Meditations on mediation (part one)

Yesterday, I started this blogpost intending to ‘spend a moment pondering the meanings of ‘mediation”. Guess I should have foreseen that a moment wouldn’t cut it, and as I started writing, the complications of pinning down the meaning became obvious as I starting revisiting my sources and came across new references. I finally aborted the mission when I took a phonecall from a fellow ph.d. student who happened to be pondering the same question!, which of course led to an interesting conversation and yet another useful reference that he sent me. Thank you, Lasse!

So probably a single blogpost won’t cut it either, but that won’t stop me from addressing the issue now and then returning to it again when I’m older and wiser still.

As mentioned, the working title (! – I know it’s clunky, but decided that a neutral description was a better starting point, even though I’m a sucker for a pun, as the heading reveals) of my project is Mobile Mediation of Fashion by Museums. The thing is, it turns out to be everything but neutral.

When looking for a suitable translation for the Danish ‘formidling’ in the preparation of my proposal, I was at a bit of a loss. ‘Education’ was a definite no, as I was making a point out of focusing on an adult, ‘casual’ museum audience, seeking out cultural experiences, with, at most, a subconcious desire for self formation and identity building, but with no interest in (semi)formal education. ‘Communication’ seemed too all-encompasing, yet with some sort of marketing bias – if a museum were to have a department for ‘formidling’as well as a communication department (as some of them do), communication would be aimed at attracting the public, whereas formidling would focus on ‘opening up’ the stories and knowledge of the museum, and it is the latter that has my interest. ‘Dissemination’ seemed to me to be about spreading, rather than forming the message, let alone entering into a dialogue with the public, perhaps even with slightly ominous connotations of propaganda or cultural imperialism.

I’ve later realised that ‘Dissemination’ seems to be the standard choice of translation. In the English section of the Heritage Agency of Denmark website* Dissemination of knowledge is listed as an obligatory practice for museums under the Danish Museum Act, alongside collection, registration, preservation and research. Similarly, the Royal School of Library and Information Science, where I now work, chooses the title Cultural Dissemination for the Kulturformidling part of its master programme. So of course, this is the discourse that I am now part of, but also one that I must position myself in.

In the end, I turned to ICOM’s Key concepts of Museology where I found ‘Mediation’ described as equivalent to the German Vermittlung, i.e. the same as formidling. At first glance I still wasn’t happy with this term either, despite the obvious link to ‘media’ and ensuing potential for the aforementioned puns as well as more academic musings on the nature and affiliations of media and mediation. Reading the article won me over though, and after some discussion I even managed to convince my husband that this was indeed the term I was after.

A native English speaker, he can be quite precious about language, which is a true gift (if, at times, hard work X) in this sort of discussion. The thing is, that even if the predominantly French speaking academics in ICOM decide that ‘mediation’ is the correct English term for the French ‘médiation’, including the discourse represented by the term, this will not necessarily find its way into common parlance in English, where the connotation of mediation is more courtroom, less exhibition (i.e. used similarly to the Danish ‘mægling‘.)

Indeed, I haven’t come across the term very often in the museological literature I have studied so far, and I am not sure if I could use it in a discussion with my English peers without qualifying it, so even if neither my gut feeling nor the sensitivities of my Englishman of choice or even the Oxford English Dictionary constitutes a valid academic argument for favouring one term over another; it is still worth keeping in mind that the correct term (if such a thing could be established) is not necessarily the one that people subscribe to.

… but alas, time is running out again, and I must end for today, even though there is still a lot more that I have to say about this. To be continued… dun, dun, dun!

* Which is probably due a major reconstruction as the agency has just been restructured

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