Weaving Stories of Solidarity: Reflections on Children’s Museums as Activist Organizations
Weaving Stories of Solidarity: Reflections on Children’s Museums as Activist Organizations

Weaving Stories of Solidarity: Reflections on Children’s Museums as Activist Organizations

Author: M. Zulfiqar Ali
Originally published in NuktaArt, 2nd issue, January 2006
Cover Design: Sabiha Mohammad Imani
Source of inspiration: Installation by Amin Gulgee and Painting by A.P.Santhanaraj, Rural Scape (detail)

All museums tell stories. But in a rapidly changing world, dilemmas that surround questions about what stories to narrate, who to address, and how to present the stories, have plagued museum professionals for the past nearly two decades. To address these questions in a practical way requires radical changes in orientation and practice that most museums, despite good intentions, have struggled to undertake. It has not been easy to move beyond the well-established raison d’etre of preserving and displaying collections, to start thinking about the educational role of museums, or issues around accessibility, outreach, or social contribution. While many museums have certainly changed in the past fifteen years, the change has been slow, sporadic and often painful.  Nevertheless, museum professionals internationally have been engaged in re-evaluating and re-defining the logic of museums.

In a country that places practically no importance on such cultural institutions, this exciting debate has completely bypassed us in Pakistan. No surprises there. However, over the past four years, while work has been under way to create a Children’s Museum for Peace and Human Rights (CMPHR) in Karachi, we have been forced to engage with this debate and in the absence of similar institutions in Pakistan, formulate fresh ideas about the needs and values of the CMPHR that would be specific to our context. This article offers rudimentary theoretical insights and reflections on the importance of museums and what I feel they should aim to do in the 21st century in a country like Pakistan.

HREP's Wall Sculpture, Hill Park, Karachi, photography Arif Mehmood (courtesy HREP)

Contextualising the stories

The stories that museums tell are determined by the needs of the communities they set out to engage with at any given point in history. It could be the need of colonial powers to bask in the glory of conquest, the need to transfer the material or non-material culture and collective social memory a community is proud of, the need to remember and remind future generations of harrowing moments in the communities’ existence, or the need to rewrite history in a particular way, and, as Neil Postman suggests, the need to “… know, remember, contemplate, and revere different ideas in the interest of survival and sanity.”  As such, by definition the stories museums tell cannot be static. They must necessarily change with time.

The context and need for the CMPHR grew out of the experiences of the Human Rights Education Programme (HREP) during its work with children since 1995, where at least three key lessons have been learnt:

One: HREP’s experience showed that our children are growing up without any hope for the future. The despair and feeling of hopelessness that they sense around them has permeated their collective thinking. Yet, we know that no nation whose children grow up without hope can seriously contemplate a positive change. To remind ourselves of Noam Chomsky’s words, “If you believe there is no possibility of change, you guarantee there is no possibility of change.”

Two: children are more or less disconnected from the communities they live in. In the competitive, materialistic, consumerist, individualistic world forged by neo-liberal policies, where market forces rule, children are consistently taught about the survival of the fittest. They are systematically told to mind their own business. Apathy is explicitly encouraged.  Yet, we know that without contributions from an active and participating citizenry, there can be no hope for positive change in the future.

Three: finally and most importantly, children in Pakistan today are unable to make sense of the world they live in. In these confusing times, they have no help in understanding the various forces that shape their identities, their lives and their communities. The more complex the world becomes, the more oblivious they become to tensions, struggles and compromises between individuals, groups, and contexts. Large corporations with enormous advertising budgets convince children that watching MTV on a 42” LG plasma television, wearing Nike apparel and eating a McDonalds ‘happy’ meal, while exchanging SMS on their latest Nokia phones is what aspirations are about. The advertisement campaign of a local bank assures them that the future is perfectly encompassed in a credit card with a micro-chip and a curved edge. You only notice and complain about a lack of social justice and rising poverty if you are a ‘loser’, not fit or sharp enough to succeed in acquiring and enjoying material bliss.

Education systems aim to maintain the status quo and a major purpose of education now is to socialise children into accepting their position in society. To expect the education system in Pakistan to help children develop critical skills and understanding is clearly asking too much. In such circumstances, the arts and cultural institutions are the only source for providing alternate and radical perspectives.

