The Gaze of the Other

Keynote address by Dr Andrzej Leder, Polish philosopher and essayist, at the Interpret Europe conference in Krakow, Poland, 7th June 2015 [1].

Consider the following: an Israeli husband and wife, aged 57 and 60, are arrested at Balice Airport, Krakow, accused of removing objects (spoons and other small domestic items) from Auschwitz and attempting to take them out of the country. The maximum penalty for such a crime under Polish law is 10 years’ imprisonment.

A spokesperson for the Auschwitz-Birkenau Museum considers this a “crime of a special dimension” – such objects are the only things that remain of the 1 million plus people who faced annihilation at the death camp. Removal of these remnants represents a further annihilation.

The couple plead guilty and are fined. They apologise and return home. Once back in Israel, however, the couple are less repentant. While they regret any hurt their actions may have caused Holocaust survivors, they maintain that they did not really ‘steal’ anything. The objects concerned had been recently unearthed by weather, sitting in the ground. Their motivation for removing the objects was to ‘save’ them by turning them over to the custodianship of the Yad Vashem Museum in Israel.

The couple and the Museum spokesperson thus have competing moral frameworks, or “social imaginaries” to use Leder’s term. They may well know and understand each other’s perspectives on an intellectual level, but they choose to ignore or otherwise fail to acknowledge the aspects that challenge their own moral framework.

The couple would have known that Auschwitz-Birkenau is a museum site, and you can’t just take objects from museums whenever you please. However, many Holocaust survivors do not recognise Auschwitz’s legitimacy as a trustee of Holocaust memory. They consider the only true trustee with the moral authority to act in this role to be Yad Vashem.

Similarly, the Museum would have known that the couple, being Israelis of late middle age, would very likely have had direct connections to Holocaust survivors and that their intent was preservation, not destruction. Nonetheless, how can Auschwitz be properly managed and maintained if every visitor with a link to a Holocaust survivor is entitled to treat the place as their own property?

In its response to the incident, the Museum management emphasised the significance of Auschwitz as a grave site, for which they are ultimately responsible. In Polish tradition, the guardian of a grave has a right to speak for the dead. Delegitimising the right of Poles to take this guardianship role is seen as the first step down the road as casting the Polish people as bystanders, complicit in the Holocaust.

In post-war Europe, there were many competing different narratives and social imaginaries at play. There are the perpetrators and victims, those who were complicit (Vichy France and Quisling Norway for instance), and many questions about whether others did enough to stop or prevent what happened. With the lowering of the Iron Curtain, there are further narratives in the West that served to cast Eastern Europeans as the ‘bad guys’.

All of these different social imaginaries create Us and Them moral frameworks. Such comfortable certainties deny ambiguities, and ‘we’ (whoever ‘we’ are) are always the ‘good guys’ in our own moral frameworks. Such positions undermine empathy. We cannot accept what the Other says, even if we understand it on an intellectual level, because to do so would undermine the social imaginaries/moral frameworks of our world.

Resolving this requires what Leder calls a “Kantian imperative of empathy”. This means being ready to face inner tension between your own moral position and that of another. It also means being willing to look at yourself through the eyes of the other – and endure that gaze. Knowledge alone is not enough.


[1] The official session title was Imperative of Empathy – the Kantian pre-condition for any kind of European future. This summary has been hastily pulled together based on my notes taken during the session and without benefit of having a copy of Dr Leder’s slides (I’ll post a link to them if they become available). Any errors or misrepresentations are mine.

Holiday Performances

It’s that time of year where, in Australia at least, everything steps down a gear or two (or even three). Given that here the Christmas holidays coincide with the long school break, the usual Christmas / New Year wind-down segues into languid summer days, meaning that office life doesn’t seem to get back to usual pace until after Australia Day (January 26th). Indeed, many places (especially factories) shut down completely for at least two weeks at this time of year.

Anyway, this means that a fair proportion of Australians are on holidays right now. And we’re all having a great time, right??

But sometimes our holidays are not what they’re cracked up to be. Via Twitter I came across London’s most miserable visitors, ostensibly a humourous poke at some ill-informed TripAdvisor reviews of London attractions. Quotes include: “Just a collection of pictures!” (National Portrait Gallery) and “The museum’s collection seems to have little to do with Victoria and Albert” (the V&A).

