No museum for folk dance


Last summer I travelled through the ancient Lycian territories in Turkey, where I found notes in almost every historical site that one or several important historical artefacts are located in the UK. When I went to the British Museum, I found almost all missing parts from the Lycian historical sites, including one which was essential to decode the Lycian scripts. I was astonished at the size and importance of the UK’s colonial power from the past and became as sorrowful and angry as a liberal woman could be.

The UK’s colonial past is just one example of injustices done to indigenous communities across the world. Another issue that I care about is representation of traditional culture in museums. As an anthropologist and a dance curator, I have several tools to change this power distribution. ‘New museology’ is perhaps the most disruptive concept, aiming to narrow the gap between the so-called ‘source community’ and the museum, and create ‘contact zones’ where diverging social groups could interact. Moreover, social dance within its’ natural adaptation of contemporary tendencies fits into the concepts of a new museology, meanwhile participatory folk dance face several challenges.

New museology

New museology approach has emerged in 1980s with the goal to encourage museums to look for inter-disciplinary approaches and increase partnership between the museum and community. Similarly, this new trend seeks to shift the ownership of the museum artefacts and to transform the museum itself. Peter Vergo in ‘The New Museology’ describes ‘new museology’ in contrast with ‘old’ museum practices:

‘The ‘old’ museology is that it is too much about museum methods, and too little about the purposes of museums’ (Vergo 1989:3)

So according to Vergo, ‘new museology’ is supposed to concentrate on aims and critically rethink the tools used to educate, entertain and provoke an audience. Moreover, different types of visitors have different expectations, and each visitor’s, scholar’s, art lover’s or child’s view point and needs should be taken into consideration by the museum creators and curators. Vergo invites to reflect the value of the exhibition artefact and analyse it through the perspective of political, ideological or aesthetical influence. In other words, we should be aware who establishes the particular historical significance or beauty and ‘what makes certain objects, rather than others, ‘worth’ preserving for posterity?’ (Vergo 1989:2). Undoubtedly, the answer to this question reveals the power distribution between the museum and the audience. 

Ludmilla Jordanova in her chapter ‘Objects of Knowledge: A Historical Perspective on Museums’ (Jordanova 1989) explores the knowledge in the context of the museum and states that the knowledge is generated mainly via ‘an imaginative process’. Furthermore, objects are just a tool in order to tell the story, so every museum produces different stories and histories by displaying different artefacts. In this case, museum exhibitions should be treated as a presumable construct with a particular viewpoint or / and a storyteller.

Source community  

During the last two hundred years, those in power took the historical artefacts in order to preserve and display them in ethnographic expositions. As a result, artefacts, together with their interpretations and representations belonged to the collectors – museums. Western ‘collectors’ felt the need to take these historical artefacts in order to save them from possible extinction. Nonetheless, during recent decades, the power distribution has been shifting and the owners – museums became more willing to share their ownership of artefacts with indigenous communities. Source communities (originating communities) (Citvarienė 2014; Krouse 2006) nowadays are often involved in the process of exhibition design and display as consultants and collaborators. Sometimes source communities are the main visitors and museums are interested in how they perceive an exhibition and their display in particular.

Even though new museology ideas encourage institutions to shift the ownership of historical and cultural artefacts, Susan Applegate Krouse in article ‘Anthropology and the New Museology’ argues that: ‘Communities who seek to increase their representation in museums must often battle for that privilege, and for the right to tell their own stories.’ (Krouse 2006:180). So if the museums following ‘new museology’ approach genuinely seek to shift the power distribution and transform the ownership of artefacts, than first of all they should abandon their long-standing privilege to create the narratives of artefacts. Though museums often do not have a lot in common (social status, political and ideological environment, or aesthetics) with source community, they still produce their history and their viewpoint. In order to avoid misrepresentation, the exhibiting institution should empower the source community to ‘tell their own story’ and be heard by curators; the source community can give accurate context of the particular artefact to the museum audience. My personal experience in the Tate Modern art gallery testifies that the short video clips with artists talking within their daily life and socio-political environment made me more interested in their art objects exhibited in Tate.