For those of us who would like to imagine a socially just and stable society in Pakistan, the need and course of action is fairly easy to decipher. One, it is of paramount importance that dialogue and action is initiated with children. Two, this interaction with children is best undertaken in an inspiring, structured, systematic and ongoing way, which makes a museum an ideal setting for it. Three, children learn best by doing, which means that beyond information assimilation, they need physical spaces and opportunities to practice activism through simple non-violent campaigning and action.

Weaving stories of solidarity

So given this context, what kind of stories would the CMPHR tell? In an age of sound-bytes where, to be heard, even the most complex ideas need to be articulated in ten words or less, I struggled for a long time with how to convey the essence, the philosophical basis, of the CMPHR in a few words.

This is what I have settled for: the CMPHR will help children to weave stories of solidarity.

But what does this mean? The best place to start would be with an excerpt from Richard Rorty:

There are two principal ways in which reflective human beings try, by placing their lives in a larger context, to give sense to those lives. The first is by telling the story of their contribution to a community… The second way is to describe themselves as standing in relation to non-human reality… I shall say that stories of the former kind exemplify the desire for solidarity, and that the stories of the latter kind exemplify the desire for objectivity.

The space between solidarity and objectivity that Rorty refers to is a complex one, and lies at the heart of problems in all societies. It simultaneously raises questions that are epistemological, sociological, educational, cultural and political.

There are three strands of thoughts here that need to be addressed by museums. Firstly, the theory of knowledge that forms the basis of any educational and cultural system; secondly, about perspectives on the world that we as a community construct; thirdly, what role we see our children playing in our communities in future.  Each of these is influenced by education and cultural systems.

Education, Knowledge and Objectivity

All educational systems are constructed on a theory of knowledge that determines the answers to key educational decisions such as what is to be taught, how, to whom and why. What a society learns to respect and value is a product of the education and theory of knowledge it explicitly or implicitly accepts. It is therefore critical for museums to define the epistemology that drives them.

In the western tradition the turning point in the theory of knowledge can be traced back to the rise of the sciences in the 17th Century, to the beginning of the modern era in Europe. It can almost be narrowed down to two images, snapshots that have taken place in that eventful century. The first, of Galileo raising his telescope to the skies. The second, of Descartes’ declaration, “cogito ergo sum” (I think, therefore I am). These events can be seen to have triggered off a trajectory – through Newton – through the 18th Century Enlightenment, to the positivists in the 20th Century – that convinced many beyond doubt that the physical sciences and rationality would help in reaching the ‘truth’ and that this success in helping us understand the nature of things ought to be emulated in the social world as well. It was a desire to attain objective knowledge, a desire that led to what Edmund Husserl referred to as a crisis of European humanity. The western tradition still struggles to loosen the grip of this way of thinking. When Rorty invites us to choose stories of solidarity as opposed to objectivity to give sense to our lives, it is this tendency that he is warning us against.

The theory of knowledge that drives education in Pakistan is also rooted in the objectivist tradition, though in this case through religion. The tendency is manifest in the way that there is a convergence to a single truth. Based on the premise that Islam has provided all the knowledge and directions, the point of education is seen as access to attaining this body of knowledge. A consequence of this is the ensuing feature of education in Pakistan. Since all the ‘true’ answers have been provided for all times, there is no need for debate, for creativity or for critical inquiry. Education follows what Paulo Freire describes as the Banking concept, as a simple, uncritical transfer of knowledge from the teacher to the student. Finally, since the truth is for all times, there is no real need for the pedagogy, curricula, textbooks and assessment systems to adapt or change with times.

This move towards a single truth, is a move towards objectivity. It is diametrically opposed to any notion of an open educational enterprise. If there is hope for the future, it lies squarely in challenging this scheme on a large scale.

The arts and cultural institutions like museums are ideally placed to do this. The critical importance of museums lies in that they can expose children to epistemologies based on solidarity rather than objectivity. They can help children understand that the process of knowledge creation is neither ahistorical nor apolitical. They can teach children that knowledge is created to serve certain purposes at certain times, for political, economic, cultural and social gains and for the maintenance of dominance. Instead of single truths, museums can offer multiple perspectives. That is why museums are such important potential agents for change in our communities.

Education, Critical Thinking and Solidarity

A different way of imagining education and cultural activity would be to see, as Paul Feyerabend suggests, the metaphor of enquiry and human activity as proliferating, becoming more diverse, more complex. Such imagination would be firmly grounded in solidarity. It would celebrate diversity, acknowledge the vast complexity in society and education due to culture, society, religion, history and politics.