On one level, it’s easy to file these comments under “Well what did you expect?” and mutter something about (with apologies to my US readers) “dumb Americans”. But I want to take this to another level – assuming they are international tourists, why did these people spend the time and money travelling to London in the first place? What were they hoping to find, and where did these expectations come from?

Are these places idealised in the popular imagination to the extent that the reality cannot meet expectations (a variation of Paris syndrome)? Or has a theme park culture created expectations of visitor facilities and comfort that real-life heritage places cannot fulfil? Is there in fact a kernel of truth to some of these comments?

Perhaps it’s a bit of each. I’m also inclined to wonder whether some people travel to London (or Paris, or wherever) not because they want to, but because it’s what you’re supposed to do if you can afford it. It’s how you demonstrate that you’re cultured, worldly, sophisticated. It’s tourism as a Goffman-esque* performative act. And if you’re someone who would actually prefer the familiar comforts of home, it’s not surprising if you have a crappy time.

I’m sure this is something that’s been looked at in far more detail in the tourism literature, but this is a holiday blog post so I’m not going to go there this time. I’m more throwing it out there as some pre-Christmas food for thought. How much of your holiday will be what you really want to do, and how much will be performance of social expectations? Is there even a clear line between the two?

Merry Christmas and Happy 2015 everyone!

*Goffman, 1959. The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life. Although a product of its era in places, it’s still a read I’d recommend.

When money trumps message

My local zoo has been all over the news for all the wrong reasons this week. And it’s all because of an ice-cream deal.

Different news reports have slightly different versions of events, but I think this is a fair summary of what’s happened: Zoos SA, which runs the “traditional” zoo just outside the city centre as well as an open-range one about 40km away, had a supply deal with a local ice-cream manufacturer, Golden North. As part of that deal, Golden North had to change its practices to remove palm oil* from its products. Which they did. However, the contract is up for renewal again, and Zoos SA has opted to go with another supplier who offered them a better deal: Streets (part of the multinational Unilever). And their ice creams contain . . . you guessed it – palm oil! It’s been all over the media the last couple of days, (examples here and here), prompted online petitions, and even members of Parliament are asking “please explain” questions of the Zoos SA board. It seems a lot of bad publicity to take, just to save a bit of money on an ice cream contract.

This story has a couple of overlapping issues which is why I think it’s made such a big splash here. Firstly, the fact a local company lost out to a multinational speaks to a wider globalisation narrative and the loss of local brands and jobs at the hands of “faceless” multinational corporations. This, I believe, has acted an an amplifier for the second, more serious issue: the apparent hypocrisy of a zoo (ostensibly a conservation organisation) choosing the financial bottom line over the environmental one. It’s grist to the mill for those who believe zoos are not really committed to conservation, that it’s just a cosmetic veneer to make zoos more palatable in a more animal-aware age. It undermines any conservation messages the zoo may be trying to communicate by basically saying to their visitors and the local community at large: “sustainable practices are great, but as soon as they get too expensive or too hard, then it’s OK to go with the cheap and easy option”.

Now the palm oil issue is a lot more complicated than that, as this recent segment on the (Australian) ABC program The Checkout explains:

There is an argument that sustainably-sourced palm oil is better than many of the non-palm oil alternatives. That’s a more nuanced, harder-to-communicate message than a simple one of “palm oil = bad”. In any case, according to Zoos SA’s own press release, Unilever’s palm oil won’t be 100% from sustainable until 2020.

Zoos SA’s argument seems to be that it’s easier to effect change from “within the tent” than outside it, and they point out they are not the only zoo to sell Streets ice creams. (To be honest the list surprised me, given these zoos’ very visible campaigning against unsustainable palm oil.)

It’s an interesting case study in what can go wrong when financial decisions are made in isolation, without looking at how they may impact your wider mission and the greater social context of your audience and local community. Based on how it’s played out in the media, I think it’s fair to say that Zoos SA were caught napping on this one.

UPDATE 15/8/14: It looks like community pressure has led Zoos SA to partially revisit their decision. Now Golden North and Streets will both be sold at the zoo.

*Because of the link between palm oil production and rainforest destruction, particularly areas that are orangutan habitats, many environmental organisations run anti-palm oil campaigns (including many Australian zoos).

