuilding requires heritage professionals to develop different skills, behaviours and attitudes, as well as different leadership in our organisations. The complexity of reconciliation efforts underscores the importance of good leadership, according to Felicity Gibling and Michèle Taylor. The emerging picture of such leadership shows leaders who seek to build commitment and engagement and to work with employees, creating conditions for people, teams and organisations to succeed.
Diana Walters writes that it could be that the biggest barrier to peacebuilding in museums is the underlying fear that moving to a position of active peacebuilding (or indeed, any social action) may be felt to compromise their perceived positions as neutral and trustworthy. In the words of Bernadette Lynch, to be able to deal with conflict, we have to be able to be in conflict ourselves. Our attitude should not be academic, not managerial, not cool. Instead, heritage practitioners need to be skilled in peacebuilding approaches, particularly as facilitators between peoples and ideas that are in conflict. As the case of the Balkan Museum Network, their Meet See Do conference and Women Leadership Development Programme show, efforts to train heritage professionals for these new responsibilities may become acts of peacebuilding in themselves. These examples bring together people from various countries in the Western Balkans, who otherwise would not have talked.
Throughout the book, the message echoes that “museums could make a huge contribution to building a more peaceful society, and world, if they accepted that role as part of their raison d’être” (Diana Walters). Such an attitude may also serve them well beyond conflict zones. As Bosse Lagerqvist mentions, peacebuilding is not necessarily always related to armed conflict, but also happens in other complex situations.
My own contribution to the book focuses on the role of new digital tools and ICTs in these processes. On a more personal note, it is a great honour to have my ideas included among all these great thinkers and practitioners, and their impressive work. I hope it contributes to, or inspires peacebuilding efforts in cultural heritage. After reading it, Heritage and peacebuilding for me is two things: an encouraging collection of inspirational case studies about how museums and cultural heritage contribute to world peace, and a call to action to continue using the community-driven approach and focus on meaningful engagement in all of my work.
Header image: View on the Plive Lakes in Jajce, Bosnia and Herzegovina, site of a Regional Restoration Camp, one of the case studies in the book.
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