Community Museums—Very “Special Ed” for Indigenous Peoples

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By Deborah Van Hoewyk

We all know that Oaxaca’s capital city is renowned for its art scene, with a passel of museums and galleries; a little dawdling over a travel book will tell you it also has museums of philately, historic interest, archaeology, religion, textiles, and the Ferrocarril Mexicano. When we go to museums, we mostly just gawk and “gosh-golly,” but museums are the shining stars of informal education, that kind of life-long learning we engage in every time we do something that interests us and adds to our knowledge, skills, or abilities.

Scattered through the countryside around Oaxaca de Juárez is another kind of museum, the community museum, created by the communities where they stand. These museums provide informal education to visitors, yes, but they are better described as self-directed “popular education,” a special subset of informal education.

Ideas about informal education started after the French Revolution with Rousseau (1712-78) and his concerns about how people would achieve democracy now that it was a possibility. We’re perhaps more familiar with the ideas of John Dewey (1859-1952), who saw in informal education its potential for democracy, for creating an involved citizenry, animating a sense of community, cultivating reflection, and thinking for problem-solving while drawing on personal experience situated in a specific environment.

The political, consciousness-raising essence of popular education was best articulated by Brazilian educator Paulo Freire (1921-77)—just the title of his first book, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, and his reworking of it near the end of his life in Pedagogy of Hope, tell you that Freire’s concerns are a far cry from worries about standardized testing, advanced placement, and getting into the best college! (Interestingly enough, though, Freire did a stint as a consultant at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education in the 1960s, and his work and practice are frequently addressed in its journal, the Harvard Educational Review.)

When you think about a community creating its own museum, you can see how Freire’s concern with the dialogue necessary to work together, and with praxis, action that is linked to values, applies. In perhaps his best known idea, Freire stood for “conscientization,” a guided process of developing an understanding of reality so as to transform reality—all education emerges from the lived experience of the learner. The goal of conscientization is to enable marginalized people to understand how, why, and by what process or institutions, they are excluded. In Mexican villages nowadays, globalization, and how the Mexican government copes with it, is one of those processes.

Freire is explicitly discussed by the two people most involved with Oaxaca’s community museums, a husband-and-wife team of social anthropologists who work in the Oaxacan delagación of INAH (Instituto Nacional de Antropología y Historia, located at José Maria Pino Suárez 715). Cuauhtémoc Camarena Ocampo and Teresa Morales Lersch started working with community museums in 1986, shortly after the Zapotec villagers of Santa Ana del Valle, about 35 miles east of Oaxaca de Juárez, discovered an ancient burial ground under their zocalo.

Had all gone as usual with local archeological finds, and as it went for Huatulco with the ruins at Copalita and no doubt will go with the Punta Celeste site in the Botazoo, INAH would have swooped in and appropriated the newly-discovered artifacts for analysis in their laboratories, never to be seen again by their descendants. However, Santa Ana del Valle was having none of that, and after intense negotiations, the first bottom-up community museum was born. Earlier in the 1970s, INAH had organized casas de museos and escuelas de museos (house and school museums) and somewhat later five community museums in different Mexican states, but for the most part, the community was not involved—according to Camarena and Morales, INAH’s “top-down promotion methods … frankly contradicted its stated objectives,” very unlikely to succeed in helping communities develop museums that would be “tools . . . to transform their collective future.”

A decade before Santa Ana, Camarena and Morales were working in adult education in the state of Hidalgo for the Fomento Cultural y Educativo, a Jesuit organization whose motto basically translates as “a different outlook for a worthy world”; the team helped villagers form consumer and marketing cooperatives, a tool for transforming campesinos from passive recipients of government aid to active participants in social change. In Hidalgo, Camarena and Morales developed skills and methodologies for working with indigenous peoples living in poverty and social exclusion. When they reached Santa Ana, they were struck by the cargo system, in which committees are “charged” with, or “carrying,” responsibilities necessary to run the village. The cargo system lies at the heart of the usos y costumbres form of indigenous government used in about three-quarters of Oaxaca’s municipios (roughly put, “counties”). Creating a cargo for the community museum would make it truly a village-led project, one that requested advice from INAH rather than having INAH do it for them—at that time, INAH was experiencing great tensions in the countryside over who “owned” local cultural patrimony and what was to become of it. In the long run, the work of Camarena and Morales changed INAH’s approach to working with indigenous peoples, the true inheritors of Mexico’s cultural patrimony.