Exit through the gift shop

These days it’s more or less a given that a museum will have a gift shop of some description. There’s a body of literature around museum retail (here is a good example). Museum shops vary greatly in quality and tone. Some clearly put a lot of effort into their retail offer, and the larger museums tend to have excellent shops that are great for souvenir shopping (you can even shop online). Others appear to be doing it as a tick-the-boxes exercise or as an afterthought.

Generally speaking, debates about the museum shop revolve around:

  • Location: should visitor flow be routed through the gift shop such that avoiding it is difficult, if not impossible?
  • Integration: research suggests that visitors see the shop as part of the museum experience as a whole, not as a separate entity. Should this be embraced to make retail a more holistic part of the visitor experience, and if so, how?
  • Merchandise: how closely should items stock represent the museum’s “brand” in terms of quality, content and provenance? It’s easy to stock piles of generic souvenir fodder, and it probably moves quickly. But does it enhance or detract from the rest of the museum experience?

However, the very idea that a museum should have a shop is seldom brought into question. That is, until a few days ago, when the 9/11 Museum opened (complete with shop) at Ground Zero in New York. The New York Post called it “absurd“, and families are reportedly infuriated by the “crass commercialism” such a shop embodies. Of course, the shop is not the only controversy surrounding the museum, and it’s not surprising that Ground Zero is such a contested site. But that’s a bigger subject; one for another day and another post.

I’m interested in exploring reactions to the shop in particular. The juxtaposition of a site of great and recent tragedy with a place you can pick up commemorative trinkets does trigger a bit of a visceral “yuck” factor. But then again, other sites with gift/souvenir shops include the USS Arizona Memorial at Pearl Harbor, Arlington National Cemetery, and the Holocaust Museum in DC (just to cite a few US examples). The main difference seems to be the recency of events being commemorated at Ground Zero (and as I’ve argued before, recent events can be ‘too hot to handle‘).

The museum itself argues that merchandise has been “carefully selected”, and that proceeds help support this non-profit organisation (and presumably there’s market demand for these souvenirs and keepsakes). Others have said that this just underscores how commercialism has permeated every aspect of American society.

I’m still working through what I think of this, and trying not to reach judgement one way or another too quickly. As a foreigner, I’m aware that it’s not really for me to judge what is or isn’t an appropriate way for Americans to remember and commemorate their own heritage. I’d be interested to hear what others think.

UPDATE: This piece elegantly and powerfully describes the difficult, sometimes darkly comical experience of having a private tragedy turned into public memorial, complete with souvenirs. There are so many bits I could pull out and quote. Better yet just read it.

Acknowledgement: In case it’s not obvious, the title of this post is a reference to the 2010 Banksy movie of the same name.

What do museum visitors think ‘science’ is?

The word “science” has its roots in the Latin for ‘knowledge’, and historically it has been used to describe any systematic body of knowledge. In common parlance, however, it tends to pertain to a particular approach to studying physical / natural phenomena, based on testable hypotheses, systematic gathering of evidence and conducing experiments.

So what do visitors to Natural History museums think “science” is? How do these beliefs influence how relevant they see science to their everyday lives? Do they see the connection between science and the work that Natural History museums do?

Museum visitors agree: this is definitely a scientist.

These were the guiding questions for a qualitative study conducted by Jennifer DeWitt and Emma Pegram at the Natural History Museum in London, as reported in the most recent issue of Visitor Studies. They interviewed 20 family groups in different parts of the museum, asking them questions about what they found interesting in the museum, whether they thought the museum was a ‘sciencey’ place or not, and whether they participated in science activities in their daily lives.

Visitors were split as to whether they thought the museum staff they interacted with were ‘sciencey’ or not. Staff were considered ‘sciencey’ when they demonstrated subject-specific knowledge, but facilitating enquiry in others was not necessarily a ‘sciencey’ thing for staff to do (visitors drew a distinction between ‘science’ and ‘education’ in this sense). Families more commonly described the activities they took part in at the museum as ‘sciencey’ – hallmarks of ‘sciencey’ activities were the use of technical equipment such as microscopes, detailed observation and specialist terminology. However, there was also evidence that activities that were accessible or friendly were considered not ‘sciencey’ for that reason.

