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The final frontier: understanding our museums and galleries as meeting places of knowledge

Davie Donaldson (he/him), Senior DEI Consultant at Conyach Advocacy & Engagement, explains the importance of Gypsy/Traveller knowledge within museums and how organisations can co-curate with Gypsy/Traveller communities to share this knowledge.

White caravans in a field next to a photo of a person with light skin tone and short white hair weaving a willow object. Beneath the photos are a grid and a speckled circle. Overlaid is a purple gradient

What do our museums and galleries do? This should be the central question for everyone working in the field. Yet, it’s often a question we wrongly assume has a straightforward answer – they display objects, they allow us to preserve artifacts, they’re places to learn…  All these answers are correct, but more than anything our museums and galleries are crucial frontiers of meaning as meeting places between multiple forms of knowledge.

Museums as a frontier of meaning

Understanding our collections as ‘frontiers of meaning’, is nothing to do with the wild west – so put your cowboy hats away! Instead it’s about understanding where you sit in the context of a museum or gallery. 

Let me explain, the role of the curator can be understood as what Michel Callon calls an ‘Obligatory Passage point’ (1982). The narrow-end of a funnel that brings together multiple knowledge systems to translate knowledge and make it understandable to everyone. Therefore, the role of a museum or gallery is crucial in the ever globalising ecosystem of knowledge. Still with me?

This means the museum or gallery becomes a frontier of meaning, a meeting place of sorts between multiple ways of being in our world. Knowledge systems don’t exist in isolation from each other in a gallery or museum. They should interact and exchange. We’ve known for a long time that Gypsy/Traveller knowledge needs to be better included in our collections. However, in most institutions there is still no space given for the public to meet, interact and exchange with Gypsy/Traveller ways of being.

So why is this? I think it’s because too many of our galleries and museums are places of data devoid of relationship. There I said it.

You cannot understand an artifact without engaging with the knowledge-system it originates from. Often Gypsy/Travellers are not given opportunities to contribute their meaning to objects, support the design of exhibits, or be an active part in our museum & gallery community.

Consequently, collections become mono-knowledge megaliths that actively exclude marginalised knowledge systems like that of Gypsy/Travellers. In this way we totally disregard our duty to be a meeting place for knowledge.

Gypsy/Traveller communities are found in every part of Scotland, but institutions often fall into the trap of the age-old stereotype that Gypsy/Travellers only exist in the rural environment. This presentation of us as an ever-pastoral people neglects our presence and contributions in the urban environment. It also feeds negative stereotypes of our communities being ‘outdated’ or a ‘people of the past’. These stereotypes create difficult realities for Gypsy/Travellers, who constantly need to validate their presence in a modern society; who regularly face battles to access the most basic of services and struggle to maintain their travelling culture.

A sky at dusk and field with white caravans in the distance with glowing orange lights in the window.
Scottish Traveller night camp. Credit: Davie Donaldson

Gypsy/Traveller artifacts in museum collections

Our displays and exhibitions are directly linked to building social inclusion, they’re our key assets in becoming a frontier of meaning. These assets are the places of exchange between one knowledge system and another. 

This said, the elephant in the room is power imbalance. 

Often our collections are made up of objects collected at different times, from different places, by different people – usually not from communities where the object originated. So in rectifying this there are key questions that need to be asked:

  • If these objects were removed from their place of origin then what intangible cultural heritage was left behind? 
  • How can we meaningfully include this knowledge going forward?

The museum sector is increasingly focused on the repatriation of objects, including the engagement of Indigenous communities to better understand objects held in collections. Perhaps this is also our moment to consider conversations closer to home.

Co-production between Gypsy/Traveller communities and museums

Some recent work has shown the positive impact of Gypsy/Traveller community engagement around Scottish collections. In her Unsettling Nacken chaetrie: the absence and presence of Gypsy/Travellers in Scottish museums, Ramsay was able to build trust with communities to unearth knowledge that lay hidden from curators for generations. Her work (whilst with a research focus) centered communities and created opportunities for community-based knowledge-making sessions.

There are more brilliant examples at Auchindrain historic township and Perth Museum. Both of which have new exhibitions celebrating the diverse contributions and heritage of Gypsy/Traveller communities past and present. These exhibits were designed and co-produced with local Gypsy/Travellers and curators, empowering the fathomability of meaning. In the case of Auchindrain, these efforts also used social media videos to share Gypsy/Traveller knowledge alongside the physical exhibit. Crucially this meant the exhibition did not lose the tangibility of the spoken word. For Gypsy/Travellers who share an oral culture this made sure the articulation of their knowledge in the museum didn’t fall at that old saying – “Articulation is fitting into someone else’s words”.

Importantly, these projects were able to recognise that empowering our collections is not solely the re-attribution of meaning to objects. It’s the recognition that knowledge means different things to different people, that building relationships with local, often unheard communities, allows us to identify previously unrecognised opportunities for epistemic richness.

These exhibits now perform their function as a frontier of meaning, creating opportunities for Gypsy/Travellers to tell their story, and for settled communities to exchange with a different knowledge system.

Get involved

So what does all of this mean to you? Well our museums and galleries perform many functions, but they should be nurtured as a meeting place for diverse knowledge systems and a safe space to exchange and collaborate between communities. 

So whether you’re a rural or urban curator, you have a role to play. A duty to ensure you create the space for Gypsy/Traveller knowledge.