Rural Heritage and Sardinian-ness: Relevance and Identity Issues

Theme: Management of Tangible Rural Heritage

by Ms. Ilenia Atzori
HeritageForAll Intern (Call 2019) from Sardinia, Italy
Internship Program “Rural Heritage and Traditional Food”
M.A. in Museum Studies, Leicester University

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The sub-theme “Management of Tangible Rural Heritage” was one of the most challenged topics among the proposed themes by HeritageForAll Internship Program. Italy and Sardinia are certainly not short on brilliant case studies, but nonetheless this article aims at discussing this topic from a different perspective: despite the tangible rural heritage is efficiently managed, is it also relevant to their communities?

When talking about rural heritage, this is not the only facet of such topic, ethnographic collections immediately come to mind, which will also be the focus of this article; however, this concern might be applied to other types of collections.

The selected title, for this article, denotes the territorial limits that will be discussed. Although Sardinia is the focus of this assignment, being my region of residence and the context I know better than others, nonetheless the discussion may be extended to other areas presenting the same issue.

What is an ethnographic collection?

From a museological overview, ethnographic collections differentiate themselves in the study of European local rural communities and non-Western communities; this is especially apparent in the use of two different German terms that used to identify ethnographic museums: volkskunde (the study of European local rural societies and their customs) and völkerkunde (the study of non-Western ethnographic objects); the latter is often understood as originating from the 16th – 18th centuries’ cabinets of curiosities, whose purpose was to represent their owner’s interests and view of the world, including ‘exotic’ objects that were contributed to an ‘othering’ process implying not only the acknowledgement of any difference between the observer and the observed, but also a hierarchical observation viewpoint and the exclusion of ‘the others’ from the observer’s world, raising imaginary walls or boundaries[1].

Figure 1 Borders in a comic by Drawings of Dogs (2018)

This othering process, namely the creation of a clear separation between ‘us’ and the ‘others’ – two in-distinctive masses opposed to one another – is based on how individuals perceive themselves and the surrounding world, that is their identity.

The literature globally produced in the last four decades on themes like personal and national identities, prejudices, racism, and the dichotomy “us/others” is extensive and has two features in common. It describes (national) identities as mass phenomena. Based more on individual perceptions, it largely influenced by information media, than a distinctive, tangible and indisputable characteristic of human beings. It shows that people need to differentiate themselves from one to another, because of the existed identities that must be categorized regarding a comparison/hierarchical basis, thus creating a self as opposed to others [2].

How do ethnographic museums contribute to the persistence of such dichotomy?

For what concerns ethnographic museums displaying European local, mostly rural collections – the specific focus of this article -, in line with the predominant nationalist spirit of the 18th and 19th centuries, i.e. the emergence and establishment of a national identity as it is understood today, these presented a praise of their own cultures, if it portrayed in a specific moment in time and remaining unchanged over the years[3]. Nonetheless, they have used a less paternalistic approach than museums displaying non-European collections. As observed by Anderson, before the late 18th century, vernaculars were not considered as belonging to a specific territory, but in the light of their new national conscience the middle-class, which emerged and became influent following the industrial revolution, started to study local vernaculars along with local folklore and music as they were ‘re-discovering’ something, they had lost for a long time [4]. Therefore, those who lived in rural areas perceived as repositories of this ‘genuine’ knowledge, which over time had been increasingly considered in danger because of the continuing industrialization, and worthy of protection so to prevent their irreversible disappearance, they were basically the ‘rural’ equivalent of the non-European “noble savage”.

From the lack of a consistent adaptation of collections to their contemporary context that has been created overtime a considerable gap between ethnographic museums and their contemporary communities, which nowadays are usually underrepresented at the best.[5] This approach to the management of Sardinia’s tangible rural heritage has produced an indefinite sense of ‘Sardinian-ness’ that has been reinforced (and replicated) through time instead of questioned, producing a regional identity that is fueled by its own stereotype.

Figure 2 Traditional Sardinia’s Clothes at the Sardinian Ethnographic Museum, Nuoro.