Are these people scientists? Natural history museum visitors are not sure.

When it came to the Museum itself, visitors were equivocal as to whether it was a ‘science place’, having different views regarding whether particular types of content, exhibits or activities constituted ‘science’. Again a perceived conflict between ‘science’ and ‘education’ came up. And interestingly, some visitors did not consider natural history to constitute science*.

Perceptions of whether the museum was a science place or not were informed by each family’s prior conceptions of science. While 19 of the 20 families had at least one member who claimed to be interested in science, only a minority of families considered themselves ‘sciencey’. Further probing often revealed that families often did participate in science related activities (e.g. rock collecting) but such activities did not fall within the relatively narrow conception of ‘science’ that most participants had. “Science” conjured up the notion of “facts” or expert knowledge that was not particularly accessible. It was more readily associated with the physical sciences and technology than with nature.

Admittedly this study is based on a small sample, but it points to some interesting preconceptions about what science is, as well as a potential disconnect between how Natural History museums see themselves, and how they are viewed by their audiences.

*The authors concede that in their particular case, being adjacent to the Science Museum may reinforce the perception of the Natural History Museum being something other than science.

More on the Guest-Host Relationship in Museums

In a previous post, Interpretive Empathy, I started to explore the issue of treating visitors as “guests”, and what assumptions underlie such a definition. Alli Burness has posted a piece in response, in which she discusses the role of a feeling of belonging in the context of a guest-host relationship. This has made me think a little more about the guest-host dynamic and what it means for museums.

I should place this guest-host discussion in some sociocultural context, as the way we perceive being guests or hosts will depend on our cultural attitudes. Despite our reputation for being laid back and welcoming, studies have shown that compared to some countries, Australians are quite reluctant to invite guests into their homes – particularly people they don’t know well. I remember it being drummed into me during my during my childhood that when visiting friends I had to be a “good” guest – which, among other things, meant that I should not “wear out my welcome”. This shows how in Australian culture, being a guest can be fraught with trepidation. Hosts are assumed to be hosting you under sufferance.  Thus, as a guest you must tread carefully, avoiding inadvertently flouting unspoken rules or norms of behaviour. This anxiety of being in unfamiliar territory can be amplified if you perceive your host to be one of your social “betters” in some way shape or form (and despite what they say, Australia isn’t a classless society and there is an unspoken social hierarchy).

Compare this trepidation surrounding visiting someone new to visiting a family member or close friend. The anxiety about unspoken rules is not there, the “welcome” is sufficiently robust to be never “worn out”, and you don’t feel like anyone’s going to judge you on the basis of any behavioural faux pas.

And this brings me back to Alli’s idea of belonging – there are obviously different flavours of guest-host relationship. Familiarity is a big factor – if you’ve visited hundreds of museums before, then you’re likely to feel more comfortable irrespective of how well that museum does their “welcome”. But what if you’re less familiar? Creating that sense of belonging – coupled with a willingness to share – might be the key ingredient to a guest-host relationship that really works.

The Half-Life of History

There was a recent post on the Museum Audience Insight blog about “Historical cooties”. In a similar vein, I want to think about history being radioactive. By this I mean considering history as having a “half-life” – and thinking about how this influences what we tell and how we tell it in our museums and heritage sites.

A typical radioactive decay curve. Half of the radioactive nuclei decay in the first half-life, then half of what’s left decays in the second half-life, and so on.

I started thinking about this late last year, in response to Susan Cross’ blog post about Remembrance Sunday. At the time I saw a distinction between events that occurred within living memory (i.e., things we lived through ourselves), events within family recollection (i.e., it was before our time but we know an older relative who was directly connected to it), and events beyond the reach of this living recollection (where the past really is a foreign country). I guessed the limit of this living connection to be about 100 years. Once you get much beyond this, distinctions between eras and events start to diminish and smooth out, a bit like the decay curve above. So 20th century history has an immediacy to it that (say) the Victorian era no longer has. Fewer shared cultural touchstones and assumptions survive that length of time. So, things that would have been self explanatory to the Victorians need re-interpreting for a 21st century audience (an important thing to recognise when interpreting objects and sites from this period). Even more so when we go further back – such as the medieval period or the Roman empire (both of which span several centuries in themselves but are now considered to be more or less homogeneous from this temporal vantage point).