It is important to mention that only when the source community is not capable to present their history to the audience, museum people should enter this process, because historical objects misrepresentations were made by museum not by communities themselves.       

Still, it is evident that objects and their source communities are not always fully represented; indeed, we should be aware that not all community and details can be represented. Sometimes it can happen because of cultural differences when not all details can be revealed or because sometimes just most active and concerned people are interested in community representation.

Contact zone

As discussed above, museum is the platform to transmit someone’s ‘truth’ or knowledge, and this place by itself became problematic and susceptible for complex power relationships. When we have several communities, whose story and ‘truth’ the museum is going to choose? On whose side lies the power?

James Clifford in article ‘Museums as Contact Zones‘ (Clifford 1997) defined contact zone as place where geographically and historically isolated communities meet or are forced to meet, and in that zone permanent contact is created. Moreover, the author argues that when the museum becomes the contact zone it loses the function of ‘museum-as-collection’ and faces challenges and responsibility of shifting political, historical and moral relationships between communities. The contact (in the museum) is supposed to erase the discrepancy and stimulate empowerment and continuity of positive connections. Most importantly:

Contact zones are constituted through reciprocal movements of people, not just objects, messages, commodities and money.’ (Clifford 1997:195).

Moreover, museum operates as a place of transcultural encounter and supply artists and communities with advantages and disadvantages of cultural and communal interchange. Nevertheless, contact zone as one of the museum’s functions is criticized because of its social responsibility: according to Weil (1995), museum should be more modest in healing social ‘diseases’ which they did not cause. On the other hand, a museum that enters the social life is also doing it for pragmatic reasons, because museums are bound by their communities and the newfound harmony might increase the number of visitors who are essential to the survival of a museum.

Dance in a new museum


The connection between dance and the museum are relatively new subject. Franz Anton Cramer notes that ‘coupling dance and the museum is a phenomenon of the early twentieth century.’ (Cramer, 2014:24). Meanwhile, Clair Bishop states that: ‘The current love affair between museums and dance is in part an acknowledgment of the longevity of visual art’s relationship to dance: from the historic avant-garde to Black Mountain College to post-punk.’ (Bishop, 2014:72). However, historically dance was eliminated from museums and galleries, together with other performing arts. One of the reasons was the impermanence of this art form. Claire Bishop (Bishop, 2014:72) suggests that dance is more than just entertainment, however, the unity of dance and the museum is challenging because each trend is settled down and in order to change it we need considerably more efforts.

Museums and galleries mostly use tangible and permanent objects and this trend has historically settled over 200 years. Moreover, dance adapted to this rule and artists and curators present dance on screens via video recording technologies. Furthermore, a new strategy of ‘medial transfer’ (Cramer 2014) is taken into consideration as a possibility for dance involvement in the museum space.  Even recent dance display through the ‘media transfer’ obey the non-momentary museum concept. On the other hand, Boris Charmatz’s ideas (Museum’s manifesto, 2014, discussed below) of moving museum and Musée de la Danse (Dancing Museum) that sprang from these ideas celebrate the concept of permanent and intangible dance museum.

Dance arrogance and the context

Non-momentary and tangible exhibitions usually are contextualized by verbal notes (plates next to the painting, live or recorded guide stories) or visual expressions (films, pictures). However, there is well known thought that dance (as well as music) is a universal language and it does not need explanations and contextualization. Is the dance universal or do we make the mistake by presuming that audience do not need the context? Maybe this presumption puts a spoke in wheel of dance entering into the museum. Thus, how we suppose to introduce dance context?

Bishop in her article ‘The Perils and Possibilities of Dance in the Museum: Tate, MoMA, and Whitney.’ (2014) discusses thee cases of dance in the museum and indicates context as one of four main problems in this field. Dance normally exists in a ‘black-box theater’ and the displacement to ‘white-cube institution’ requires adaptations, and displacement does not always translate to added value. Bishop warns about the negative and positive aspects of displacement in her article as well.


