LAGOS PHOTO 2020: A MUSEUM OF HOSPITALITY
Normative museological systems that are to be exchanged for accessibility.
The work of a curator is highly dependent on physical presence and discoveries that are made during field research, wherever it takes place. Home Museum, however, opens up a different realm, an alternative model for online research and representation where people willingly share their private space. If Home Museum was an existing architecture, we might say that each co-creator came and knocked on the door with a generous gift to share. With this act of dedication and vulnerability, the visitor of Home Museum is entrusted with photographs of someone else’s dearest objects. Through this experience one can imagine a future museological structure based on the polysemic concept of home. All cultures have their specific understanding of home as a place for the preservation and nurturing of sacred and valuable objects and histories. Yet regardless of its various forms and functions, the home has one common characteristic: it is a place of safety and trust.
The concept of Home Museum references ideas introduced by Alpha Oumar Konaré in 1983 in “Towards a new type of ‘ethnographic’ museum in Africa”. In this seminal text, the former president of Mali, makes the argument that one should learn from communities, local groups and their traditions. He references the structure of family compounds and rooms dedicated to heirlooms and relics. He speaks about the notion of unconditional public access and cites practices of conservation, which are directed towards the spiritual rather than the material dimensions of heritage. Today, we can learn much from Konaré’s text when building new representational systems for future museums on the African continent and elsewhere.
To imagine museums as homes also leads us to Jacques Derrida’s concept of “unconditional hospitality”, a situation that neither presupposes national sovereignty nor asks its visitors for their identities. How can a curator working with communities and collective memories invite rather than gate-crash? Can a museum that becomes a home see its visitors not as outsiders, but as guests who also can become hosts, shifting between roles and liberated from the idea of permanent ownership? Can a place still be called a museum if it doesn’t have a colonial system of classification? Can accessibility and representation be regulated by the owners of the objects in the collections and their cultural and social traditions, rather than by established rules?
"Can a place still be called a museum if it doesn’t have a colonial system of classification? Can accessibility and representation be regulated by the owners of the objects in the collections and their cultural and social traditions, rather than by established rules?"
Between 2016 and 2017, I worked in Dilijan, a spa town and stopover on the Silk Road that once connected Armenia to Tiflis in Georgia, Tabriz in modern day Iran, and Baku and Sheki in modern Azerbaijan. In the 19th and 20th centuries, Dilijan was much loved by artists, filmmakers, composers, celebrities and intelligentsia from the neighbouring countries. In the middle of the 20th century, alongside the cultural retreats and health resorts of Dilijan, the Soviet Ministry of Defence started the large-scale production of electronics at Impuls, the commune-style factory of the town. This brought on a wave of relocation: workers and highly qualified scientists from all over the USSR moved to Dilijan. However, the socialist idyll did not last long. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, Dilijan went through difficult trials: the closure of the Impuls factory, an overall economic downturn, an earthquake, and the war with Azerbaijan over the disputed territory of Artsakh. Borders were erected between countries, cultures and households. Today, living next to abandoned factories and privatised retreats, and shrouded with nostalgia, the people of Dilijan have many stories to tell. Though they recall the joyful days of unity, the wounds from continuing historical invasions have left their scars.
Over the last two years, different curatorial and community projects have been initiated in Dilijan by various educational foundations. They all share one common purpose: to give a voice back to the citizens of Dilijan and let them express their notions of cultural and social value. The Dilijan Arts Observatory (curated by Clémentine Deliss in 2016), was one of these key projects. I worked on its realisation from start to finish when it was shown at the National Gallery of Contemporary Art in Berlin as part of “Hello World. Revising a Collection” (Hamburger Bahnhof, Berlin, 2018). For this fieldwork gathering, we decided to invite a group of Armenian and international artists, composers, scientists, historians, and art students to engage with the community and its home archives. We worked in the municipal library and the dilapidated Soviet House of Culture. Historically, this was the place for community gatherings and cultural exchange. We opened the factory doors of Impuls and invited the former workers to join us in assessing the past. We wondered whether this industrial building with its abandoned archives, machinery, and memories might offer a future model for a cultural centre. We were interested in the revival of collective histories and the potential for knowledge production fuelled by the wisdom of local communities. During our time there, we received many return invitations from the citizens of Dilijan, including the former employees of the factory, its manager, and the community librarians. They invited us to their homes and showed us their photographs and valuable relics. These included the camera that once belonged to the in-house photographer of the Impuls factory, the family ring of the librarian, and even traditional recipes based on the wild greens of the fertile Tavush region.
In 2017, I returned there in order to work on “Archiving Dilijan”, a workshop organised by the local community centre. Together with photographic historian and curator, Vigen Galstyan, we initiated a photography-based research project called “Intimate Spaces”. Facilitated by Sinar Manukyan, one of the librarians of the Dilijan municipal library, and Armenian photographer David Galstyan, we began documenting the interiors of the citizens’ homes. These living spaces were elaborately decked out with a genre of eastern European style furniture and decorative wall paintings. Artisanal carved wooden tables, with their precious tea service and crockery from the German Democratic Republic, reflected not only the past political and social histories of this region, but also emanated notions of traditional hospitality, influenced by the geopolitical, multicultural constellation of the town located on the Caucasian section of the Silk Road.
Similar in many ways to the guidelines of the Armenian community archive, LagosPhoto’s Home Museum does not aim to interpret, rearrange or even curate the collections sent in by the co-creators. What you see here are the testimonials of lives lived by many different individuals and communities, be this a collection of clocks, traditional textiles, or family relics photographed in their domestic setting as if it were the space of a museum. Personal value is assigned by the authors themselves not by outside curators, and the intimate stories behind these objects of virtue reveal more than the dry facts that are usually found in museum inventories and exhibitions. Nothing is examined, fact checked, or removed from the collection. All the photographs in Home Museum can be looked at and read as visual narratives accompanied by the sincere texts of each participant.
Photography is central to Home Museum where it functions like fuel for the engine that generates this new digital institution. Increasingly accessible to larger audiences all around the world, photography has become an international language for expression and empowerment. Here it works to set free the artefacts from normative museological systems of documenting and archiving. It activates different senses, which are not limited to the visuality of perception, and animates new meanings, facilitating the imagination. One may claim that we lack accuracy, or a scientific approach, but I would argue against this mono-dimensional point of view. Working on Home Museum, I have witnessed encounters and a wealth of new potential from these photographic collections and the memories they call forth.
Image: Gloria Orayzabal