Changing Communication Paradigms at the Estonian National Museum

Eesti_Rahva_Muuseum

A Review of Transformations of museum-embedded cultural expertise, by Taavi Tatsi.

The emphasis on improving community engagement, which has now helped to shape museum practice for more than twenty years, presents challenges to the day to day work and professional identities of practitioners within museums. What does it mean to be an expert in a museum committed to giving audiences opportunities to shape exhibition content? Taavi Tatsi’s dissertation explores the tensions arising from museums’ changing communication paradigms, in the context of the development of new exhibition spaces at the Estonian National Museum (ENM).  He analyses changing practice within a museum beginning a transition from an approach based on a traditional “shrine type of social function…to one that is more actively building new social relationships” (p. 49; author’s emphasis). He demonstrates how a modernist and authoritative conception of the identity of the museum’s experts is challenged by new approaches to audience participation, resulting in some “defensive and anxious responses” from those experts (p. 43).

Tatsi’s dissertation is in the form of four published papers, three of them jointly authored, accompanied by a brief introduction and longer ‘cover article’, which draws out common themes from the four papers and offers some overall conclusions. Although the cover article is placed at the beginning of the dissertation, readers may find it helpful to return to the cover article after reading the four studies, to better appreciate the comments Tatsi makes in his conclusions. The cover article and studies are in English, with a summary in Estonian.

The Introduction briefly outlines the dissertation’s structure and situates the research within a very broad literature relating to change in museums as well as the formation of social identity.

The cover article is in five chapters. Chapter 1 defines the research questions and sets them in context. Within this chapter, section 1.1 situates the research within the particular context of the ENM, with a brief history of the institution, highlighting, in particular, changing approaches to the museum space, to the national history it aims to represent and to approaches to audience participation within the institution. This section offers valuable insight into an institution which is relatively little known outside the region, and which has to engage with a fascinating and challenging recent national history and very particular problems of national identity.  Tatsi draws on post-colonial perspectives, including the work of Alan Kirwan on Irish museums (Alan Kirwan, “Postcolonialism, Ethnicity and the National Museum of Ireland” in Simon Knell, Peter Aronsson, Arne Amundsen et al. (eds.). National Museums. New Studies from Around the World. Routledge, 2010) to situate the Estonian situation in a broader field.

Section 1.2 considers change in museum practice more broadly, looking specifically at social, communicative and participatory transformation. Tatsi’s analysis here draws on a wide literature, applying insights from  the International Committee for Museology (ICOFOM), as well as more familiar Anglo-Saxon perspectives from Tony Bennett (for example, “Civic Laboratories: Museums, Cultural Objecthood and the Governance of the Social”, Cultural Studies, 19(5), 2005, 521–547), Eilean Hooper-Greenhill (Museums and the Shaping of Knowledge. London, New York: Routledge, 1992) and Peter Vergo (The New Museology. London: Reaktion Books, 1989). Tatsi’s analysis of the changes in museums’ communicative approaches identifies a shift from a monovocal to a multivocal approach, drawing, in particular, on the work of Nina Simon (The Participatory Museum. Santa Cruz: Museum 2.0, 2010).

Considering participatory transformation, Tatsi draws on the work of Nico Carpentier (Media and Participation. A Site of Ideological-Democratic Struggle. Bristol, UK, Chicago, USA: Intellect, 2011), applying Carpentier’s model which distinguishes access, interaction and full participation (and with participation further subdivided into minimalist and maximalist approaches) as ways of defining differing degrees of engagement by audiences and commitment by museums.

Section 1.3 considers the core question of how the cultural expertise is shaped by the changes taking place in museums in terms of their approaches to communication and participation. Tatsi notes that the nature of the understanding of the identity of the expert determines how a museum approaches participation. He describes an old expert identity, resting on notions of specialist knowledge, professional ethics and public service, which was shaped by the expectation that museums existed to communicate specialist expertise to a non-specialist audience. Tatsi argues that this model is being transformed by expectations that museums will be more responsive to the needs of their audiences, drawing on Andrea Witcomb’s notion of “smiling professionalism” (Re-imagining the Museum: Beyond the Mausoleum. London, New York: Routledge, 2003, pp.51-78) to describe a shift from traditional approaches to a new mode which Tatsi describes as “facilitatorship” (p. 30).

Chapter 2 of the cover article describes Tatsi’s methods and approach to data collection. Tatsi was working at the ENM throughout the period of his research, participating in the developments which formed the basis of his research. The main period of data gathering covered three years from April 2008 to May 2011, and focused on a number of interventions designed to test new ways of involving audiences in the development of content for the museum. Tatsi began this period as an exhibition manager at the museum, later transferring to the museum’s research department and working as part of a larger research group including colleagues from Tartu University. He reflects extensively on the complexities of this position, which involved his moving between different subject positions during the course of his research, working both as a “participatory activist” and a “reflexive analyst” (p. 38).

The remaining three chapters of the cover article reflect in different ways on the findings of the four published studies. Tatsi concludes that the research interventions which formed the basis of the study and which offered audiences new opportunities to contribute to the exhibition development process were mostly examples of minimalist participation, that is participation which does not significantly impact an institution’s traditional approaches to decision-making and thus shift the power relationship between institution and audience. He suggests that the museum’s approach to expertise remained largely authoritative and modernist, and that attempts to offer audiences opportunities to shape exhibition content were met with responses including resistance, anxiety and “othering” (that is, distancing the practice of outsiders from the traditional practice of the museum) (p. 43). He concludes that reshaping of the professional identity of cultural experts within museums is still at an early stage and argues that, for museums to respond effectively to transformations within society, rigid distinctions between expert and audience have to be overcome.

