Social Responsibility of Museums

Tina Palaić

For the last time, Sarenka stirred the black thick liquid with the spoon. She prepared it on the stove in a pleasently warm kitchen on the cold autumn day. When she brought the jesvah pot from which it smelled really delightful – to the kitchen table, I knew that this was an excellent beginning of our cooperation. Everything starts with a good coffee! Sarenka is young active Roma, living in one of the Slovene Roma communities. She works as Roma assistant in Roma preparatory kindergarten. In the oldest house in her community she established a small museum, where she presents the Roma culture! The heritage connected us as well. I have contacted her to do the research about their perinatal customs, practices and habits with her and other women from the community. Roma women from two other communities were also included in the Slovene Ethnographic Museum’s project.

Before our cooperation, Sarenka has not visited museums. In general Roma communities in Slovenia were not, and still are not engaged in the museums enough. There is not much talking about Roma culture, especially not from their point of view, and they are rarely seen in the museums as visitors. At least in Prekmurje and Dolenjska regions Roma families live for long, many of them for more generations, and they significantly co-create their environment. From that point of view, it is really strange that they are overlooked in the museums. On the other hand, it is encouraging that in the last decade many Roma organizations and individuals, actively strive for preserving their heritage, as it is the case with Sarenka. With doing so they remind national and regional organizations responsible for this tasks to include Roma heritage and preserve and interpret it as well. Novel approaches in museology also encourage museums to present all social groups, especially marginalized ones, and emphasize their social activism in terms of recognizing and using their potential for impact they have on social situation. For instance, it is very important for Roma community that museums with presenting and interpreting Roma culture overcome their social exclusion and enable them to be heard as important co-creators of our society. With doing so museums create opportunities for Roma and members of majority community to meet, exchange experiences and ideas and thus, improve mutual understanding.

Due to historical events and current negative attitudes towards Roma that can be observed by the majority community and national institutions the cooperation with Roma community is not easily realizable. When I started to cooperate with Roma women it was a big challenge for me to establish the contact, and especially to build the mutual trust. For successful cooperation it was extremely important that they were included in all stages of museum work and were thus able to control the results of our collaboration. When we were selecting personal objects and stories to present their perinatal customs, memories and experience, it became obvious how important it is that Roma women were not just interlocutors explaining the curator about their heritage. With the reflection about how to present their heritage with the exhibition in the museum they started to recognize the importance of their heritage and also the necessity to preserve it. My narration about their perinatal heritage, which would be distantly professional would weaken their strength to decide what they want to tell about themselves, and how they want to do it. It would also take away the possibility for visitors to fully experience women’s intimate world, which was now possible through their exhibited statements and personal objects.

How does the above described approach change curator’s way of working? When museums become spaces of dialogue, interaction and participation of all social groups we have to redefine the role and the position of the curator. I am going to write about this issue in my next text.