Ethnographic museums will be more conscious of the communities

An Interview with Curator Michel Lee

Tina Palaić

Photo Michel Lee 2

Michel Lee

Michel Lee is curator for China and Korea at the Swedish National Museums of World Culture. Before its last reorganization, he was the director of the Museum of Far Eastern Antiquities in Stockholm, which is one of the museums – in addition to the Ethnographic Museum and Museum of Mediterranean and Near Eastern Antiquities in Stockholm, and Museum of World Culture in Gothenburg – in the consortium of the National Museums of World Culture.



Michel Lee received his Bachelor of Arts in anthropology at the George Washington University in Washington, D.C. After his studies, he worked for the Smithsonian Institution’s Anthropology department at the National Museum of Natural History. Then he moved to London, where he earned his Master of Arts in the history of art and archeology at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London. Before moving to Sweden, he also worked as the director and curator of the Museum of East Asian Art in Bath, U.K.

Michel and I met in May 2016 in Marseille, France, within the SWICH project. On that occasion, I presented my collaboration with Roma women within the Accessibility project in the Slovene Ethnographic Museum. Since we share an interest in the Roma community, we had a lively conversation about our experiences and perspectives regarding collaboration with Roma within museums. Eventually, it brought up a lot of other common interests – identity politics, diaspora communities, and the role of museums in contemporary society. From then on, our discussions became more and more vibrant, so we decided to present some of the topics in the form of an interview. We spoke at the end of February 2017 in Stockholm. Of course, I started the conversation with a question about the SWICH project.

Tina: Let’s start with the SWICH project! It aims to rethink the role of ethnographic museums today, as well as develop innovative and more inclusive ethnographic museum practice. The National Museums of World Culture, where you work, is one of the SWICH partners. How do you see the role of Swedish partner in the project?

Michel: I think one of our main contributions to the SWICH project is sharing experiences from our Swedish perspective. The SWICH project is a great resource for European museums to keep each other up-to-date with current museum practice within Europe, especially ethnographic museums. Through different exchanges and different types of dialogue, it makes the museums stronger by allowing them to pick and choose what methods work for their specific countries, their specific contexts. Maybe not everything we hear from other participants works, for instance, within Sweden. However, it is good to hear what other museums are doing, what they see as best practice and how we can apply some of these very good practices to our museums. As a curator, it is a way for me to be exposed to different practices and different ways of working with collections and communities.

Tina: Within SWICH, both National Museums of World Culture and Slovene Ethnographic Museum work on two themes: creative dialogue and digital futures. Within the former theme, you also collaborated with an artist, and now you are working on experimental exhibition. What are your experiences?

Michel: To be honest, it was my colleague that worked on our artist-in-residence exhibition, so I’m not the best person to talk to about the process of working with that artist. But just as a general observation about some of the artist-in-residence projects I have seen in ethnographic museums, I think that most people who visit ethnographic museums do not necessarily go for the same reasons and digest information in the same ways as people who visit art museums. The messages from some artists-in-residence are often communicated in a more abstract way that art museum audiences expect, but not always for an ethnographic museum visitor. Visitors may not take the time to switch mind sets, and walk away from the display if the message is presented in too abstract a way.


Image is from the public workshop ’You are here, because they were there’ led by SWICH Artist in residence Jacqueline Hoang Nguyen and held at Museum of Ethnography, 17 October 2015. Photographer: Tony Sandin.

With regard to the experimental exhibition, I am very much involved with that. In many ways, this project has been liberating in that there are few preconceived ideas of what the final product should be or how we get to the final product. We’re working with a school in what is perhaps Sweden’s most culturally diverse city. We will have workshops with the students to help prepare them to talk about their identities through objects.  They play a key role in creating the exhibition and the exhibition will stay in their school for a period of time. This is the first exhibition that I have worked on where I have only minimal control of the presentation of the objects. Yes, I will frame the exhibition with things like an introduction text, have the responsibility of editing, and we will make sure that the students have accurate information about the objects, so that their decisions to work with particular objects are based on knowledge and facts. But it will be the students that have the voice when it comes to their relationship to the objects or what they stand for. With this type of method, the process of working with the students, through our education officers, becomes just as important as the final product. We will also be working with the elderly in this project in a way that encourages intergenerational dialogue. I feel like this exhibition process has, so far, been a great experience for me working with objects in a different way.

Tina: Decolonization, globalization and migration – those are three crucial processes that are profoundly changing European society in the last few decades. How do you feel they have affected ethnographic museums as cultural institutions as well as ethnographic museum practices?

Michel: Ethnographic museums were originally showcases of other cultures but almost within a vacuum. It was easy to get the sense that these cultures existed within themselves, almost as if there could be pure cultures. Now, with more issues about migration and decolonization being brought to the forefront of the work of many museums, pushing museums to become more inclusive of minority and suppressed voices, this has helped museums to acknowledge that no culture, no groups of people have ever been that isolated. There has always been communication, influences, movements of people. Maybe it did not happen as fast or on as large a scale as today, but certainly there was movement, there was communication, there was sharing of information, technology and so forth. I think the current emphasis in some museums on themed exhibitions, rather than culturally or geographically-based exhibitions, may be a result of this acknowledgement. However, I feel that it is important to not completely abandon culturally-based and geographically-based exhibitions, because they still help us to understand where we came from and how we got to be the way we are today.  We just need to understand and acknowledge the complexities and historical contexts when we talk about cultures within specific geographic locations.