Museums should aspire to help children understand other communities rather than to dominate them. They should help children see, in Rorty’s words, “…the social sciences as continuous with literature – as interpreting other people to us, and thus enlarging and deepening our sense of community.” They should encourage children to extend solidarity with the disadvantaged and the oppressed.

To do this, museums must engage children in critical thinking. One of the central roles of museums is to work with memory. But this memory must be critical memory. For example, consider the case of three museums in Karachi. Between them, the PAF Museum and the Maritime Museum receive around 100,000 visitors a month, a large percentage of them children. Yet the images, the collections, and text in these museums all provide a single, glorified, militaristic narrative of Pakistan’s history. I guess, by definition they would have to. By aiming to fascinate and awe the visitors with a slick collection of bombs, submarines and fighter planes, they give a single perspective on war and a ‘struggle’ for survival. There is little room for an alternative perspective of the death and destruction caused by war, or of the need and necessity of such endeavors.

The recent exhibition on the Raj at the Mohatta Palace Museum provides another interesting example, particularly since the exhibition has been promoted as a ‘must see’ for children. Beyond a commendable curatorial feat of collecting an impressive array of objects, the story in the exhibition provides a glorified, romantic vision of the colonial era. The individuals and families covered in the stories are the rich and powerful, with expansive houses and grand furniture. Of course, this is a crude overview and one could argue that much else could be extracted from the exhibition. But was it? What educational or other interactive tools were provided to children to draw them in, to contextualise the exhibition and engage with it critically? To what extent could memory be counterproductive and misleading in the absence of critical memory?

In a city like Karachi, where there is no tradition of cultural tourism, where visitors have little or no experience of cultural institutions, there inevitably has to be tremendous pressure on museums to engage, entertain and educate audiences. Museums need to raise more questions than provide answers, and they need to increase uncertainty and confusion rather than provide simplistic narratives.

If museums can succeed in doing this, they will have done a great service to their communities.

1 & 2: Maritime Museum, Karachi 3 & 4: PAF Museum, Karachi photography: Zahoor Ahmed

Museums, Activism and Solidarity

At the risk of overloading the mandate of museums, having established theories of knowledge and helping children understand the world, museums should dare to go a step further.

They should take on the rather ambitious aim of inspiring children to dream of changing the world, and motivating and training them to take hands on action, in whatever small or big way possible, to this end. This would involve substantial widening of the role of museums for children.  It would entail putting forward a whole package of helping children critically think about and understand the social world they live in, finding their place in it and taking action to improve it.

In a country like Pakistan, where there is no tradition of social activism by children, there is an urgent need to help them develop the vocabulary of civil society engagement, and to give them opportunities, even if small and symbolic, of practicing activism. For the CMPHR this comes as a natural progression of HREP’s work with children over the past ten years. We know how open children are to getting involved, if only they are provided structured avenues for involvement. The 450 schools and over 50 organisations HREP is currently working with provide ample evidence of the motivation and energy children are willing to bring forth. Museums are ideal spaces to provide the fertile soil and nurturing from which strong traditions of activism would grow and flourish.

'Count Me In', children from Faran School, Orangi Town Karachi, photography Arif Mehmood (courtesy HREP)

Conclusion: Solidarity Versus Abstractions

Many of the crude and as yet undeveloped reflections on museums in the 21st Century that I have put forward in this article apply specifically to the context of the CMPHR, but at a general level the principles can apply to all kinds of museums. I firmly believe that the stories all museums narrate should be anchored in the tradition of solidarity, even though the content, characters and trajectory of each story will obviously vary.

I think museums should make more efforts to engage specifically with children. Internationally, children are still largely excluded from the museum experience. Here I am not talking about the many ‘Children’s Museums’ that are science-based discovery and learning centres for small children, but the mainstream museum world.

Finally, museums should explicitly include in their mandate the aim of helping children understand the world they live in, reflect on their place in it, and act to improve it. This would make museums more relevant and inspirational. For the first time it would make museums activist organisations connected to the communities they serve.

Museums would do well to reflect on Edward Said’s advice that:

These are tense times, but it is better to think in terms of powerful and powerless communities, the secular politics of reason and ignorance, and universal principles of justice and injustice, than to wander off in search of vast abstractions that may give momentary satisfaction but little self knowledge or informed analysis.

M. Zulfiqar Ali is Senior Lecturer in the Faculty of Arts, Humanities and Education at Canterbury Christ Church University, UK. Before moving to the UK, he was Director of Children’s Museum for Peace and Human Rights, and prior to that Director of the Human Rights Education Programme in Karachi.

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