Writer : Nguyen Van Huy
Year : 2006
In the late 1990s, the formation of the Vietnam Museum of Ethnology has allowed the idea of the ethnographic museum to gradually conceptualise and have a greater opportunity to develop. The successful ethnographic exhibitions and cultural events at the Museum of Culture of Vietnamese Ethnic Groups (since 1992) and at the Vietnam Museum of Ethnology (since 1997) demonstrate the value of renewing the status of ethnographic collections and presentations in museums, especially in provincial and local museums throughout the country.
The mission of the Ethnology Museum is to research, collect, and preserve ethnographic artefacts that reflect the culture and life of Vietnam’s 54 ethnic groups, and then to present these artefacts to the public. This paper discusses the role these activities play in Vietnam and the region.
With regards to people, the museum’s first priority is to emphasize the equality of all cultures and peoples. This means that the museum is equally concerned with presenting the cultures of groups with large populations and of groups with small populations, and is equally interested in groups residing in urban areas as well as those found in remote areas. In particular, groups with long histories in Vietnam and those who have emigrated from neighbouring countries for various historical reasons, are introduced on an equal level at the museum. This information helps museum-goers become aware of the historical and cultural relationships of ethnic groups in Vietnam with their neighbours in the larger Mekong region rather than presenting a picture of isolated and fixed cultural boundaries or of greater or lesser stages of development.
With regards to space, the Vietnam Museum of Ethnology has established a new strategic priority to extend the museum’s scope of exhibitions, research and programming from Vietnam alone to Southeast Asia and the region as a whole, in order to help museum visitors more fully understand the cultural relationships between Vietnam and other countries. The Museum of Ethnology is in the process of carrying out a very important and difficult task: to prepare for a permanent exhibition hall at the Museum that will introduce the cultures of ethnic groups in the ASEAN (Association of South East Asian Nations) nations and the region, starting with the cultures of other countries in the Mekong region. It is anticipated that this project will take 15 to 20 years to realize as it is starting almost from scratch. In spite of the challenges that this will inevitably pose, the Museum also foresees the bright possibilities. These exhibitions will play an important role because cultural understanding is necessary to fully achieve international political and economic integration and exchange in the face of globalization. Cultural background information about the political, cultural and environmental conditions of today, and in the past, provide a basis for stability and development in the region. It is hoped that museum colleagues and international organizations in South East Asia will collaborate enthusiastically, developing a South East Asian Museum, because, as a group, we all share the same goal of enhancing unity and understanding in the region. This is particularly important because cultural exchange remains limited between countries in South East Asia, particularly in the Mekong region. Discussion and research dealing with cultural issues among South East Asian nations has largely been limited to the national sphere; audiences and museum staff have not yet had extensive opportunities to explore these issues across national boundaries within the museum setting.
The Vietnam Museum of Ethnology places a priority on the present, with particular attention to the contemporary, daily life of ethnic groups. One aim is to present audiences with lively portraits and stories about the destiny of the cultural heritages of different ethnic groups. Through varied anthropological approaches, the Museum of Ethnology reflects on, and explains the concerns of cultural subjects for the survival of their cultural heritage. In this way, the museum gains a new vitality. Having been aware that the museum should focus on contemporary life, the Museum of Ethnology has efficiently organized activities to preserve living and intangible heritage.
The Vietnam Museum of Ethnology’s efforts to preserve and develop traditional handicrafts are an example of an educational approach to the preservation of living heritage. Recently, a range of activities was organized in the museum to preserve and develop traditional handicrafts.
- by passing on skills, knowledge and trading experiences
- by reproducing products
- by maintaining social networks and relationships in order to preserve and promote crafts.
In the summer of 2004, two Pottery Classes were organized for children: a basic and an advanced class. The advanced class was attended by the pupils who had attended the basic class in the year 2003. Four artisans from Phu Lang pottery village, professional potters and a master, were invited to teach the children. Phu Lang has centuries of history of pottery making, however, the trade is under threat of falling into oblivion. Many young skilled artisans have left the village to earn a living by another trade.
The pupils who take part in these classes are given basic skills in pottery making. They can make their own products and learn to design panels and brochures for the exhibition of their products. Through the workshop classes, the children not only mastered traditional techniques and skills in pottery making, they also learnt a great deal more about their culture and heritage. The artisans, through these demonstrations and exchanges with the children and with professional potters, also learnt about the values of traditional pottery and gained knowledge about new decorative motifs and about making colours from natural materials. They also gained a further understanding of the demands of contemporary life. This is an important aspect, as the artisans endeavor to create designs to adapt to the demands of present day society, resulting in more production sales and thus an increase in their income.
