Communicative spaces for cross-cultural encounters
Design responses to a paradigm shift occurring in museum communication ideology are the focus of this paper. Discussion centres on the contributions spatial and exhibition design strategies can make towards wider and deeper connections between museums and their increasingly diverse audiences.
As growing interest in relating stories begins to supplant older preoccupations with displaying objects, new questions arise in the museum: ‘Whose story?’ is being communicated, ‘With whom?’ and ‘By whom?’ Finally, to bring these questions to life, the design problems surrounding ‘How?’ become paramount.
Two lines of inquiry are followed: firstly understanding how discursive museum models challenge the museum’s authoritative voice by validating pluralistic ‘world versions’; and secondly, studying emerging design practice responses to the philosophical demands such models present.
Two case studies of recently opened cultural institutions illuminate the discussion. Each in their own way is intent on recovering and negotiating living memories of their communities while simultaneously addressing larger societal concerns regarding uneasy or contentious cross-cultural encounters. They are:
Red Location Museum | New Brighton, South Africa: countering lingering forces affecting race and spatial movement from the heart of a black township remembered as a centre of anti-apartheid activism. The striking spatial strategy deploys twelve ‘memory boxes’ providing opportunities for many ‘voices’ to be heard. Hinging on multiple semi-permanent exhibitions, and an interactive oral history project underlying their changing content, this museum vision avoids memorialising a frozen moment in time -the end of Apartheid- aiming instead for the greater goal of social transformation.
Casa Encendida | Madrid, Spain: a cultural centre situated in a multicultural inner city ‘barrio’ offers a possible future vision for museums. Staff, artists, social scientists and community collaborate towards exhibitions which tackle polemical social issues such as the experiences of immigrants arriving to the Spanish capital from the wider Hispanic world. In addition to community co-curation, other occupation patterns work to break down spatial and cultural hierarchies and large-scale lounge-artworks invite visitors to appropriate the environment and feel at home.
The paper hypothesises that pluralistic museum visions, collaborative iterative processes and design team members’ inventiveness are all factors behind the success of inclusive discursive spaces. The study sheds light on how imaginative contributions from architects, exhibition designers, artists and museum organisations generate conditions for multidirectional communication to occur. It illustrates a filtering down into design practice of museum theories highlighting the public’s promotion to participant in discourse rather than mere passive consumer.