Ecomuseums: A Sense of Place (Exploring Ecomuseums, Part 1)

Posted in Reviews by Dan Holbrow on April 19th, 2013

This review of Peter Davis' book, Ecomuseums: A Sense of Place, is the first in a two-part story about ecomuseums. Part 2 will look at the potential of ecomuseums in Saskatchewan.

In the barrios of Rio and Mexico City, in the slums of Dakar, in the suburbs of Montreal and Paris, in the former industrial heartlands of France and Sweden, in declining rural areas in Italy, Spain and Canada, in remote ethnic villages in China, the ecomuseum has proved to be a flexible concept that has brought pride and energy back into communities. [Ecomuseums: A Sense of Place, p.288-289]

Ecomuseums often don't look much like traditional museums. This makes them a source of interest, but also, sometimes, a source of confusion.

When I wanted to understand for myself what all the fuss was about, I turned to Peter Davis’s book, Ecomuseums: A Sense of Place. In it, I found the definitions, case studies, and ideas I needed to make sense of the ecomuseums movement—and to appreciate the potential for ecomuseums right here in Saskatchewan.

There are hundreds of ecomuseums around the world, from Brittany to Pretoria, Taiwan to Vegreville. They can encompass hundreds of square kilometers like the Toten Ecomuseum in Norway; they can include “the smallest museum in the world”: a single CD playing everyday sounds of the past, part of the Hirano-cho ecomuseum network in Osaka. Some are complex, integrated institutions; others are loose networks of community stakeholders.

On the surface, it can be hard to see what ecomuseums have in common. But amid all that diversity, we find some features again and again. Davis refers to twenty-one key principles or indicators that are selectively shared by most ecomuseums, including characteristics like:

With foundational principles like these (see p.92-3 of the book for the complete list), it’s easy to see why ecomuseums are generating so much buzz. They overlap with other hot topics in community development like cultural landscapes and creative placemaking; but more importantly, they tend to work towards empowering local communities to preserve what they value, and engage with change on their own terms. At their best, ecomuseums provide a framework for stakeholders to work together to define and protect the things that make them who they are.

Principles like these aren’t exclusive to ecomuseums, of course: many community groups have similar goals, values, and ways of functioning. The principles apply pretty broadly—and so does this book. The stories and case studies will be useful and interesting for anyone engaged in grassroots community development.

Could Saskatchewan be on the edge of a surge of interest in ecomuseums? It looks that way. Stay tuned for part 2 of this post, where we’ll look at the potential of ecomuseums in Saskatchewan.

Ecomuseums: A Sense of Place and many other resources are available to MAS members through our Resource Library. Contact us at 1-866-568-7386 for more information.

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