February 5, 2018. Blog article by guest author Hodan Warsame, invited by the Research Center for Material Culture (NL).
The World Museum
by Hodan Warsame
She is headed to the World Museum today. Something she likes to do regularly. It is a place of learning and contemplation, but not the clinical and detached learning still being practiced at the Universities. She goes to the museum for the same reason most people go there these days; for the magic. While the Universities still hold on to the strict categories and stale definitions of science, the boundaries between science and magic had long ago blurred within the halls of the World Museum. For now, it was the only public institution openly working with the metaphysical, but though its methods were now state-sanctioned – subsidized even – and more or less accepted by the mainstream, the museum was still the only place most people ever encountered magic.
Its particular kind of magic is different from her mother’s or grandmother’s ways, though theirs also revolves around connection. Where the magic of the women in her family is mainly focused on the protection of family members and their local community and is expressed through songs, recipes, rituals and jokes, the World Museum’s magic operates on a completely different level. For one, space and time don’t really exist inside the Museum as they do outside. Being black and growing up in a diasporically sprawling family, she knows, of course, that time and place are illusions to begin with. The way most people understand them, anyway. But, even she is always transported by what happens in the Museum, which is why this place had become so precious to her.
You see, the Museum Guides had discovered a way to access the memories and experiences attached to the artefacts they cared for. Museum Guides can transport groups of visitors into the worlds within the artefacts, their bodies staying behind, but letting visitors experience the artefact in every other way possible. Time means nothing during this experience. Nor does it matter where you physically are. It is a totally immersive witnessing, but the word ‘witnessing’ doesn’t really do it justice. Whereas ethnographic museum visitors of old gazed detachedly at artefacts made by subjugated peoples of the world, distanced from them by glass and rope and a colonial, limited narrative, the visitors of the World Museum could actually immerse themselves in the many people the artefact had come in contact with. Not as an outsider or neutral observer, but actually simultaneously inhabiting the perspectives of the different individuals connected to the artefact. The technology – or magic, who knew where one ended and the other began, really? – was developed further to allow the visitor to go further than the people who had come directly in contact with the artefact to the ones those people in turn had both the deepest bonds or the greatest antagonisms with. This allowed visitors to understand the context of the artefact. She got a sense of the emotions individuals felt while handling it, but could also grasp the webs of power that surrounded it, connecting with different individuals who occupied different positions in that web. It is called Immersive Guided Plural Positionality and a skilled Museum Guide not only serves as a psychic channel for the visitors into the worlds within the artefact, they are recognized by their ability to create a rich web for the visitors. The Guide’s job was to present as many narratives and perspectives as possible to the visitors and tap into the rich web of individuals, communities and histories the artefact had within it.
But the goal was not to merely witness. Or to vampirically consume the lives, emotions, pain and most intimate moments of the past people who had cared for or used the artefacts. An Immersive Guided Plural Positionality demanded as much from the visitors as it gave them. Of all the positionalities they inhabited, the Guides never let the visitors forget about the fact that they inhabit their own. That was why the ritual was made up of two parts; the Immersion itself, which was always done in groups, followed by a conversation in which every member of the group described the various perspectives they had inhabited. Here, the role of the Guides was to guide the visitors in a conversation that was respectful of the multiplicity of narratives that could be told about the history that was experienced in the Immersive Guided Plural Positionality (obviously, whilst keeping a firm grip on a proper power analysis of the situation). The best Guides knew how to ask the right questions to encourage visitors to try to grasp the complex ways in which power, agency and community shaped the histories of the artefacts, whilst engaging visitors in a reflection on their own relationship with these histories and the themes they represented. A good Guide made you look deeper than the surface level and had you leaving the Museum not only knowing more about a community or event far removed from you in time and space, but also knowing a bit more about yourself. Collectively, visitors reflected on the nature of the relationships between those different people they had seen/been, examining the vagaries of colonization, the demands of survival, power, cruelty, community, love, artistry and the nature of time.
At the moment, right after visitors come out of the Immersion, when they are overwhelmed by the experience, even the most naive or prejudiced of thinkers can not immediately employ their usual strategies of allaying their cognitive dissonance. When you are presented with the experience of a Mau Mau fighter alongside the thoughts of white British colonial administrator during the 1950s in Kenya, your thoughts about colonialism might require some adjustment. She was not sure which part she liked better; immersing herself in an intricate, rich web full of emotions, desires and history or seeing others, and herself, transform under the guidance of a compassionate and fearless Guide. Though the Guides did not use their psychic abilities to facilitate this part of the process, as far as she was concerned it might be the most magical bit of the entire experience.
Hodan Warsame is interested in liberation, especially through examining constructions of race, gender, sexuality, ability and class. Through organising workshops, consciousness raising groups and making media, she create spaces for herself and others to develop new and liberatory understandings of ourselves and the world.