The Santa Ana community museum, Museo Shan-Dany (“below the hill” in Zapotec) was completed within eight months of Camarena and Morales’ arrival. It displays the archaeological artifacts that started it all, covers local events in the Mexican Revolution, traditional Zapotecan weaving, and has exhibits on the Danza de la Pluma (Feather Dance), in which dancers in traditional costume with giant feathered headdresses reenact the conquest of Mexico by Cortez. (Shan-Dany tried to revive a 40-member dance troupe to actually perform the dance, but too many members migrated north for work.)

While Museo Shan-Dany was being organized, people from San José el Mogote (about 12 km northwest of Oaxaca) heard about it; they already had a very small museum with archeological artifacts. The area was much richer in archeology, however, and is considered a precursor to Monte Alban in terms of Zapotecan social and governmental organization; it is the site of the first permanent agricultural settlement in Meso-America, and the first to make pottery. Representatives from San José were impressed with Shan-Dany, and they began work on their own community museum, continuing to exchange information with the Santa Ana museum cargo. Located in the restored El Cacique Hacienda, the Mogote museum now boasts an extensive archeological collection—its most famous artifact is El Diablo Enchilada, a bright red brazier shaped like the devil’s head—and other exhibits on the history of the Hacienda and Mogote’s struggles to establish communal land tenure in the 1930s and 40s.

During the same year (1986) five more villages sought to establish community museums, hoping to use their archeological artifacts as a source of income, only to discover that a “community museum” established through the participatory cargo methodology was a much larger, transformative endeavor deeply rooted in culture and identity.

Perhaps the most valuable contribution the Camarena and Morales have made is to build on the intercambios, or exchanges, between communities that have museums and communities that want to found their own museums. They started by setting up a nonprofit independent of INAH, ADCCIO (Asociación para el Desarrollo Cultural de las Comunidades Indígenas de Oaxaca), a small NGO that could accept funding on behalf of community projects and organize a community museum network. By 1991, ADCCIO had turned into the Union de Museos Comunitarios de Oaxaca (UMCO), which by 1997 had a formal training center with a cultural development curriculum.

Where is the community museum movement now? In 2012, UMCO membership stood at fifteen community museums; ILAM (Institute of Latin American Museums) lists 17, and although some don’t last long, there are more out there, all of whom can join UMCO. Control of the organization and direction of community museums has shifted to the people—the governing executive council and assembly of representatives from each community are all from the indigenous communities of the member museums. The professional anthropologists, sociologists, archeologists, and community organizers who had nurtured UMCO from the start are now advisors. UMCO has won funding from the Rockefeller Foundation, UNESCO, the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation, and the Mexican government. UMCO is Mexico’s organization in the Network of Community Museums of America (which also includes Brazil, Bolivia, Chile, Columbia, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Nicaragua, Panama, and Peru); in places other than Mexico, community museums are often identified as “eco-museums” to reflect the emphasis on social ecology, or “culture-in-community.”

Last year, UMCO received an Inter-American Foundation grant, which it combined with other committed funds to equal almost $500,000, for a three-year project called “Community Museums and Schools: Strengthening Visions of the Past and the Future.” The project seeks to develop leadership, technical skills, and cultural identity in the “next generation” by teaching 3200 elementary and secondary school students and 300 teachers and staff to participate in the development and operation of community museums. The project will indirectly benefit another 4900 family members and villagers. According to the grant summary on the Inter-American Foundation website, it provides a shining example of informal education at its best, gaining “insight into the effect of the development of cultural identity in young people on their appreciation for and civic commitment to their community,” as well as examining “the relevance of skills learned through the program to employment opportunities and to other aspects of their lives.”