The exhibitions at the Museum of Ethnology reflect a diverse and ever-changing Catalan society. The objects from other societies and from our own past speak of who we are now.
The new exhibitions propose a reinterpretation of social reality through comparison. Observing objects that were common in the daily lives of earlier generations makes us think about how the way we adapt to our environment has changed and how humanity continues to search for solutions to universal problems like resource management, food, clothing and domestic life.
By representing our identity through ethnographical pieces we are reflecting the diversity of our society. The wall features objects from different times in history and geographic locations that invite us to reflect on how seemingly exotic items are part of our surroundings and help us explain who we are.
The museum has been designed so that the objects on display are used as the starting point on a path towards meaning. It is an appeal to visitors, inviting them to reflect on their daily lives and bringing them the anthropological discourses associated with the exhibitions.
The Museum of Ethnology is a public service aimed at encouraging citizens to participate in all of its processes, from research and curating exhibitions to visits and activities.
The Museum’s exhibitions don’t present a closed, linear discourse. They invite visitors to reach their own conclusions, putting subjectivity into play in an active role in their surroundings.
The manner in which the Museum’s contents, exhibitions and activities are developed also incorporates participation from society, in particular from sectors involved in studying, disseminating and defending cultural heritage, whether through academia, art or popular associations. It is also done in collaboration with organisations working with popular culture, whether in terms of Catalan roots or the successive migrations that have enriched the cultural diversity of our society.
The method of study used in anthropology is unique: fieldwork. This technique prioritises the relationships forged between researchers and individuals in the society being studied. The very people that the Museum targets are its object of study. The ethical commitment established with the sources, who are also the target of the Museum’s reflections, make them an active player in the study and dissemination process.
The materials on display in the Museum must be selected in a way that is sensitive to the concerns of society as a whole and, thus, an approach that is attentive to the problems and changes in contemporary society must prevail. The relevant social stakeholders, both from academia and general society, are also included in creating this agenda.
The evolution of the Museum of Ethnology towards its current concept is in line with the changes seen in social and cultural anthropology, contemporary museology and society in general.
The birth and consolidation of ethnology, its theories and methods, came about in a context of colonisation and industrialisation, which led them to focus on the exotic, whether in terms of geography (studying primitive peoples) or time (folklore and rural lifestyles that were disappearing). The study of developed, urban societies was reserved for sociology, using different methods and approaches.
The historical processes of decolonisation and globalisation starting in the second half of the 20th century began to blur this distinction and some began to posit that ethnographical methods were perfectly valid for studying societies in the metropolises, in industrialised urban contexts.
The same process of reflecting on the role of anthropology reached the conclusion that classifications like primitive and developed, savage and civilized didn’t refer to different degrees of cultural complexity: all human groups, their organisational structures and representations, show comparable depth in any period of time or location.
Nevertheless, this paradigm shift, theoretical but also ethical, wasn’t a rejection of the discipline’s unique work methods, which had become its defining trait. A qualitative approach to our society, along with on-going comparison with others, provides points of view that are essential to making society aware and encouraging them to reflect on the every-day realities closest to them.
At the same time, ideas on what a museum should be and its ties to society have also evolved. Preserving and caring for our heritage continues to be one of their key functions, but the way in which museums relate to visitors has changed substantially. Science museums, but also those focusing on art, have shifted their attention from the objects on display to the people observing them. Dissemination and reflection have come to be the aim of exhibitions; and the items on display, a means of achieving this goal.
In addition to aesthetical enjoyment and contemplation, the materials are displayed in order to convey a discourse based on texts, images and the wide range of media available nowadays. Noteworthy among these is audiovisual media, which has become a central part of social communication in the 21st century. It has also become a highly valued medium in the discipline of ethnology for its role in reflecting and disseminating the realities studied by anthropologists. The act of exhibiting objects has been reconsidered, seeking to strike a balance between preserving heritage and making it as accessible as possible to the public, not only physically but also intellectually and perceptively.
Over the years, museums have also moved beyond just exhibitions and now offer activities in which visitors play an active role and can experience intangible aspects of culture and knowledge. Artistic performances, conferences and debates, workshops and other more experimental events complement the exhibitions. A pedagogical approach is also key in reaching audiences of all ages.