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Wednesday, 17 October 2012 08:32

Ecomuseums 2012: 1st International Conference on Ecomuseums, Community Museums and Living Communities

Written by  Alexandra Denes
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September 19-21, 2012
Seixal, Portugal

From September 19-21, 2012, I had the exciting opportunity to participate in the 1st International Conference on Ecomuseums, Community Museums and Living Communities in Seixal, Portugal, a town located on the southern bank of the river Tejo, across from the capital city of Lisbon. The event brought together museum and heritage practitioners from around the world to take stock of the ecomuseums movement since its advent in France in the 1960s, and to gauge new directions and possibilities for its future. Hughes de Varine, who is credited with coining the term “ecomusée” in 1971, gave the keynote speech for the conference, in which he reviewed the core tenets of the ecomuseology movement. At its heart, the ecomuseum is about community participation in the management and interpretation of local heritage for the purpose of community development[1].

The ecomuseum differs from the traditional museum in a number of important ways. First, unlike the traditional museum, which is centered on professional curation, conservation and collections management within a museum building, the ecomuseum encompasses the historical narratives, memories, sites, and living cultural practices found within a specific territory. Whereas the traditional museum aims to foster pleasure, learning and reflection among the general public, the ecomuseum’s objective is to empower the local population through the cultivation of collective memory and a sense of place. Through their active participation in the creation, interpretation and management of the ecomuseum, local residents become reflexively and critically aware of their historical and cultural identity, and are thus better able to make important decisions about the future development of their community. As stated by de Varine, ecomuseological interventions are not solely about the past, but are, rather, about identifying the social and cultural assets which can be used to help solve the problems of the present.

The presentations and study tours over the course of the three-day conference were a testament to the wide range of ecomuseums and community-led, local heritage initiatives that have emerged around the world over past four decades. Given the origins of the ecomuseum movement in Europe, it is no surprise that most of the case studies presented were from France, Italy, Sweden, Poland, Portugal, Spain and the UK. Nevertheless, there were also numerous presentations about ecomuseum initiatives in other parts of the world, such as in Japan, China, Mexico and Micronesia (Palau), demonstrating that the ecomuseum ethos has travelled well beyond its geographic origins.

Indeed, one of the most interesting aspects of the conference was that it afforded a comparative perspective on how the ecomuseum concept has been modified and vernacularized in different national contexts. For instance, in his presentation about the Guangxi Eco-museum in China, Lu Wendong described how the Chinese government had introduced the ecomuseum as a framework for developing heritage tourism in remote, impoverished regions, using government financial support for infrastructural development and the construction of interpretation facilities. A greater challenge in the Chinese context, however, is fostering community participation and a local sense of ownership in these heritage projects, since ecomuseum initiatives are presently a government-driven undertaking.

Another interesting case from Asia was presented by Professor Parasmoni Dutta from the Tezpur University in Assam, India, who sought to explain the absence of ecomuseums in India. Prof. Dutta began by briefly retracing the evolution of museology in India from the colonial period, demonstrating that the colonial grand narratives of civilization and nationhood were reproduced in state museums throughout the post-colonial era and up until the present day. This does not mean that there are no alternative spaces for the expression of local identities, however, and Dutta pointed out that visitor centers and interpretive facilities throughout India provide vital and dynamic spaces for the expression and transmission of local culture. These spaces differ markedly from the ecomuseum in the European context, however, in that they are not framed in historical terms. In other words, whereas most European ecomuseums commemorate historical events, industrial livelihoods, and cultural landscapes of the past, visitor centers and interpretive facilities in India are focused on living practices and often embedded in religious institutions. Unlike in Europe, these community spaces do not invoke a “lost past,” but are, rather, about the dynamic present. As such, Dutta’s presentation raised important questions about the applicability of the ecomuseum framework in the Indian context. Is there any benefit to adopting the ecomuseum model, if there are already heritage initiatives taking place at the local level, albeit under a different title? Moreover, is the ecomuseum model even appropriate in India, given its focus on historical cultural landscapes rather than living social practices and modes of livelihood?

On the second day of the conference, participants were taken on a guided tour of the Seixal Ecomuseum. Opened in 1983, the Seixal Ecomuseum encompasses several “nodes” or loci with interpretation centers reflecting different periods of the region’s history. Seixal has been occupied since the Roman era by populations attracted to the region’s ideal location and rich natural resources. Seixal expanded in the middle ages as it became an important trade depot for goods bound for the city of Lisbon, such as grain, olive oil, wood, salt, etc.

Its excellent location in a natural harbor on the river Tejo became even more important during the period of maritime expansion, and Seixal’s shipyards produced many of the vessels which sailed to India, Brazil and Africa. Its position on the river estuary was also ideal for the construction of tide mills, the earliest dating from the 15th century.

Seixal was heavily impacted by the industrial revolution, and a significant number of factories were built there, shifting the socio-economic structure from a rural, agricultural base to industrial production. De-industrialization of the region over the past three decades led to the transformation of local livelihoods, as factory workers lost their jobs and sought employment elsewhere, particularly the capital city of Lisbon.

