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TAKING CARE - Ethnographic and World Cultures Museums as Spaces of Care.

Earth Strike 27th of September, 2019, Vienna, Photo: Nora Haas

Alarming environmental shifts and crises have raised public awareness of and anxieties regarding the future of the planet. While planetary in cause and scale, the negative effects of this global crisis are unequally distributed, affecting most intensely some of those whose positions are already most fragile, including indigenous and formerly colonized peoples and contributing to rising global insecurity and inequality. Some scholars have argued that these anxieties should be taken as connected with another prominent set of anxieties around the ‘announced’ failure of the plural democracies that have become commonplace in many countries across the world.

The project TAKING CARE - Ethnographic and World Cultures Museums as Spaces of Care started on October 1, 2019 and places Ethnographic and World Cultures Museums at the centre of the search for possible strategies to address these issues. TAKING CARE is a large-scale European cooperation project led by the Weltmuseum Wien; scheduled to run for four years, it brings together fourteen partner organisations and is co-financed by the Creative Europe programme of the European Union, which has contributed two million euro. The project is framed around the notion of care, and will explore under-tapped potential of these museums, for thinking critically about planetary pasts and about sustainable, convivial futures. Our claim is that World Culture Museums should no longer be conceived primarily as repositories of heritage to be preserved. They are places of encounter and practice, of social experimentations and innovation, of knowledges and skills, where diverse ways of knowing and being in and with the world, and narratives of diversity can be (re)discovered, co-created and publicly shared. Within Europe, such caring/careful (full of care) spaces are needed more than ever.

The project is organised around a set of interlinked themes, along a scale that starts from the museum as a site for care, opening towards thinking about the caring for the planet and its future, then on questions related to the unequal sharing of heritage resources and restitution. These themes will be explored in a shared programme of workshops, artist-based research, creative residencies and exhibitions, small-scale lab meetings, and collaborative publications, working through a range of participatory models, from small-group, hands-on sessions to wider public events.

In the work package, Matters of Care, we establish the relationship between the two main issues that the project explores – precarious planetary futures and the future of plural multicultural polities. Our aim is to locate the work of Ethnographic and World Cultures Museum, their histories and their collections, planetary histories, environmental precarity and the future of our human and non-human worlds. This thematic work programme will provide the theoretical framework – for the other themes that the project will explore. To broaden the reach and deepen the collaborative potential of the project, we will invite participants from outside the worlds of EWC museums, and especially colleagues in Natural History or Science Museums where some of these discussions have taken place.

The thematic work package From Preservation to Care focuses on issues related to museums conservation/preservation as one of the most important, innovative aspects of museum practice around which radical rethinking of the role of ethnographic, and world cultures museums as spaces of care can be organised. This also represents a novel addition, in comparison with earlier projects that were more concerned with curatorial and public facing (education/exhibition) functions within the museum. One of our primary functions is the preservation of heritage, both tangible and intangible, for study, education and enjoyment. Our belief is that we are well-placed, unique sites for preservation techniques that can challenge the precarious conditions of some of the cultures of the world, while also addressing issues that threaten to push certain cultural traditions, languages or species closer towards the edge of extinction.

The work package, Ecological Knowledge will centre around the connections between customary knowledge and creativity, environmental wisdom and sustainable ways of living for caring futures. Located within the museum, this thematic programme is not simply limited to academic models; rather it proffers an open, creative, and collaborative engagement with the perspectives and interests of communities, foregrounding societal challenges both within communities from where objects originated, and in the cities and regions in which the partner museums are situated. We are interested in a genuine and generous engagement with the other more sustainable modes of being in and with the world that our collections represent.

Sharing their genealogy within the European colonial project, Museums of Ethnography and World Cultures were conscripted to colonialism’s extractive mode, in knowledge, in objects and in materials. This main theme will extend this discussion, foregrounding materials, techniques and (indigenous) knowledges as starting points for thinking about how these collections can provide clues to more sustainable ways of caring for the earth and its resources. The work programme Designing sustainable futures will bring together design thinkers, innovators/material technologists, museum professionals (curators and conservators) with indigenous/local knowledge holders.

Rather than think of the museum as spaces to come in from the worrisome street to see beauty, or to escape reality there is increasing demand for the museum to be that site where contestation can be engaged with in ‘safe spaces’. If we all aspire to be inclusive, world cultures institutions possess a unique capacity and a unique responsibility to care for activate and share collections that represent global human diversity, and typically the diversity of people in the cities and regions in which they are situated. At the heart of the work programme Care in a world we share with Others/ Caring in a Precarious World is the central question of how ethnographic and world cultures museums can be activated to address the twinned concerns of planetary precarity and the precarity of plural societies. Moreover, how might they become sites for sharing values of empathy for the world we share with one another? In what ways can these museums, mobilising their collections and (difficult) histories in shaping more convivial (democratic) and equitable futures.