In my personal experience, visiting the ethnographic museums in Sardinia, although I am a local citizen, it feels as looking at the portrait of a society that is very far from the contemporary world. The great variety of colorful, traditional costumes [2], jewelry and other objects, including a wide range of traditional breads (Easter, wedding or funerary breads, just to mention a few), are presented with detailed information about their composition and use, as well as their area of origin within the island; however, at the end of the visit, I usually wonder where the community has disappeared and how long ago: the majority of those objects, today, are almost unknown to the youngest generations, while costumes and jewels are usually worn by the members of local grass-root organizations called Pro Loco (approximately translated from the Latin, ‘in favor of the area’) during the local celebrations (e.g. folk or saint patron festivals), and a large part of traditional breads have been disappeared.

Besides, showing a sort of ‘Sardinian-ness’, they partly represent an old version of the island’s community (where are the foreign communities, for instance?), while the contemporary Sardinian (and mainland Italian), African, Chinese, Japanese and other communities are completely missing. This double-edged sword creates a gap in the museums-communities relationship, while it might reinforce some visitors’ prejudices and sense of nostalgia rather than question and challenge them.

What is relevance and how can ethnographic museums be more relevant to their communities?

Drawing on Nina Simon’s words, relevance has to do with how likely new information is to yield conclusions that matter to individuals[6]. In other words, it is not just about people’s connection with collections, in this case, but about how those collections add meaning to their lives. An example will probably clarify this notion.

Figure 3 The Eesti Rahva Muuseum at the Song and Dance Festival

When I visited, in April 2019, the Estonian National Museum (Eesti Rahva Muuseum) in Tartu, I was amazed by their long-term tailoring workshops where visitors could learn more about Estonian Traditional Costumes and could create their own, from hat to shoes. Furthermore, during the double-jubilee XXVII Song and XX Dance Festival “My Fatherland is My Love“, held in Tallinn in July, the museum offered on-site emergency repairs to folk dancers, as well as a wide range of workshops[7, 3].

Following the March 2011 earthquake and Tsunami in Tōhoku region (Japan), the Minpaku – National Museum of Ethnology-Osaka formed a disaster relief committee to gather information via a network of universities, museums and archives that were located in the disaster-struck area. Then, they organized a series of events featuring the traditional performing arts of those areas. As Sudo says, these events could neither rebuild houses nor restore Tōhoku’s economy, but it represented a “new opportunity for the residents of the affected area to express their hope and determination to restore their community[8]. These two examples show that museums can not only act as managers and mediators of material culture but should also provide support for their creative communities whilst giving a new meaning to tradition and culture.

In the recent years, the ethnographic museums are gradually facing the challenges that have been emerged thus far, such as the need of re-building their connections with the communities they serve and the communities of origin whose artifacts they preserve, thus bringing their collections to a true life[9]. They are imbued with, objects are, indeed, inanimate things with a practical purpose. They connected to people who become powerful mediators of meanings, thus setting the ground for conversations about contemporary and controversial issues, such as migrations and racism for instance. This is why collections need to be constantly questioned[10]. Maintaining Sardinian-ness without even questioning what it means to be Sardinian today and what ‘being Sardinian’ really means, let alone what ‘real Sardinia’ is, might be dangerous and counterproductive: this may reinforce some locals’ sense of belonging to their homeland, some visitors’ prejudice about islanders being ‘closely bound to their traditions’, but it would also deepen the gap with the young generations and perpetrate a stereotyped narrative about Sardinia. Would this kind of approach make Sardinia’s ethnographic collections be relevant for the next generations?

Drawing on Nina Simon’s words again, too often museums and cultural heritage institutions expect people to manufacture relevance on their own[11]. However, cognitive scientists note that relevance is inversely correlated with effort; therefore, familiarity with collections helps in it significantly reduces effort[11], but is not sufficient in itself to manufacture relevance. The next step is to add value to such connection, without taking for granted that the importance of collections is such that is necessarily relevant for everyone, especially keeping in mind that Sardinia’s communities are increasingly more diverse now.

Collecting contemporary objects to create a collection representes the current communities[9] and might be an idea, as well as offering thematic workshops on the evolution of specific items, from those in the collections to the contemporary ones and the traditional ones in use in the different communities now living in Sardinia. For instance, a museum should preserve a ‘bread calendar’, a workshop might focus on the evolution of calendars until today and compare any other traditional calendar from African, Roman, Chinese and other communities the museum serves.

