History and the global contemporary

As a historian and museum professional, I could not be more delighted to see that the global contemporary conference has been about the past as much as about the present. I have been able to attend a series of presentations where the issue being discussed is about the role of history, historical insight, historicising, historical consciousness and the like, in helping inform museums’ present condition. In particular, there seems to be concern as regards the uses and abuses of history: how much should we “use” it in order to illuminate the present? Do we run the risk of instrumentalising history by interpreting and using it in predetermined ways in order to change the present? Is history something that needs to be taken with a “pinch of salt” and whose lessons are much less clear than they appear?

Germany provides an interesting case in point in the discussion about the instrumentalisation of history. Dr Susannah Eckersley reflected on how the traumatic experience of Nazism generated a very particular type of distrust towards using history in cultural policy. Yet, current projects such as Multaqa, at the Treffpunkst Museum, have opened up the discussion once more. This project, which actively seeks to empower refugees and that takes a clear stand on linking past, present and future, does raises questions about where do the limits between instrumentalisation and involvement with the present issues lie. A similar question could be asked about recent initiatives to engage immigrants in two Norweigian islands (Hitra and Froya) with local history, which Insa Müller presented. Should we limit ourselves to understand how those immigrants make sense of the past (their historical consciousness) or do we want to go further and use that understanding in order to improve social cohesion and life in those places?

Another case in point which embodies the tensions between the past and the contemporary is that of museum histories. That is, why do we want to know the history of our museums? Why is it relevant? A roundtable discussion chaired by Dr Kate Hill invited different museum academics and practitioners to engage with this issue. For example, Dr Conal McCarthy and Dr Bronwyn Labrum suggested history is an essential element in understanding current curatorial practice and the changes it is facing. Hill also suggested that understanding museum visiting patterns in the past was essential for understanding present audiences. However, by the end of the session, answers to the above-mentioned questions were still somehow vague; it seemed that a potential – although still unsatisfying– winning answer  is: “it depends”. Indeed, what we ask about the history of our museum depends on what we want to do with them. Put bluntly, it’s not enough to do museum histories for the sake of museum histories.

On the second day, there was yet another session that raised questions about the uses of the past for the present: how does the past inform our collecting policies? Even worse, when does the past actually “start” so that we can actually start collecting it? With tons of humour, Prof Markus Walz showed how the historicity of our “significance assesments” of collections –deeming what is valuable and what not– creates a chaotic and paradoxical scenario (image 1). Values change and accumulate in such highly complex and unstable patterns, that it often becomes impossible to use the past (or past policies) to rationalise in any way our current practice.


Image 1 – Prof Markus Walz talking about “How to prepare for contemporary collecting of history museums for future reviews”

Despite the challenges of using or not using the past to explain the present, of studying  museum histories, or of looking historically at museums, the mentioned sessions and many others provided a deep sense that presentism has loomed to long in our discussions about museums. Borrowing on the Maori’s views of the past, it is likely that the key to understanding the global contemporary (both in and outside museums) is looking backwards into the future.

Dr Cintia Velázquez Marroni




About civema

Passionate about museums and history in all its possible combinations!
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