The Ecomuseum of Seixal was established by the municipality during this transitional period of de-industrialization in the 1980s, as a mechanism for documenting and preserving the memories and material heritage of Seixal’s pre-industrial and industrial age. One node of the ecomuseum that we visited was the Coroios tide mill—a grain mill powered by the ebb and flow of tides within the Tagus estuary. One of the dozens of similar mills in the region, the Coroios tide mill demonstrated pre-industrial, sustainable forms of production and livelihood using the renewable energy of the estuary.

Another node was the Mundet factory—a cork wood processing facility that employed some 2,500 workers at its apogee in the 1950s-1970s. Today, the factory houses a permanent exhibition featuring all stages in the cork production process and samples of the cork products exported around the world. The Mundet factory also organizes educational activities and events with former factory workers. Other nodes of the ecomuseum were the Vale de Milhaços—a gunpowder factory—and Núcleo Naval, a shipyard that has been converted into a small museum and traditional boat model workshop. As with cork and gunpowder production, the traditional shipbuilding industry in Seixal declined as wooden boats were replaced with faster steel and steam-powered vessels and bridges blocked the passage of ships with tall masts.

As a community-based museum, the Seixal ecomuseum has involved local residents in the interpretation and management of the sites since its inception. Funded by the Seixal Municipality, the ecomuseum now has 45 full time paid staff responsible for research, management and interpretation. The mission of the ecomuseum has been to conserve the heritage and document and transmit the memories of the local populace—particularly the tangible and intangible heritage associated with the industrial period. In this sense, the Seixal ecomuseum is similar to a number of other early ecomuseums, such as the L’Ecomusee Creusot-Montceau-les-Mines in France—a museum whose primary aim was to initiate a community-based process of reflecting on the historical and socio-economic transformation of the area as a result of post-industrialization of the steel and mining industry, and empower residents to take control of their own development.[2]

I was struck by a number of things from my visit to the different sites within the Seixal ecomuseum. Firstly, this being my first visit to an “industrial heritage” site, I was moved by how the two factory sites told a highly personalized story of industrial labor. The narrative at both sites was on the physical and emotional experience of the workers as they operated the heavy machinery and produced goods for the market. The overall message was one of pride in the value of labor and mastery of the machine, and the sites invited the visitor to experience and reflect deeply upon how daily life and sociality were shaped by the factory space. Upon further reflection, I also felt there were several facets of the story that were left in silence. For instance, the museums offered little interpretation about what happened to the wider community once the factories were closed. Macro-level issues, such as the global economy, environmental degradation and sustainable development were also not addressed.

This absence links to my second observation. During the keynote lecture, Hughes de Varines reminded the audience that the ecomuseum was more than a commemoration of the past—it was a means of solving problems of the present and planning collectively for the future. How, then, was the Seixal ecomuseum solving the problems of the present, including Seixal’s lack of jobs, and its gentrification as a bedroom community of Lisbon? Clearly it was helping to strengthen a sense of community solidarity in abstract terms, thus presumably helping to prevent social divisions, but were there any more tangible benefits of the ecomuseum project, such as the revenue that might be generated from tourism? I was surprised to learn that the ecomuseum was not geared towards tourists but rather first and foremost towards the Seixal community. Indeed, nearly all the interpretative facilities and activities were geared towards local residents rather than tourists. For instance, the text in the explanatory panels was in Portuguese rather than English, and our museum guides from Seixal municipality informed us that most of the visit and special events were organized for different generations of local Seixal residents. On the one hand, I understood that this focus on the local residents rather than tourists was in keeping with the principles of ecomuseology[3], inasmuch as the central purpose of the ecomuseum is to foster a collaborative, community-based process of engagement in heritage which, in turn, becomes the foundation of planning for a sustainable future. Nevertheless, I could not help but wonder whether cultural heritage tourism could be more actively promoted as part of a sustainable development plan in Seixal. The charming coastal town had clearly suffered decline as a result of the loss of industrial jobs and exodus of workers to Lisbon. Many of the buildings were in a state of disrepair and listed for sale, and there were few restaurants, coffee shops, retail shops or hotels. It seemed to me that the residents of Seixal might stand to benefit from tourist revenue, were they to encourage more of the international visitors who flock to the capital city of Lisbon to make the trip across the bay to the Seixal ecomuseum. Given the brevity of our visit, I did not have a chance to delve deeper into this issue, to learn more about the reasoning behind this choice.