Figure 4 Hei-Tiki from the catalogue of the exhibition [S]Oggetti Migranti

Objects may also be used to spark conversations around different topics, such as migrations. For, example, it may be the exhibition [S]Oggetti Migranti – Dietro le Cose, le Persone (literally, “Migrant Subjects – People behind Things”; the original title plays on the similar spelling of the Italian words for subject and object, whose only difference is the initial S, which appears in square brackets in the title of the exhibition), a temporary exhibition ran in 2013 by Pigorini Museum in Rome representing the outcome of its participation in the READ-ME 2 Project, the European Network of Diaspora Associations and Ethnographic Museums [4]. It was co-curated with the diaspora communities living in Rome and was focused on journeys and displacement of both people and objects[12]. Another example might be the replication of some objects in the museum’s collection[13], such as a wooden musical instrument: this would allow the museum to share their knowledge about the objects and the participants to acquire a deeper knowledge about the manufacturing techniques that might have been used to create them in the past.

This kind of approaches may imply an effort in sharing their agency by museums but would result beneficial on many levels. The museum-communities relationship would improve; a more diverse audience would feel welcome and engaged by the museum; and the collections would be more relevant to a broader public. In addition, the over-stereotyped narrative about ‘Sardinian-ness’ would shift to a multifaceted representation of the island’s traditions and culture.

Think about the object as the reason why people affiliate with each specific other and not just anyone. For instance, if the object is a job, it will connect me to one set of people whereas a date will link me to a radically different group. This is common sense but unfortunately it’s not included in the image of the network diagram that most people imagine when they hear the term ‘social network.’ The fallacy is to think that social networks are just made up of people. They’re not; social networks consist of people who are connected by a shared object.[14]

Bibliography

  • Aime, M. (2004). Eccessi di Culture (Torino: Einaudi)
  • Aime, M. & Severino, E. (2009). Il diverso come icona del male (Torino: Bollati Bringhieri)
  • Anderson, B. (2016). Imagined Communities (London: Verso), third edition
  • CulturLab READ-ME – European network of diasporas associations and ethnographic museums, June 2015 <https://culturelab.be/archive/read-me/> [retrieved 16/10/2019]
  • Gouriévidis, L. (2014). Representing migration in museums: history, diversity and the politics of memory in Laurence Gouriévidis (ed.), Museums and Migrations-History, Memory and Politics (Abingdon: Routledge)
  • Iervolino, S. (2013). Museums, Migrant Communities, and Intercultural Dialogue in Italy in Museums and Communities – Curators, Collections and Collaboration, Viv Golding and Wayne Modest (ed.) (London: Bloomsbury).
  • Plankensteiner, B. (2013). Objects or People? Discrepancies of Focus in the History of the Ethnography Museum in Beyond Modernity – Do Ethnography Museums need Ethnography, Sandra Ferracuti, Elisabetta Frasca and Vito Lattanzi (ed.) (Rome: Espera)
  • Rein, A. (2012). Competences and responsibilities of Ethnographic museums as global actors. Etnolog (22) on <www.etno-muzej.si/files/etnolog/pdf/etnolog_2012_22_rein_competences.pdf> [retrieved 19/10/2019].
  • Pitt Rivers Museum, ‘The Great Box Project’, [n. d.] <www.prm.ox.ac.uk/haidabox> [retrieved 19/10/2019].
  • [S]Oggetti Migranti – Dietro le cose le persone/People behind the things, Kublai Munapé (ed.) (Rome: Espera, 2012).
  • Shatanawi, M. (2009). Contemporary Art in Ethnographic Museums in The Global Art World: Audiences, Markets, and Museums, H. Belting y A. Buddensieg (eds.) OstfildernRuit: Hatje Cantz, p. 369.
  • Simon, N. (2016). The art of Relevance on <www.artofrelevance.org/2017/10/06/something-old-something-new> [retrieved 17/10/2019].
  • Simon, N. (2010) The Participatory Museum on <www.participatorymuseum.org/chapter4> [retrieved 17/10/2019]
  • Sudo, K. (2014). The Role of Museums in Recovery from Disaster: The Great East Japan Earthquake and Tsunami in Conservation Science in Cultural Heritage, vol. 14, issue 2 on <https://conservation-science.unibo.it/article/view/5449/5162> [retrieved 16/10/2019].
  • Vahtla, A. (2019). ERM offering folk costume first aid at Song and Dance Festival in ERR News on <https://news.err.ee/959018/erm-offering-folk-costume-first-aid-at-song-and-dance-festival> [retrieved 21/10/2019].
  • Vulkers, L. (2019). Temporality and Univeralism in the Contemporary Ethnographic Museum: Two Collection Presentations at the Tropenmuseum, Stedelijk Studies on <https://stedelijkstudies.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/06/Stedelijk-Studies-8-Temporality-and-Universalism-in-the-Contemporary-Ethnographic-Museum-Vulkers.pdf> [retrieved 16/10/2019].

