Behind the glass they become objects

Dialogic projects with source communities to make them the interpreters of their collections to transmit them to the public in the permanent display of the museum and in temporary exhibitions.

Museum: Castello D'Albertis - Museo delle culture del mondo, Comune di Genova

Castello D'Albertis - Museo delle culture del mondo, Comune di Genova

Dealing with ethnographic collections from indigenous peoples of Africa, the Americas and Oceania, the concept of intangible cultural heritage has always gone hand in hand with the object itself. As an anthropologist, material culture and tangible objects are perceived as the embodiment of knowledge, of know-how, of rituals and performances, where objects stand as processes rather than a result per se. The same can be said for migrant communities, whose dialogue with the museum makes evident the role of objects as departure point for identificatory dynamics in their own culture and nation of provenance. Migrant citizens as individuals or associations become practitioners of intangible heritage thanks to inclusive projects that integrate their voice in the dominant narrative of an exhibition or an event, such as talks and guided tours, performances or cultural programs in general.

Even though intangible cultural heritage is not specifically mentioned in the policy documents of Castello D'Albertis - as it is part of the administrative body of the Comune di Genova - the museum is constantly keen on pointing out the inextricable connection between tangible and intangible heritage distancing also from mere economical/material terms: exhibitions, projects, workshops ideally always reconnect the collections with the craftmanship they incorporate through videos, storytelling or explanations regarding what lies behind the glass.

Preserving the collections is a first step to safeguard intangible heritage, if they are kept alive through constant widening of the perspective on them, if they are brought to the present and transmitted to new generations. Revealing common cultural habits and backgrounds to today's population coming from different parts of the globe contributes in raising awareness over the fundamental role of intangible heritage in finding the common roots of mankind in spite of it being scattered all over the world.

Behind the glass they become objects

Description of the project / practice / program

The last thirty years have seen tremendous changes in the way museums deal with indigenous cultures: it is the very idea of studying the others - never mind representing them - which has recently been challenged and their right to explain and represent the history and cultures of the peoples whose objects have always been collected, possessed and interpreted within the white curatorial authoritative frame of mind. What has changed is the attitude of museum professionals, who have developed a growing sense of responsibility and respect for native communities and the involvement of these communities in the process of their own cultural representation. Before these changes, community representatives were rarely involved in the creations of exhibitions. This has always favoured a representation of the indigenous cultures as relics from the past, disembodying the reality of their continuing vitality in the present by simply denying it, and disassociating displayed materials from real people, to further distance those people from the visitor and make him perceive objects as separated from an intangible world of knowledge.

This strategy encourages living artists and craftsmen, contributes to the elimination of stereotypes, prevents sacred or religious objects from being trivialized and validates the beliefs and practices of native groups as central in the presentation of museum artifacts.

Among all extraeuropean and migrant communities, the basic principle of the projects was sharing authority on the collections, so that knowledge from the makers could be integrated in the so called dominant museum truth, completely reverting the dynamics of the past.

With all of them, collecting information did not limit itself in taking notes or recording documentation, but it involved taking part in daily activities or rituals, listening to chants and stories, practising dances and languages, widening our horizon to the modes of culture itself. We found ourselves involved for example in the manufacturing of a clay vase in the wind-swept region of the border between Venezuela and Colombia among the Wayuu, in creating a feather headdress among the Bororo of Brazilian forest or in making a wooden figure like a kachina doll in the mesas of Arizona among the Hopi. In all cases from the museum object we were taken to its making process, which exposed us to the widest array of intangible heritage we could imagine, making the museum job more and more challenging.

How were practitioners of intangible cultural heritage involved?

Fieldwork research in the areas where collections come from was specifically carried out among the Wayuu in Venezuela, the Bororo from Mato Grosso in Brazil, the Hopi in Arizona and the Plains Cree in Canada.

With extraeuropean indigenous peoples the contact has always started with letting them know about the existence of the museum collections from their people, together with our desire to establish a relationship with them for an insight on their meanings thanks to their knowledge. We stressed our desire to make them part of the process of interpretation to the public, for exhibiting not only objects but the lives of their makers.

This lead in 2004 in the opening of the museum with 5 Hopi from Arizona, who have been staying with us for one month explaining their culture and carrying on activities such as kachina doll carving, flute playing and singing, traditional corn grinding among others. Their collections are since then permanently displayed to the public with their interpretation and a video describes them through their voice and perspective.

A temporary exhibition was arranged to introduce the Bororo of Mato Grosso to the city during our Genoa European Capital of Culture celebrations, as a result of consultation with the community in Brazil, with whom historical objects were chosen for the display and new collections were replicated thanks to the information discovered from the historical artifacts during preparatory workshops to recover the intangible knowledge they are embedded in. The exhibition in Genoa was the occasion for them to learn back old procedures, such as collecting the right palm leaves for basket weaving, creating feather headdresses for different ritual occasions, making traditional musical instruments for funerary celebrations and re-enacting the nomination ceremony that had been abandoned long ago, together with the objects used on that occasion. Elders were invited to the village to teach to youngsters, who followed all the manufacturing processes and learnt the right vernacular words for them, to be taught to all villagers and to us, for our public and our catalogue in the museum.

The contemporary artist and assistant curator of the National Museum of the American Indian, Smithsonian Institution, Gerald Mc Master, spent one month in our storage areas to select and interpret our Cree collections, which he installed in our permanent exhibition in dialogue with our designer and with the museum curator. The stories he recalled behind the objects form part of the exhibitions in a video and a narration beside the display, which give evidence of the importance of native voices in the museum.

With various citizens and associations of peoples of Latin American and African descent living in Genoa strong relationships have been established even before its opening as part of the collaborative policy of the museum and its territory: cultural mediators and representatives of various migrant communities are continuously engaged in the installation of exhibitions, the organization of cultural activities such as storytelling about a specific artefact on display or the organization of a cultural programme such as cinema, fashion, literature, music or dancing. The narrations around the objects become the leading actors on the stage of the museum, where tangible heritage plays the role of a mere starting point and the play is shaped thanks to the co-construction of knowledge.

CV of the author

Museum anthropologist, founding director of Castello D'Albertis Museum of World Cultures in Genoa-Italy since 1991, Maria Camilla De Palma has been developing exhibitions, workshops and educational programs on indigenous peoples of Africa, the Americas and Oceania through the dialogues with them and migrant citizens, for the accessibility for all kinds of publics and cultures.

She did field research among the Wayuù in Venezuela, the Bororo of Mato Grosso-Brazil, on the mayan site of Copán-Honduras with the Peabody Museum of Anthropology and Archaeology- Harvard, and among the Hopi of Arizona, thanks to a Getty Curatorial Grant for the inclusion of native voices in European museums.

Member of ICME and founding member of Simbdea.


  • learn from the process rather than from the result
  • ICH can be a stepping stone to include different actors in the co-creation of a project
  • working on ICH prevents the museum from being more and more detached from reality and the outside world, and allowis it - on the contrary - to always receive new impulses and inspiration from life and changes in society




22 March 2018 from 15:52 to 15:52



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