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EXARC & OpenArch in Rio: the General Conference of the International Council of Museums (ICOM)

Saturday, 10 August, 2013 to Saturday, 17 August, 2013
Organised by: 
Drs Luc Eekhout (EXARC Treasurer)
Number of Participants / Visitors / Audience: 
1 / 2000

The International Council of Museums counts 30,000 members worldwide. They organise a large meeting every three years, 2010 in Shanghai, 2013 in Rio, 2016 in Milan. The theme of the Conference in Rio de Janeiro was “Museums (Memory + Creativity) = Social Change”. This formula expressed the wish of many museums to contribute to the emancipation and evolution of modern society. They should not be passive in just presenting artefacts and knowledge (Memory) but also active in using their collections and their skills in a creative way in order to stimulate social evolution. Quite a challenge to many museums.

OpenArch sees in ICOM the chance for archaeological open-air museums to link better with the international museum scene. There is a great deal to learn. EXARC, aided by OpenArch, sent a delegate to this conference to reinforce existing contacts and make new ones. I, the treasurer Luc Eekhout have the international experience of being Board Member of the ICOM affiliated organization IATM (association of transport and communication museums), and could communicate in English, German, French, Dutch and Portuguese. As Brazilians rarely speak other languages than Portuguese, this proved helpful.
My goals for his mission were to build an international network that could serve EXARC, promote the recognition of EXARC as an ICOM affiliated organization and find new ideas that could be useful for the members of EXARC. The mission was part of the project Open Arch, subsidized by the European Committee.
ICOM has 27 committees, based on a theme or type of museum. For OpenArch the committees CECA (Education and Cultural Action), ICEE (Exhibition Exchange) and ICMAH (Archaeology and History) offered the most attractive programmes and possibilities to co-operation. With CECA and ICMAH we organized a presentation of EXARC in their programmes. OpenArch invited the chair of both these international committees previously to OpenArch meetings where we had fruitful discussions on Board level.

On Monday August 12th the opening ceremony of the Conference took place. About 2,000 participants from all over the world gathered in the Cidade das Artes (City of Arts), a new cultural centre in Barra da Tijuca, the most eastern part of the Rio beaches. This prestigious building proved to be a logistic disaster: cold, windy, bad acoustics, unfit for Wi-Fi, isolated from the neighbourhood and far away from the centre of Rio. However, the participants did their best to attend as many meetings as possible, even if the administration of the programme proved to be as transparent as a coconut. As the EXARC delegate I joined the programme of CECA on Monday. The afternoon session was about creativity in education, and how to enhance the learning capability of the young visitors. Lecturers from Brazil and the UK introduced and discussed their methods. It was interesting to learn that in a ‘young’ country as Brazil only 21% of the municipalities have a museum. The local governments are indispensable in founding new museums.
In the evening the participants enjoyed the programme “Isto é Brasil” (this is Brazil) in which a professional dance group demonstrated various traditional Brazilian dances and gave us a vivid impression of the famous Carnival festivities. Lots of colours and feathers….

On Tuesday August 13th I attended the session of CECA, where the involvement of the public in new education methods were discussed by lecturers from the US (University of Illinois), the Netherlands (Utrechts Landschap) and Chile (Museu Nacional de Bellas Artes). In the Market of Ideas many participants presented their educational projects. EXARC was presented too, as its members see experiments and living history as an important tool of education.
Then there was the presentation of ‘Conscious Heritage’, a project of the company Butterfly Works. They promoted the production of replicas of historical / archaeological artefacts, made in Third World countries by artisans. Thus museums could stimulate the old trades in low wage countries.
In the afternoon the Museums Fair was opened. Many countries, organizations and companies presented their main topics. Finally I attended the keynote lecture of Jorge Melguizo from Columbia. He showed that the city of Medellin, widely known for its drugs barons, used culture to improve the city life profoundly. Melguizo’s creed is that ‘heritage is not what we have; it is what we succeed to build’. For our EXARC members this should not be new!

