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2001 "Museums: building community"

- A community regulates its own heritage
Alexandre Delarge
Curator of the Fresnes Ecomuseum, France.

Twenty years after Georges Henri Rivière (the first Director of ICOM) wrote his evolutionary definition of a museum some of the principles put forward deserve to be reread very carefully in the light of the initiatives that they have inspired. Here we are talking about the principles underlying the community dimension of a museum:
"An ecomuseum is an instrument conceived, fashioned and operated jointly by a public authority and a local population".
"It is a mirror in which the local population views itself to discover its own image, in which it seeks an explanation of the territory to which it is attached and of the populations which have preceded it, through the discontinuity or continuity of generations."

Here we would like to detail very concretely the way in which the Fresnes Ecomuseum is trying to implement this dimension, a dimension that is so often spoken about but so difficult to embody.
Since its creation in 1978 the Fresnes Ecomuseum in a suburb south of Paris has set itself the goal of mirroring a contemporary urban society, reflecting with the local population about its own future, as well communicating through its the collective memory. A whole aspect of the activity, particularly since 1990, has consisted in working on subjects that concern the population of Fresnes, taking care to involve it in a concrete way in all phases of the ecomuseum's work, from collection to display.
Several exhibitions have illustrated the ecomuseum's key principles. As the town of Fresnes has the largest prison in France, a large percentage of the population depends on this particular establishment. The ecomuseum set up an exhibition called "Fresnes, la prison", focusing on the prison's history and current situation. Notably, it enabled the prison staff to express the difficulty they had in carrying out their job. The initiative resulted in collaboration between Fresnes town and the prison administration in organising events to mark the prison's centenary. Through exhibitions such as "Rassemblance", which dealt with immigration, members of the immigrant population of Fresnes provided information and also illustrated their heritage when asked to be photographed in their home surroundings.
The participation of the local population is also apparent in such museum activities as collating and preparing exhibitions. For instance, for the exhibition "En temps de femmes", which proposed a photographic journey on the theme of women, the texts for the exhibition were written by locals attending writing workshops. In another example, during the "Peupleraie" ("Poplar Grove") exhibition, which focused on action by future owners who were going to build their own collective housing, the inhabitants concerned helped decide on the content of the exhibition. They put forward themes to be developed, and they also took part in mounting the exhibition.
A programme for putting together collections that would be representative of life in Fresnes from the town's creation to the present day was carried out during the months of November and December 2000. The inhabitants themselves brought along the objects and documents that would serve to build up the local heritage for future generations. They also filled in notes for the inventory with the ecomuseum team. In so doing they took on tasks that are usually assigned to scientific personnel, such as collecting and documenting.
In the same spirit, every year the workshop on the Imaginary, which was set up in 1986, enables primary or secondary school pupils to compile a list of items to represent a theme chosen by the ecomuseum, such as shops, buildings or the family. The children then analyse the situation with a view to producing sculptures and models that will be exhibited at the end of the year. This course, which is run by a visual artist in a series of 20 to 25 sessions lasting two to three hours, favours an in-depth approach to the work. By keeping 14 years' work by children from different sociological backgrounds the museum can build up a collection that is not only representative of the heritage of Fresnes but also includes representations of what a particular age group makes of this heritage over time. Between 1982 and 1984 Hugues de Varine (former Director of ICOM) wrote: "The strategy of public authority systems, even democratic ones, will be to divide community and action and to bestow on the first a formal and bureaucratic nature (...), while for the second the roles are truly separate: it is up to the established authority to make decisions, and to the population to carry them out. This is why we must now speak out, stating clearly that there is another way, that endogenous, self-managed community development is not a Utopia, but a possibility that has already become reality in some places. Public authorities (...), if they really wanted to, would have the ability to favour this (...)" (see Hugues de Varine, L'initiative communautaire, recherche et expérimentations, 1991). In spite of the difficulty in implementing its aim, the Fresnes Ecomuseum is modestly attempting to transform the local population into active players. It gets them involved at all levels, defining, presenting and bringing their heritage live.

Ecomusée de Fresnes
41, rue Maurice Ténine, 94260 Fresnes, France.
Tel. (33 1) 4984 5737.
Email : ecomusee@fresnes-94.com

Articles around the theme:

EXCHANGE - Key to memory
INNOVATION - Cyberspace Communities: MUVA, the Virtual Museum Of Arts El País
DEVELOPEMENT - A model community museum in a village in the High Atlas
INTEGRATION - Celebrating Australia's multicultural history
PARTICIPATION - A community regulates its own heritage

Articles published in: "ICOM News", Volume 54 - 2001 N°1

Updated: 22 September 2005