Tina: Museums respond to today’s demands with various practices: they digitize and make all the content available on-line, they invite artists to bring a different perspective into museum practice or make creative interpretation of the museum content, some try to develop collaboration with source communities and create exhibitions together with them. In your opinion, which museum practice will define the future of ethnographic museums?

Michel: I think ethnographic museums in the future will be much more conscious of the communities out there that have a stake in their collections. And it will not be only about the collections, it will also be about the communities, whether we’re talking about source or diaspora communities. I see a lot more of work with communities in terms of how to interpret objects and what should be represented for different peoples, different groups.

Tina: Dr. Vázquez, whom we listened to in Leiden in November 2016, made a distinction between ‘colonization’ and ‘coloniality’. Although colonization has technically ended for much of the world, coloniality is still present today. The term refers to residual effects of colonization such as racism, discrimination, and the dominance of the Western perspective. How can ethnographic museums, which are institutions embedded in colonial history, help to dismantle coloniality and include also non-Western perspectives into their presentations?

Michel: I think including voices, or points of views, from communities that are represented in the museum, but whose perspectives are not always represented, is a very good way to help dismantle coloniality. It is very important to acknowledge that there are different points of views and to bring them out, but I do not think one point of view should necessarily take over another. I feel it is important that the different points of views that are presented are based on fact or knowledge, or at least to contextualize them if they are not. I don’t think we can have a good understanding of a conflict or situation if we only know one point of view. To know the different points of views is to have a more holistic understanding of a certain situation. Disciplines, such as history, art history, anthropology, look at their histories – they come of the point of view of the dominant society.  But, does that mean that it is wrong, bad or shameful? I think not necessarily. Of course museums should not promote racism, discrimination, or domination, and museums need to be sensitive of these issues when creating exhibitions. But just because there is a dominant point of view does not necessarily mean it automatically falls into one of those categories. Again, I think opening up museum interpretation to more voices is a good thing. Recognizing and understanding that there are different points of views will give one a better understanding of a situation. Some points of views may contradict each other and show where conflicts arise, exposing the complexities of life! But different points of views can also be complementary and give a fuller, more nuanced understanding of a situation.

Tina: How can we achieve this within museums?

Michel: It is very common now to work with diaspora groups, with source communities. European museums have traditionally had a foundation within a Western, academic perspective. Perhaps we do not need to, as they say, throw the baby out with the bathwater. Maybe we can still acknowledge a museum point of view, perhaps some might call this the traditional academic voice. This voice may or may not contradict a community’s perspective. But by working openly and respectfully with source and diaspora communities, different voices will naturally come out. Museums should be very transparent about the process of working with communities. For instance: what is the voice of the curator, why do they have this perspective, what is the voice of the community and why do they have a certain perspective.

As Europe becomes a more diverse society with each generation, it is also natural that people working within many European museums reflect this trend. Museum workforces in Europe are probably more diverse than they have ever been. I sometimes feel that discussions about representation within museums have the point of view that the museum is one player and the “community” is another player. Sometimes, there are already voices from within the community working within the museum. We should not take for granted that change will automatically happen. People need to work towards change. But having a diverse workforce will help museums to be more inclusive of other voices and help with the process of dismantling coloniality.

Tina: Can you share your good practice of collaborating with communities?

Michel: I quite often work with communities in our Sculpture Hall. Within the Swedish context, there is often reluctance to talk about religion. But I feel that when working with objects which were created as religious objects, we must understand at least the basics of the religion in order to understand how to read and understand the objects – sculptures in this case – on a deeper level. We have invited Buddhist monks and nuns from different traditions to perform ceremonies with and around the sculptures in the Sculpture Hall. This way, the visitor will have a better understanding that these sculptures are not just objects. They have a ceremonial and social context. They are meant to be seen with offerings. Those that believe in the religion interact with the statues. These are things a visitor usually does not see within a museum setting. We have also had monks create butter sculptures as offerings to specific statues, or the deities that are represented by the statues. This was also a way to present a type of material culture that is not preserved within museum collections due to the ephemeral nature of the material. Of course, the conservator is also a very important part of these projects to help negotiate what can be done around the objects. We do our best to accommodate the needs of the devout, while still making sure that the objects are well cared for from a conservation point of view.

The consecration ceremony for butter sculptures made by the monks of Drikung Monastery, Ladakh, India. Museum of Far Eastern Antiquities, 2016

Whenever I work with communities, self-representation is very important. A good dialogue is important to have to make sure that both parties know what each other’s expectations are. From the museum side, the main requirement when accepting this type of cooperation is inclusivity. The ceremony or event must not exclude anyone. We make sure the communities we work with understand that the museum is a public place, and most people attending the event will probably not be of the religion and will be there mainly to observe. I have never had an experience with a group that does not accept this. And of course, there could be people attending who are of that faith, and they are welcome to experience the event as a religious event. Although religion can sometimes be a touchy subject in Sweden, these Buddhist events are some of our most well-attended events. I think the main reason for this is because Buddhism is seen in quite a positive light in Western popular imagination.

Tina: For the conclusion – what will be your next project?

Michel: I’m currently working on a project to completely update the information and photography for our Korea collection in our electronic database. As with so many museums in Europe now, accessibility is a big topic in our organization. Working with the digital allows us to reach audiences around the world. The information will also be available in Korean language, so researchers in Korea will also have access.