More recently, a discussion with Gretchen Jennings on the Museum Commons blog got me thinking about the other end of the decay curve. When events are so new, so raw, so contested, that museums decide they’re too hot to handle. Gretchen describes how US museums are engaging (or more to the point, not engaging) with the 10th anniversary of the Iraq war as a case in point. Getting back to the radioactivity metaphor, museums might be collecting the hot, unstable material of current events, but then they are “burying” it – until such time as the “stable isotopes” of history (less dangerous, less contested) can be safely recovered and interpreted.

So if history were a radioactive isotope, what would its half-life be? I’d be interested in your thoughts on this. Currently I’m thinking it’s somewhere in the order of a single generation – say 25-30 years. It’s interesting that this is the time period for which most Cabinet records are sealed, suggesting the most “hot” phase has passed by this time. But it might take 2 or 3 half lives before a period becomes a “stable isotope” – something like World War II. This is not to suggest that “stable” history is not contested either – as in the curve above, the “hot” parts of a story might fade with time, but they never completely disappear.


Hallowed Ground

“It’s more than just grass . . . Imagine the amount of history and the superstars of cricket that have been on this grass. It’s a piece of history.”

If someone starts lining up at 1.30am to pick up four 30cm-square pieces of turf, it’s obviously pretty important to them. And this woman wasn’t alone – yesterday hundreds of Adelaideans lined up to get their own piece of ‘history’ in the form of a few squares of turf.

Adelaide Oval, a city landmark much loved by cricket fans, is undergoing a major redevelopment at the moment. Part of this redevelopment involves replacing the turf and the state government decided to give the old turf away on a first come, first served basis yesterday (Sunday) morning. This was promoted on the local evening news late last week but, not being a cricket fan, I promptly forgot all about it.

Then, yesterday morning, I headed off to the Museum (to do some PhD fieldwork). My route passes Montefiore Hill, which overlooks the oval and was the advertised pick-up site for the turf. I saw a queue snaking up the hill and wondered what was going on. Then I saw people returning to their cars with bundles of turf in their arms, and remembered the previous week’s news.

The queue was snaking up the hill like this when I rode past at about 10am. The giveaway started from 9am and the first person had started queuing up at 1.30am.

Footage of long queues and soundbites from happy turf collectors added some local colour to that evening’s news bulletin. Watching the news, my partner found it all a bit baffling – “It’s just grass”, he said. But obviously other people felt differently about this ‘hallowed’ turf. Was it just because it was free, and people love free stuff? Was there an element of jumping on the bandwagon given the high level of airtime the giveaway had received during the lead-up? Or do these squares of turf have a deeper meaning for at least some of these people? And if so, what are the criteria for this meaning? Looking at the comments on this news piece, it seems that some people felt the heritage ‘currency’ of the turf was diminished when they learned that it was only a few years old (the turf had last been replaced in 2007). Other people dismissed the interest as a sign of small-town parochialism and a populace with too little to do. There is also the view that cutting up and giving away the turf destroys the heritage value altogether, as in this tweet: 


So what do you think? Does a piece of ground from a certain place have meaning in and of itself? If so, under what circumstances? And is this meaning destroyed if it’s commoditised?

Death and Suspended Animation

Looks like there’s a dead bird on the, in the display, presumably purposefully . . .
Well they’re all dead I guess.
– visitor to the South Australian Biodiversity Gallery, SA Museum

When it comes to animals in museum displays, it seems that some are more dead than others. There are those that are unapologetically and possibly even offensively dead – insects on pins, dismembered body parts, a beached dolphin in a coastal tableau. But in Natural History displays at least, most specimens are presented in lifelike poses; snapshots of nature scenes rendered in diorama form. It’s like we perceive the creatures to be in some form of suspended animation. Suspended animation or suspended disbelief – the displays don’t seem to trigger that visceral sense of disgust that looking at a ‘dead animal’ seems to do. It’s something I observed several times on my accompanied visits in the Biodiversity Gallery last year:

I like the little, mice doing different things other than just sort of sitting there looking dead.

. . .they’re looking like just dead birds really. Not like the ones in the cases . .