Another issue of dance in the museum is accessibility: unlike ‘black-box theatre’ whose tickets are often too expensive for many public members, the museum allows people to experience professional dance. At the same time, the museum environment modifies dance piece and museum visitors should not expect to see the same performance as in the theatre. Moreover, museum tenders more spectators then theatre does, but quantity is exchanged for quality: a museum cannot dictate rules of participation, and spectators can go away at any time if they are not interested. Constant circulation of the people in the museum space is another challenge for choreographers and curators, but it can be treated positively and then the outcome will bring more perspective to both dance and museum development.

Social dance in a museum

Social dancing is in all people’s life: when we dance in the wedding, in the club, in front of the mirror inside our rooms, when we move our body for fun in front of our friends’ eyes, or when we move limbs accord to music in our headphones. There is no clear line, however, distinguishing social dance from folk dance. Nevertheless, social dance can be incorporated more in dance research and particularly in the intellectual considerations of the new museology.

New museology challenges nationalism and the concept of authenticity as well as time, space, ownership and creativity. Boris Charmatz in his manifesto (2014) for the National Choreographic Centre produced ten commandments which encourage us to refuse all restrictions which came from the institutionalised museum’s past. At the same time, these commandments get the gist of the dance positioning within the new museology conceptual framework, and this manifesto could stand as a cornerstone for each modern dance movement around the world. Here, we are going to take several of the Charmatz’s commandments in order to develop the possibilities for social dance in the museum. 

Social dance museum manifesto

Museum emphasizes the notion that every member is an artist and the museum is a result common work together and separately. Social dancing phenomenon in a museum is a construct of each individual as well as collective effort. Whenever a person or a group does something related to dance, it creates the social dance museum with one condition – this activity should be oriented to obtaining pleasure. Social dance museum is the museum of artists with the purpose of joy.

Moreover, social dance museum is eccentric, because it does not have the usual (museum) ambitions to represent (tell the story) of dance styles or the variety of dance; its only aim is to catch the interest of the people and encourage them to explore more. Moreover, social dance museum is a transgressive museum, as it does not support the dance world hierarchy. There is no choreographer ‘the great’ and the ‘ownership’ of ‘authentic’ art work, which must be respected and preserved. Rather conversely, social dance people, place, time stimulate the replication of motives, styles and everything else. There you will find a plagiarism of everything what you can see around and it will never be put it any kind of evaluation or hierarchy, because all that is desired is to stimulate contact zone where people could communicate through dance without the presence of ‘ownership’ and ‘authenticity’.

Social dance museum is permeable and alive because there is no need to fix an identity or reject people’s ideas because of the different identity, race, gender, age, social status and so on. Every moving body can perform there and every physical movement can be considered as social dance. So, the museum seeks to cooperate and incorporate every person (visitor, administration staff, thinker and curator) into the creative processes where every material shifts according to the external world values and influences because all these element are essential threads of social dance.

Social dance museum is immediate and we do not need to prepare for it. Moreover, social dance museum wants to provoke new ideas and new standards, and seek original creative connections between different people despite their training, race, gender, age, social status and else. In this place every person can dance and that is all we need to know about social dance. There is no need to revive a particular dance style, judgements of ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ dance, because people had been classified into the ‘dancers’ and the ‘non-dancers’ for too long.

Social dance museum combines different time dimensions: permanence reaches into the very dance essence – every living being can dance, and this approach contains an archetypical quality which is common in lots of cultures. At the same time, impermanence is alive too – dance happens and it disappears. Environment adjusts the complex temporality of the time concepts, and in this place we are looking towards permanence meeting temporality.

And finally, social dance museum will not have expositions and any kind of contextualization, because every creative process will rise from people as a ‘grassroots’ movement. In this case, context will be the people themselves and their experiences.

Folk dance and a new museology

Social dance fits well enough into Charmatz’s manifesto ideas; meanwhile, participatory folk dance hardly fits into this vision, although generally both folk dance and social dance can be placed in the museum. However, folk dance is impeded by the fact that new museology tries to avoid nationalism and discover ‘universal nationality’: 

‘And then the “national” too isn’t sufficient anymore. The mental space of a far-reaching action must be at least locaglobaleuroperegioninternationabrittranscontinensouth.’ (Charmatz 2014).

