By Kathy Dickson
“Poland is a country which has popped up on the map of Europe from time to time never quite in the same place twice.” Olga Tokarcuk, Polish writer, activist and Nobel recipient
In August I had the opportunity to travel to Poland to represent ALHFAM at the biannual conference of the Association of European Open Air Museums (AEOM). Approximately 100 delegates were in attendance, including representatives from across Europe as well as Australia, Africa and the United States. I was a little nervous about attending since I didn’t think my junior-high level German and Spanish would get me very far. I have found you can get by when traveling in a foreign country with a few basic phrases and a lot of smiling and pointing, but sessions at a conference seemed to present a much larger communication problem. It turns out I need not have worried. Only one speaker did not present their session in English. As a native German speaker, he chose to present in German, not because he couldn’t speak English, but because he could speak faster in German, and his time was limited. Headphones were always available for simultaneous translation into English or German, the two official languages for AEOM. If you have ever considered attending, don’t let thoughts of a language barrier stop you.
It was a wonderful experience. One evening at dinner I paused to marvel that I was hearing conversations taking place around me in German, Dutch, English, Polish, French and Czech. There were likely a few others that my ears could not distinguish. Though we are from different continents, often the organizational challenges are the same as those faced by museums in the United States and Canada. At the top of the list was not enough money for maintenance. Many conversations mirrored the discussions that have lately taken place on the ALHFAM-L concerning women in men’s roles and in a few cases men in women’s roles. I am not trying to start up that argument again, but the consensus was the interpreter should dress appropriately for their gender in the time period represented and simply let the visitor know this job would typically have been performed by a man or woman as the case may be. This can then be used to start a conversation about historical gender roles. If this is too distracting, for instance, a woman in petticoats in a military formation, the interpreter should dress as the gender they portray. So just like museums in the United States and Canada, the European museums are still struggling to be inclusive and appropriate without having all the answers.
Another ALHFAM-L topic came up in discussions–visitors showing up in costume. Everyone approaches it differently, from prohibiting it to ignoring it to asking the costumed visitors to wear a badge to set them apart from staff. Some encourage it by offering costume rentals.
I heard one comment that I wrote down in big bold letters. “Having to raise funding shifts the focus of the museum from education to cultural attraction. Like health care everyone should have access and it should be free.”
I think the most unique idea I heard was presented by Den Gamle By, a very large, open air museum in Aarhuys, Denmark. The museum includes an 1864 village, 1927 town and a 1974 city. For a while they also had a homeless man living on site. The individual constructed his home from found materials and lived on the grounds interacting with the public. Can you image trying to sell that idea to your board of directors?
The Jamtli Museum in Östersund, Sweden is working with their city to address the very modern issue of displaced people. Through a partnership with the city, the museum created a village to house 42 immigrants from North Africa. Under a ten year contract the museum will continue to house the immigrants, and at the end of the contract, the housing belongs to the museum. Unlike the homeless man at Den Gamle By, these families are not interacting with the public. Their housing is not in a public area, and the museum and the immigrants are still figuring out what they can do together.
A top concern for the AEOM is the disappearance of traditional crafts and skills. Now that really sounded familiar. The leadership was very interested to learn about the Skills, Training and Preservation (STP) initiative launched by ALHFAM and have invited a presentation at the next conference in 2021 at Skansen in Stockholm, Sweden.
At this conference the delegates voted to establish an institutional membership fee, something they have never had. The membership fees will be used to provide funding for future opportunities and projects.
AEOM was a truly a traveling conference. We met at Katowice, where we explored the Silesian Museum before moving on to the Upper Silesian Museum in Chorzów. The next stop was Opole to spend the night. Following morning sessions, we visited the Opole Village Museum and then headed for Gniezno. Katowice to Gniezno is a distance of about 250 miles. Conference sessions were held at the College of Europe in Gniezno with breaks for museum trips, including the Archaeological Museum in Biskupin and the Museum of Milling and Agriculture in in Osieczna.
Poland is wonderful country with great museums, fabulous old cities, friendly people, beer and cake. There was always cake. Cake for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Wherever there was food there was cake….and potatoes.