I don’t really like that display because it’s animal parts, like, y’know, having a case full of people’s arms or something . . .oh there’s a large, er Wedge Tailed Eagle, wing, which yeah, that’s all a bit sad really. 

Well, I know the dead dolphin, happens every now and then, and it’s probably the best way to present um, marine animals, but it still looks a bit cruel. . . 

I was reminded of this last week when I went on a preview tour of the newly refurbished Melrose Wing at the Art Gallery of South Australia. Among one of the recent acquisitions displayed in the wing is Berlinde De Bruyckere’s We are all flesh. The work is made of horse skins stretched over a cast of two intertwined horse bodies, suspended in the middle of the room.

A view of the work taken last year (from

The pending unveiling of the work caused a minor splash in the local media, and I saw at least one letter to the editor of the local paper saying something to the effect of: “If this sort of thing is what’s in the Art Gallery there is no way I’m going to let my grandson go there and be traumatised by it”. Irrespective of any debates about the artistic merit of the work, I doubt the letter writer would have expressed similar concerns about the towering red kangaroo on display in the Biodiversity gallery just next door.

Clearly there are different classes of ‘dead’ when it comes to what we display in our gallery spaces. Why probably matters too – is something that is acceptable when displayed in the name of scientific instruction suddenly scandalous when it’s art?

UPDATE (5/3/13): It looks like the controversy surrounding We are all flesh is prompting renewed interest in the Art Gallery of SA, and possibly reaching new audiences?

Shifting the Research Lens

In visitor experience workshops I have frequently pointed out the need to question our cultural assumptions – if we’ve grown up always visiting museums and heritage sites, it can be hard to know how our institutions come across from the point of view of someone for whom visiting is an alien concept. But let’s take a step further back for a moment – what assumptions and unspoken rules are embedded throughout our “Western” culture?

Recently I participated in a doctoral research project by Dr Lorraine Muller called “Shifting the Lens: Indigenous Research into Mainstream Australian Culture”. The whole idea of the project is to study mainstream Australian culture from an Indigenous perspective, and to examine those assumptions of the culture that seem alien from an Indigenous perspective. I volunteered as someone who could speak from their experience of being a ‘mainstream Australian’, and who was willing to share my understanding of the basis of some of these assumptions.

It was tricky at times, especially trying to explain why things such as Spirituality and connection to Country – central tenets of the Indigenous world view – have such low priority in mainstream culture.  Almost by definition, they are concepts I’ve given very little thought. Others were a little easier to conceptualise, such as why we see Individualism as such a positive attribute (I suspect it has roots in Protestant theology, which, as I understand it, prioritises the individual relationship with God through scripture rather than liturgy).

Since I participated in this research project, I’ve been giving “Indigenous-mainstream” relations a fair bit of thought. As there are stages of colonisation, so there are stages of de-colonisation. So where do I fit in to this decolonisation process? I consider myself relatively ignorant of Indigenous culture and world-view. But how do I learn more? I have fears of asking inappropriate questions, saying the wrong thing, or inadvertently causing offence. And I suspect I’m far from the only one. But we need to collectively work past this barrier if we are to work closer towards reconciliation. For this reason I’ve found being involved in Lorraine’s research personally enriching.

I didn’t realise the extent to which the unspoken rules, hidden assumptions and different world views were such a barrier to Indigenous people ‘getting on’ in mainstream Australia, and I wonder if this is the root cause of so many well-meaning initiatives that have failed to improve the life circumstances of so many Indigenous Australians. On one level this is disheartening, because such fundamental mutual incomprehension makes the barriers to reconciliation seem so insurmountable. But on the other hand, knowing the barriers are there might make it that bit easier to address them.

I would encourage other people who self identify as non-Indigenous ‘mainstream’. Australians to consider participating in Lorraine’s research. This is actually her second PhD – in her first she documented the theory that informs Indigenous Australians in the helping professions, Indigenous Australian Social-Health Theory. This second PhD has arisen from the first, where participants identified that there are some aspects of mainstream culture that they would like to know about. A PhD presents a respectful way to ask these questions. If you’re interested, I’d encourage you to contact her via

Dr Lorraine Muller
BSocSc-BSW Hons, PhD
PhD (2nd) Candidate
School Medicine and Dentistry
James Cook University

She is particularly interested in speaking to people in the medical / health professions, as well as young adults.