Ποιειν Και Πραττειν - create and do

Intangible heritage

- in response to Museum's Day in 2004 since dedicated to 'intangible heritage'

One dimension which is often hidden, yet very political (if taken in the way Wittgenstein defined philosophy: ‘as a special way of remembering things’) when it comes to museums is hardly mentioned but thanks to the ‘day of the museum’ highlighting every year a certain key aspect of invaluable importance to society and its political life, it is focused upon in 2004, namely:‘intangible heritage’.

Tangible and more so intangible cultural heritage cannot be kept without ‘memory’. They cannot be kept alive i.e. tangible if memory does not bear upon the present. As a matter of fact ‘intangible heritage’ as memory is about setting certain measures to ensure consistency over time. Once these measures are set, it brings about not merely honesty but also the working through of contradictions. It allows the going on with life after having secured some ‘moral energy’. This is crucial especially in times which prevent young people to learn how to think in contradictions. The philosopher and psychoanalyst Cornelius Castoriadis attributes this to the youth being educated to think according to the iterative process: a process of learning to decide solely along yes – no options underlying all computer systems and programming. They and with them society risk a loss of memory as part of an overall alienation process. That can be reinforced once cut off completely from emotions linked to already made experiences taking on meaning precisely because they are remembered not only by the individual but by other persons as well. From there to 'collective memory' practices is, therefore, not far.

The degree, depth and extent to which people see a value in the life they lead, this indicates whether or not an affirmation of life and a forward looking attitude manifested itself through all sorts of activities, but also human relationships leading on to expressions in the forms of poems, philosophies, narratives, etc. all of which are hinting at or revealing how linkages between people have created over time and more so on a daily basis.

If ‘moral energy’ keeps people together and to stay at a certain place, then it is also a kind of synthesis: a life design by which things come together and are done in a certain way and not in any arbitrary way. It may be done out of belief this is the right solution and that it shall take society into the future. As such it will manifest itself in ‘spirituality’ and kinship going over and beyond the existence of relatives and close friends. It will indicate itself on how a town receives strangers: with hostility or with friendly but critical eyes? As Ancient Greek poets said, any stranger entering was eyed suspiciously whether or not he will bring with him a new God who is to be worshipped with quite other rituals, more primitive than the ones being practiced right now or more advanced. Hesiod said, the stranger will be asked by everyone if he can bring about the just society: ‘no easy task’, therefore a measure - the 'metron' - for things to come.

How things are judged tells a lot in what intelligent manner people enter a new phase of their development. There is always a mixture of hope and expectations involved, and something like deeper convictions will mark the historical decisions, retrospectively speaking, to do so.

Especially historical moments like the referendum on the EU Constitutional Treaty show that the political dimension of doing something for the future is then evoked when the going gets rough and tough decisions have to be made without knowing what costs more: the going ahead or the negation of certain possibilities out of a wish for a better and certainly different future? Ernst Bloch warned about 'reactionary politics' aborting possibilities to realize alternatives. The question as to why certain opportunities were not taken up as serious options needs to be clarified. More important, when it comes to telling the story as to how things came about, this is not a linear process. Museums should reveal more the thinking process and even the failures before a successful implementation process materialized itself.

As the meaning given to any specific historical event even before it can be lived since it could not yet unfold, is invisible but already an 'intangible asset' for the future, then the relationship to that pending decision in terms of consequences has to be viewed as a substantial option on how to go on with life. It can remain in silence if afterwards the time before the decision cannot be reconstructed as Habermas claims. Certainly the debate between Robespierre and Danton in the French Revolution meant a different course was about to be taken and a high morality at risk of replacing concrete safeguards of life. Jean Pierre Faye describes in how the ‘health police’ in the Paris Commune played havoc with the political leadership by starting reactionary countermeasures till the true revolution was upsurded.

Always in history, traces of cultural heritage have been removed, often out of health reason, so the sailors and fishers of an independent tribe outside Galway who knew how to sail along the coast without compass and could never be suppressed by the British, but when the city administration decided their village on stilts was no longer hygienic, the entire village was wiped out after ordering everyone to move out in 1932. To date the city manager did not wish the creation of a cultural heritage museum dedicated to that specific cultural manifestation along the Irish coast. Only one man reconstructed in the back of his garage the schooners they used as sailing boats: a piece of memory of a different way of life now smothered and gone under when the bulldozers came to eradicate that town.