The locaglobaleuropereg… nation supports the popular globalization trend and establishes dance community’s need to keep abreast with contemporary world where the concept of nation becomes questionable, although a cultural truism based on ‘nation’ notion thrive around the world. So, what possibilities does the folk dance hold in the context of new museology?

Andriy Nahachewsky (1995) established two ethnochoreological folk dance categories: participatory and presentational. In this case, participatory folk dance has several similarities with social dance and sometimes participatory and social dance are used as synonyms. Participatory and presentational dance classification is based on different communication during the dance: in participatory dance, dance process is more important than the result, and the main concern is dancer’s feelings; dance happens spontaneously and locates itself in casual places. In this section, we will discuss participatory folk dance possibilities and challenges in museum sites, employing the author’s eight years’ experience in Lithuanian traditional dance clubs as the background.

Nowadays participatory folk dance is often segregated from contemporary artists’ explorations and overlooked by gallery curators. A salient example of this phenomenon is Post-Soviet bloc and Northern Europe, where folk dance has culturally stablished place and form (mainly outside the museum). However, a collaborative project ‘Performer – audience interaction. A potential for dance art?’ by Gediminas Karoblis, Sigurd Johan Heide, Marit Stranden, Siri Mæland and Egil Bakka look into the Norwegian folkdance as participatory art material and try to provoke interdisciplinary collaborations: ‘Therefore, as a point of departure we claim that folk dancing should be felt, touched, danced and experienced from close enough distance to use the tactile, kinaesthetic senses in addition to vision.’ (Karoblis et al. 2015). Even though this initiative does not seeks to bring participatory folk dance into the museum, it is a good example how participatory folk dance goes beyond its preconceived limits and such a kind of collaboration is essential for further folk dance development. However, what advantages and challenges participatory folk dance meet in the new museology?

Nevertheless, what advantages and challenges participatory folk dance meet in the new museology?

First of all, we should be aware that folk dance or historical dance is considered as ‘authentic’ but it is not. Because every museum exhibition is created by someone and it is history fiction because it is not possible to represent all context in the museum: political, social-cultural, economic environment. Even this kind of information is available, we are affected by contemporary world and its’ aesthetics and in case, we do not evaluate same dance as people did it in the past. So, notion ‘authentic’ become tricky and vogues and the new museology suggests to avoid it.

Another important question lies in representation: who is the source community and how we represent them by folk dance? There we have one more fiction that dance represents community. However, new museology states that community can be represented only by community itself. Moreover, dance is just a toll to intrigue people for deeper research. Considering that museum in any case operates the power, museum curators should be aware of every folk dance selection: whose dance version, what historical period, which community will be represented.

Different audience: visitor, scholar, art lover or children has different needs and they may not want to participate in folk dance activity. Curators should take it into the consideration and modify this activity. As well, folk dance activity should be selected according to different age groups and sometimes gender.

Participatory folk dance in the museum has lots of benefits, however, the communication platform in Lithuanian context is the most important function. Daiva Citvarienė (2014) in her article ‘Šiuolaikinis muziejus ir jo bendruomenės’ (Eng. Contemporary museum and its communities) bring the Jewish museum example. Jewish community in Lithuanian still face anti-Semitism and the innovative Jewish social-cultural exposition creates the communication platform between Lithuanian and the Jewish community. In this case, Jewish participatory folk dance can bring vivid and positive connections between the two communities.


New museology seeks to shift the ownership of the museum artefacts and as well to rethink the long-standing ‘old’ museology. Source community and contact zone is useful concepts which analyse the community role in the museum. Moreover, this museum activity is criticised for ‘the healing social ‘diseases’’, however, in my personal opinion, museums should deal with these problems, which it face and this case, action is just positive reaction. 

Social dance is a powerful toll in this ‘old’ museum reconstruction movement, because it is volatile and does not agree with ‘ownership’ and ‘authentic’ notions. Meanwhile, participatory folk dance fits in the borders of the new museology but struggle with ‘nation’ concept and the ‘authenticity’. However, all these tricky concepts can be resolved creatively and enrich museum environment.


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