On Wednesday August 14th I joined ICEE in the session ‘Public private partnership in exhibition projects’. The British Museum presented its project ‘A history of the world in 100 objects’. A limited selection served as icons of historical themes, presented in 100 radio interviews with the museum director and exposed in small travelling exhibitions. The Dutch museum academy introduced its new website in which they give a helping hand to museums who want to organize a professional exhibition.
In the afternoon I joined ICMAH in the session about the Atlantic slave trade and how to present archaeological finds in an ethic manner. It was surprising how many countries on both sides of the Atlantic have this inhuman heritage! But then, slaves were common all over Europe until the Middle Ages and many EXARC members should think about how to present this theme, related to more recent history and even comparable circumstances in Africa and Asia.
In a CECA session I attended lectures about the way in which museum education can change false images of the past. Lecturers from South Africa (Iziko Museums) and Brazil (Museu de Arqueología e Etnología da Universidade de São Paulo) introduced their approach. The Swedish Historical Museum showed how they combat the late 19th-century German caricature of Vikings as horn-bearing warriors, treating women as slaves. Thanks to the 1876 Wagner opera Der Ring des Nibelungen…
Finally I attended the key note lecture of Jorge Wagensberg, professor at the University of Barcelona. He explained how a combination of objects, real phenomena and museum metaphors helps the visitor to appreciate landscapes and environments.

On Thursday August 15th I joined ICMAH in its programme in the Museu Nacional de História Natural (National Museum of Natural History). Due to organizational disorder we missed the morning programme and found out that two of the three afternoon lecturers were absent. The third lecturer however was your EXARC delegate. To the ICMAH members I introduced the new phenomenon that immigrants in our postmodern societies recognize their own history in our archaeological open-air museums (“That’s my granny!”). What we developed as national or regional (pre-)historic projects prove to be comparable to modern living conditions in other parts of the world! The curators and other staff members of archaeological museums were very interested in the way our EXARC members work, how they organize experiments, attract visitors and volunteers, how they gradually improve their standards. It was really fun to answer questions in five different languages and to impress ICMAH with the vitality and the ‘search for the holy grail’ of EXARC…
Finally we visited the museum and were surprised by the rich archaeological and natural collection.

On Friday August 16th I visited the Museu da Maré (Museum of the flood lands), a social project in a young neighbourhood (favela). This is an example of how a local community builds a museum in order to investigate, present and develop its identity. No elitist approach, but activities with local schools, enterprises, pensioners, who organize their own museum with collection and education. Thus a museum is a way of expression of a community. I discussed this approach with the director and manager of the museum. I found it quite interesting, looking at our EXARC-museums and projects which can use their presentations as the DNA of the society they live in.
In the afternoon I visited the Museu Histórico Nacional in the centre of Rio. The most impressive exhibition was the chronological presentation of the national history, starting with the archaeological remnants of native tribes and ending with modern society and its social challenges. The national hymn accompanied the visitor incessantly from the date of Independence on….

On Saturday August 17th I participated in a teacher’s programme in the Museu da Vida (Museum of Life). This museum is part of the scientific institute FIOCRUZ, part of the Ministry of Health. Its goals are to educate teachers and youth about health care and the history of daily life in Brazil. Many educational activities are organized daily in and around the ‘historical’ castle Oswaldo Cruz (literally all parts were imported from Europe!). The head of the educational department discussed with me the integrated formula of health and historical education.

In these six days of lectures, visits and discussions I could present our EXARC work to a worldwide group of museum professionals. The goal of promoting our status as Affiliated Organization was difficult to achieve, as the organization of ICOM proved to be little transparent and application procedures are not clear. On the other hand: the archaeological committee ICMAH proved to be very willing to co-operate with EXARC. One could wonder if we should discuss to integrate some of our activities. Above all I was inspired by the conference theme. The thought of contributing to modern society by emphasizing on local identity (DNA) and combining with modern developments can inspire our staff and visitors. Thus our archaeological experiments and presentations are not just ‘exotic’ attractions but part of the identity of our modern society.


'Vikings were not just warriors'
In the Museu do Maré a taxi driver...
Visitor in the mirror 'The history is made...