With these examples, one can describe a key function of a museum when it comes to organize itself around the ‘intangible heritage’: the showing of blindness but also courage when people were facing an unknown future and could not know as of yet what would lie ahead, something only to be recognized retrospectively and only if shown in such a way that there is no mystification of what could have been known at the time before the decision was made. Any museum should not succumb to historical determinism as if there was no other choice involved nor to 'fate' as if things had to come as they did. The upholding of freedom and therefore the ability to make decisions means museums will have to map the path into the future without such predetermined concepts. It will have to show to visitors that different choices were possible and not always the right ones were taken, even if life continues. An uprising of the workers might be squashed by the police but this does not refute the life they had imagined if they could link self respect with proper working conditions.

There is always a danger to lock people retrospectively into a predetermined historical path. Especially war museums risk elevating historical and tragic events to the level of a myth about being always victorious people. It may take a different courage to question war, but then entering it blindly is also not the answer. Here more must be done to make the alternative to war become conceivable. Once a war museum only glorifies war, it merely prepares future generation for yet another war, and only protest singers would ask “when will they ever learn?”[1]

By making 'intangible heritage' into a motto for the day of the museum in 2004 the political dimension of museums becomes visible. It is a most crucial matter on how to organize within any community or society the passing on to the next generations knowledge about the sequence of events since ancient times until the most recent past. If this 'narrative' is to be taken serious, then the organisational principle of the museum has to be put into another context of understanding prior to filling rooms with selected objects from a certain period. As Michel Foucault said, ‘we need to create spaces so that people can express themselves and not to rush in ourselves to occupy the spaces we have just created.’ In other words, the selected items can give rise to different stories subject to various interpretations out of which emerges over time a true narrative, but a narrative nevertheless. To discover in that way the finger prints of history is what makes empty spaces so important. It goes hand in hand with what 'inner culture' the museum and its staff can create before communicating with the outside world (Giovanni Pina).

The lesson of absence can be indeed a very powerful one, says poetess Katerina Anghelaki Rooke, in her attribute to the present becoming ‘eternal’ but under one condition: not to return where you left off, for that would be a futile life. Indeed, life itself would be futile if you give it only that meaning!

Present Eternity

by Katerina Anghelaki Rooke

From my window I observe the traffic
Cars parked in the void
Or speed up in order
To catch themselves returning.
The world seems indefinable, dim
As if I were blinded by the steam
From some distant cauldron
Where the evil of creation
Is stewing in its own juice.
The infatuation bodies used to provoke
Where has the infatuation gone?
How can a wounded memory
Count absences?
Has the content of life changed
Or does my person no longer offer
Sufficient future
For life to contain me?
Never before have so many questions
Weighed down my poems
Never before has imagination
Omitted to give me
So many answers.
From now on you’ll find
Hardly any descriptions of nature
In my lines;
This is because
I’m concentrating totally
On trying to imagine the face
Of the one who will promise me
Present eternity
For just one moment.
(to be published 2005)

It does matter where organisations of museums end up. They should include in their activities the listening to poetic voices, and learn to recognize poetic images as expressions of times struggling with the beauty of truth and the ugliness of reality. As Katerina Anghelaki Rooke would say, ‘people are searching for a way out of these and other dilemmas. Whether large or small, they are important enough to be considered. For if not resolved, then can throw off course not merely individuals, but entire communities”.

In that sense it is appropriately said by ICOM that:

“Museums can play an important role in the conservation of intangible cultural heritage through recordings and transcriptions… However, these living cultural expressions thus become fossilised in space and time; they lose any point of contact with the community in which they originated, they cease to be passed down and hence cease to be heritage.”

Hatto Fischer Athens June 2005

[1] This matter of political iconography shall be taken up later and relates directly to what monuments and museums dedicated to wars should keep in mind when stressing heroic deeds, but not the peace protesters, the war resisters and those who tried the diplomatic way but failed as in Kosovo 1999 or in the Security Council of the United Nations prior to America’s entry into war in Iraq March 2003.

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