This issue of the inherent tensions between the ecomuseum ethos and cultural heritage tourism came up on the third day of the conference, in a presentation delivered by Werner Bigell on “Ecomuseums as the New Commons.” Beginning with a brief review of Zizek’s three-fold definition of the commons (the commons of culture, i.e. social forms of cognitive capital, shared infrastructure such as public transport, electricity, etc.; the commons of external nature, i.e. natural resources; and the commons of internal nature, i.e. biogenetic inheritance), Bigell proposed that the ecomuseum represents one of the last bastions of the commons that hasn’t been commodified or privatized. As a collectively managed space encompassing tangible and intangible social and natural assets, the ecomuseum represents a space of resistance to capitalist domination and the logic of private property. As Bigell succinctly put it, “the opposite of the ecomuseum is the theme park.” Herein, one begins to see how the promotion of cultural heritage tourism might threaten the ecomuseum ideal, particularly if living culture was “packaged” and marketed and if benefits derived from heritage tourism were unevenly distributed, thus undermining the collective goals of the project.  Were there ways of fostering sustainable heritage tourism that could support the commons and the ecomuseum’s collective ideals, or was every step in the direction of heritage tourism inevitably a move towards the commodification of local culture?

The plenary session was delivered by Professor Peter Davis, who presented on “Lifescapes, therapeutic landscapes and the ecomuseum.” In this session, Prof. Davis introduced the idea of story maps, defined as follows: “Story maps represent a place as it is perceived by an individual, or a culture moving through it. They are records of journeys…event and place are often of the same substance. The earliest maps would have been story maps. Spoken cartographies…describing landscapes and the events that took place in them. …this distinctive crag, this bend in the river, the map as story.” Developing this notion further, he then linked the story map to the concept of the “lifescape,” defined as “the social, cultural and economic interactions that occur within a locality,” and a frame through which “to explore the interconnections between people and place.” By marking, mapping and interpreting the significance of everyday lifescapes, ecomuseums encourage us to reflect deeply upon how the interactions between land and people culminate in the creation of distinctive places with their unique tangible and intangible heritage. More than just sites for learning and contemplation, Davis suggests that ecomuseums have a “therapeutic” aspect, inasmuch as places—whether designed, natural, cultural or historical landscapes—play a fundamental role in sustaining people’s emotional, mental, spiritual and physical well-being. Davis then raised the provocative question: Are ecomuseums good for you? This question points to an area for further research—the impact of ecomuseums on visitors—as there is yet no definitive evidence to suggest that ecomuseums serve a therapeutic function in addition to their educational and social roles. What I personally found so compelling about Prof. Davis presentation was the idea that we must broaden our conception of sustainable development to include phenomenological and experiential dimensions of being. In other words, sustainable development is not only about sustainable livelihoods, but it is also about learning to value and celebrate our experience of places, take respite in landscapes, and recognize the spiritual dimension of our being in the world as part of our individual as well as our communal development. Building on this argument, unsustainable economic growth represents not only a threat to the environment and social cohesion, but also a threat to the very essence of our spiritual and emotional existence as a species.

Ecomuseums represent a philosophy as well as a mechanism for collective resistance to exploitive economic development, and herein, Davis offered the example of the Ha Long Bay Ecomuseum in Vietnam. The exquisite beauty of this cultural landscape is threatened by industrial development (coal mining, shipping and mineral extraction), as well as cultural degradation as a result of the exponential growth in tourism. The Ha Long Ecomuseum was initiated in 1999 to mitigate these threats, in order to bring local stakeholders together to establish working partnerships for the holistic conservation of this unique cultural landscape. An encompassing theme of the ecomuseum is the history and traditional livelihoods of the floating fishing villages in the bay, and one of the aims of the ecomuseum is to support these traditional fishing livelihoods through the promotion of sustainable heritage tourism involving local residents in interpretation and management.

In conclusion, the inaugural Ecomuseums Conference in Seixal demonstrated that the ecomuseum concept introduced in France in the 1960s had traveled well beyond its origins and flourished in many different countries and cultural contexts. Wherever it has taken root, the ecomuseum concept had developed differently, depending not only on the tangible and intangible assets of the community, but also on the political will of state agencies and local leaders. Whether focused on industrial heritage or natural ecosystems, the touchstone of the ecomuseum approach is the active involvement of local residents, who work together to document and interpret their shared heritage as a resource for the future.



[1] A working definition of the ecomuseum was established in May 2004 at the Long Net workshop in Trento, Italy, as follows: “An Ecomuseum is a dynamic way in which communities preserve, interpret, and manage their heritage for a sustainable development. An Ecomuseum is based on a community agreement.”

[2] In the 1970s-1980s, the region of Le Creusot-Montceau-les-Mines underwent a period of social decline as a result of the collapse of the steel industry. During this post-industrial period, the local population of 150,000 faced poverty and the erosion of morale and social relations. At this time of crisis, Hugues de Varine and Marcel Evrard were invited to establish a museum. De Varine and Evrard agreed to facilitate the establishment of a museum that would encompass the entire territory of Le Creusot-Montceau-les-Mines, with the inhabitants serving as both the museum’s curators and visitors. The museum’s collection was comprised of the tangible and intangible “objects” within the defined territory, including the memories, buildings, everyday social practices, and traditions associated with life in an urban industrial landscape.

 [3] A list of ecomuseum principles called the Liuzhi principles can be found at: http://icom.museum/fileadmin/user_upload/pdf/ICOM_News/2005-3/ENG/p6_2005-3.pdf

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