Afternoon Key Note: Angela Witcomb, ‘Responding to the Global Contemporary – learning to live with difference’

The afternoon session kicked off with a keynote lecture from Professor Andrea Witcomb, from Deakin University, Australia.

Andrea discussed what she has identified as a new phenomenon in museums based around what she has termed a ‘pedagogy of feeling’. Just as we’ve started to work with differences in society, she argued, we seem to have taken fright against it. Globally, we have seen a rise in racism, antagonism towards the Other, and in these climates of fear, societies build fortresses around themselves. In this context, Andrea feels that museums’ role should be to demonstrate not how we’re different, but how we’re all interconnected.

This thinking was promoted by her experience of writing for an exhibition catalogue about the experience of Portuguese ‘Retornados‘ and, as a consequence, the reassessment of her relationship with Portugal (she was born there to an Australian mother and a British father) and her own and her family’s experience of migration and senses of belonging.

She advocated for museums to support people in feeling that they ‘belong’; that the past is not disconnected from the present; and that surprise is an essential ingredient for thinking about the past and present. Museums are, she argued, ideal spaces for challenging individual and collective memories of our material worlds. She called for a new curatorial practice that straddles the perceived differences between self and other. This is the pedagogy of feeling.

The most recent way of dealing with Otherness and difference is a ‘pedagogy of listening’, in which multifarious voices are represented but in which, otherwise, power relationships have been left as they were before. In this approach minority groups are always marked as ‘Other’.

Andrea illustrated her aguments with a discussion of the Migration Museum in Adelaide and questions surrounding the conceptualisation of migration, which has been represented as a predominantly white, Anglo-Celtic experience (a group which has had a hard turn seeing itself as an ethnic community within Australia’s multi-cultural society).

The pedagogy of feeling is subjective. Exhibitions structured around it offer an encounter with self through an encounter with the other. They explore relations between different groups of experience and issues surrounding belonging – how we feel we belong or not. They promote a recognition of common humanity and the importance of acting in order to avoid the mistakes of the past. They offer cross-cultural encounters through embodied experiences that lead to new emotional experiences and thoughts. They challenge collective narratives and memories and require the visitor to do some ‘labour’ – to actively engage.

To demonstrate the pedagogy of feeling, Andrea used an exhibition at the Migration Museum, ‘Identity’, as a case study. In this exhibition the visitor is the subject of the display. This has the potential to be unsettling and surprising, promoting affective responses that make people think and rethink their assumptions about identity, belonging and difference.

Overall, Andrea persuasively argued a case for the pedagogy of feeling; how it promotes a self-reflexivity in visitors, providing opportunities for learning about others as opportunities to learn about ourselves, and to question our values and identities and what binds us together rather than setting us apart. The pedagogy of feeling provides us with the opportunity to see ourselves anew. Museums become, not an affirmation of who we think we are but, instead, of who we actually are.


Dr Amy Jane Barnes

Heritage Consultant, Tricolor Ltd.
University Teacher, Loughborough University
Honorary Visiting Fellow, University of Leicester


About amyjanebarnes

Independent Researcher
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