Turning to the four published studies which make up the second half of the dissertation, Study I (first published in Simon Knell, Peter Aronsson, Arne Amundsen (eds.). National Museums. New Studies from Around the World. Routledge, 2010), focuses on the extent to which audience views had any influence on the decisions (and especially the architectural decisions) shaping the new ENM building. Studies II and III consider questions of the impact of audience participation on professional identity more directly, Study II focusing on exhibition development and Study III on collections development. Study IV then returns to the theoretical and methodological questions which are more briefly discussed in the cover article.

Study I explores the changing role of the national museum in the context of changing understandings of national identity. It offers more extensive reflection on the symbolic significance of the situating of the new museum on a Soviet era airfield. The discussion again engages with the work of Nico Carpentier (“Participation and interactivity: changing perspectives. The construction of an integrated model on access, interaction and participation,” in Virginia Nightingale & Tim Dwyer (eds) New Media Worlds, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2007). Tatsi and his co-authors argue that, taking place in a social context only just emerging from the rigid social control of the Soviet era, audience involvement in preliminary decisions about the building’s design was absent, with professionals making assumptions about audience needs and desires, rather than researching actual expectations and preferences. However, the museum’s Director expressed an early desire for the museum to engage in “dialogue” with its audiences (p. 86, quoting Krista Aru, “The new Estonian National Museum building – an opportunity,” in A. Aljas (ed.), Estonian National Museum Open International Architecture Competition: Catalogue. Tartu: Estonian National Museum, 2006, p. 9). Tatsi and his co-authors reflect on the challenges of achieving this dialogue, suggesting that a successful approach might necessitate the reworking of the basic concept of “Estonianness” (p.89), to something broader and more inclusive.

Study II considers the construction of the professional identity of museum professionals, in relation to community groups and other audiences. Tatsi draws on the work of Nico Carpentier, Tony Bennett, Nina Simon and Andrea Witcomb in the works cited above, as well as James Clifford (Routes: Travel and Translation in the Late Twentieth Century. Cambridge, MA, London: Harvard University Press, 1997) to establish his approach to the creation of identity. He argues that a traditional modernist professional identity for practitioners within museums may be well “defended” (p. 99) from the rival claims of audiences, but clash with other forms of expertise, such as that of designers and architects. This analysis focuses in particular on one initiative, the Open Curatorship programme, which invited audiences to propose subjects and content for an exhibition in an open competition. Tatsi demonstrates that experts who felt threatened by the intervention built “bastions” (p. 104) of traditional identity in response, arguing that the research intervention demonstrated that museum professionals were not yet willing to share the responsibility for exhibition production. While acknowledging that a national museum will always contain a large proportion of traditionally authoritative spaces, Tatsi argues for an approach which he calls the “third museum” drawing on a “third expertise”, an approach that would overcome a rigid dichotomy between expert and non-expert and offer space for genuine participation (p. 104).

Study III explores the extent to which attempts to increase audience participation have helped to reshape the collections at the Estonian National Museum. Tatsi reviews six research interventions which offered audiences the opportunity to contribute to the collection in some way, including the Donate a Day initiative, which invited individuals to contribute a record of a single day in their life, and an initiative to crowdsource documentary photographs. He analyses these interventions, again drawing on Carpentier’s Access-Interaction-Participation model and distinguishes between physical and virtual interventions, physical interventions being those which result in actual changes to the objects held in the collections, and virtual interventions, which impact on the way that objects are understood, and on their catalogue records. Tatsi further distinguishes between minimalist participation, that which might contribute new objects or new descriptions, and maximalist participation, which might allow for larger scale changes to the whole nature of the collections, how they are structured and the kinds of objects deemed worthy of inclusion.

Tatsi concludes that the majority of these interventions are physical and minimalist; that is, they contribute new material to the collections, but on a limited scale. He suggests that the scope of these kinds of interventions will always be restricted by the perceived need to limit the number of new acquisitions, concluding that there are more opportunities for virtual participation, contributing ideas and information about collections in more lasting and substantial ways than is currently possible.

Tatsi’s intellectual background is in media and communication studies, and the final study, Study IV, is the part of the dissertation most clearly situated in this intellectual context, considering the museum as an exemplar of a type of “non-linear communicator in a participatory situation” (p. 126). Here, Tatsi draws on three different approaches to conceptualising participation: the cultural, the economic and the political. He once again describes the research interventions which form the basis of the study and shows how they took account of these varying approaches to the concept of participation. This study also provides more information about the approaches to data collection which Tatsi and his colleagues used during preparation of the study. This final study offers a richer understanding of the ideas underpinning the research project and readers may find it helpful to return to the other studies and cover article, with these theoretical perspectives in mind.

This study has the potential to enrich and complicate understanding of the processes of audience participation in museum development, an approach which is widely advocated, but relatively under-theorised. Although drawing on case studies from a single institution, it situates these in a much broader theoretical context and engages honestly with the difficulties and limitations encountered in the interventions. It also has the advantage of bringing a non-Western perspective to an area which is dominated by studies based in North America, Australasia and the United Kingdom.

Helen Wilkinson
School of Museum Studies
University of Leicester
helen@museumconsultancy.co.uk.

Primary Sources
Meeting records, interview records, feedback from participants in six research interventions.
Estonian National Museum, 2008-2011.

Dissertation Information
University of Tartu, 2013. 148 pp. Primary Advisor: Pille Pruulmann-Vengerfeldt.

Image: Photograph of the Estonian National Museum, Tartu.  From Wikimedia Commons.

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