Policy makers are not able to obtain sufficient information on craft potential and their situation at a grass-roots level. Craftsmen who have knowledge and technical skills need to be more informed about, and better equipped, to take part in the market economy.
All of the above activities that preserve and develop traditional crafts also succeed in connecting the museum to contemporary life, by responding to the concerns of artisans and increasing their standard of living by increasing employment. These activities connect diverse communities, and help people understand cultural values more clearly by reaching beyond their own cultural understandings to discover a wider horizon.
The project also collected and preserved visual material and interviews on crafts in order to make a research database for Vietnam’s present and future cultural managers and policy makers. The aim of this was to provide personnel with the resources needed to create policies that promote the preservation and development of traditional crafts, in ways that are suitable for local communities.
The success of the above projects relied on a proper understanding of the need to preserve and develop traditional craft skills, and an awareness of the importance of the museum in contemporary life. The Vietnam Ethnology Museum should be involved in resolving the difficulties facing craftspeople, by providing assistance in improving their quality of life and increasing their employment opportunities. The museum should link communities, raising people’s awareness of cultural values, not only in their own locality but beyond their borders. This is a crucial educational role that the museum should play.
The first challenge is updating the knowledge of important concepts, theories, and approaches in the design of exhibitions and public programmes. Most of the specialists and researchers working at the museum have university degrees in either ethnology or museum studies. In Vietnam, training in these two fields is still developing to compete with the more advanced theories and approaches from around the world. We are now actively considering many questions concerning the role of the museum in presenting the cultures of different groups living in Vietnam. How can we express the idea of cultural diversity? What is the role of the museum as a link between the government, political institutions, cultural communities, and the general public? To what extent should the museum participate in socio-economic development and heritage preservation in Vietnam? Aside from its educational role for the general public, can the museum also be involved in training in museum studies and anthropology at undergraduate and postgraduate university level? What, beyond traditional anthropological subjects, might the museum focus on to effectively carry out activities to preserve intangible cultural values? What should the relationship be, in the museum, between contemporary culture and cultures of the past? How can the museum establish exhibitions to show the relationships between the social and cultural world and the natural environment?
In order to take steps to answer some of these questions, the Vietnam Museum of Ethnology has a short-term and medium-term need for upgrading the level of the professional staff on site, and a long-term need for making sure there is systematic training available for potential future staff members. The museum actively seeks sponsors who will work in collaboration with museum staff to help meet their training and re-training needs. Training for staff and future staff of the Vietnam Museum of Ethnology must encompass not only the fields of ethnology, anthropology, museology, conservation and restoration, but also video, audio and editing techniques for producing ethnographic films, exhibition design, product development market research, museum education and public outreach activities.
The second challenge is to diversify the types of exhibitions organized, and the cooperative network. If exhibitions are only organized in Hanoi, the educational message will not reach remote communities. Therefore, a network must be established with local museums throughout the country to share access to objects, exhibition ideas and actual exhibitions. The Ethnology Museum embarked on this task in several ways. The project entitled <i data-tomark-pass data-tomark-pass >Building Capacity in Research, Collecting, and Exhibition </i>implemented by the Vietnam Museum of Ethnology in collaboration with the Smithsonian Institute and funded by the Rockefeller Foundation, developed training programmes and established a network of 12 museums in the lower Mekong Delta region of Vietnam. Participants in the project, which extended from 2001 to 2003, worked to conduct research on the preservation and presentation of the cultures and lives of the people who live in this region.
The Ethnology Museum has also sent highlights of the its collections and exhibitions to other regions of the country in travelling exhibitions. These travelling exhibitions extended to audiences far from Hanoi, thus enhancing understanding among all of the people living in Vietnam. In addition, the museum has ambitions to develop this further and participate in museum networks in the region and around the world. These links could take place at many levels, from the lending and borrowing of collections and the hosting of travelling exhibitions, to co-curating exhibitions and establishing joint virtual exhibitions on the internet.
The Vietnam Museum of Ethnology aims to be a destination not only for Vietnamese people and foreign tourists, but also for scholars from the region and all over the world, continuing its role as an important bridge linking cultures, people, and nations, particularly in the Mekong region.