Footnote

[1]Gouriévidis, L. (2014). Representing migration in museums: history, diversity and the politics of memory in Laurence Gouriévidis (ed.), Museums and Migrations-History, Memory and Politics (Abingdon: Routledge), p. 1; Plankensteiner, B. (2013). Objects or People? Discrepancies of Focus in the History of the Ethnography Museum in Beyond Modernity – Do Ethnography Museums need Ethnography, Sandra Ferracuti, Elisabetta Frasca and Vito Lattanzi (ed.) (Rome: Espera), p. 152.

[2] Aime, M. (2004). Eccessi di Culture (Torino: Einaudi), pp. 21-72; Aime, M.; Severino, E. (2009). Il diverso come icona del male (Torino: Bollati Bringhieri), pp. 28-33; 40-41; 48-50; Iervolino, S. (2013). Museums, Migrant Communities, and Intercultural Dialogue in Italy in Museums and Communities – Curators, Collections and Collaboration, Viv Golding and Wayne Modest (ed.) (London: Bloomsbury), p. 116.

[3] Gouriévidis, ibid, p. 90; Plankensteiner, ibid, p. 152.

[4] Anderson, B. (2016). Imagined Communities (London: Verso), third edition, p. 196.

[5] Rein, A. (2012). Competences and responsibilities of Ethnographic museums as global actors in Etnolog, no. 22, p.196.

[6] Simon, N. (2016). The art of Relevance on <www.artofrelevance.org/2017/06/06/meaning-effort-bacon> [retrieved 17/10/2019].

[7] Vahtla, A. (2019). ERM offering folk costume first aid at Song and Dance Festival in ERR News on <https://news.err.ee/959018/erm-offering-folk-costume-first-aid-at-song-and-dance-festival> [retrieved 21/10/2019].

[8]Sudo, K. (2014). The Role of Museums in Recovery from Disaster: The Great East Japan Earthquake and Tsunami in Conservation Science in Cultural Heritage, vol. 14, issue 2 on<https://conservation-science.unibo.it/article/view/5449/5162> [retrieved 16/10/2019].

[9]Shatanawi, M. (2009). Contemporary Art in Ethnographic Museums in The Global Art World: Audiences, Markets, and Museums, H. Belting y A. Buddensieg (eds.) OstfildernRuit: Hatje Cantz, p. 369; Vulkers, L. (2019). Temporality and Univeralism in the Contemporary Ethnographic Museum: Two Collection Presentations at the Tropenmuseum, Stedelijk Studies on <https://stedelijkstudies.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/06/Stedelijk-Studies-8-Temporality-and-Universalism-in-the-Contemporary-Ethnographic-Museum-Vulkers.pdf> [retrieved 16/10/2019].

[10] CulturLab READ-ME – European network of diasporas associations and ethnographic museums, June 2015 <https://culturelab.be/archive/read-me/> [retrieved 16/10/2019].

[11] Simon, N. (2016). The art of Relevance on <www.artofrelevance.org/2017/10/06/something-old-something-new> [retrieved 17/10/2019].

[12] [S]Oggetti Migranti – Dietro le cose le persone/People behind the things, Kublai Munapé (ed.) (Rome: Espera, 2012).

[13] Pitt Rivers Museum, ‘The Great Box Project’, [n. d.] <www.prm.ox.ac.uk/haidabox> [retrieved 19/10/2019].

[14]Ulla Engeström cited in Simon, N. (2010) The Participatory Museum on <www.participatorymuseum.org/chapter4> [retrieved 17/10/2019]

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