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Interview with Clémence Mathieu, Director, International Carnival and Mask Museum, Belgium

Dana Andrew, Executive Director of ICOM UK, interviewed Clémence Mathieu, Director of the International Carnival and Mask Museum in Binche, Belgium.

 

Clémence Mathieu Photo (c) Frederic Raevens

Clémence Mathieu
Photo (c) Frederic Raevens

Would you tell us about the International Carnival and Mask Museum in Binche, Belgium.

The International Carnival and Mask Museum possess a collection which is unique of its kind and internationally recognized. With more than 10,000 ethnographic pieces, it has become a real research and documentation centre preserving masked traditions from all over the world.

Our collections are composed mostly of masks and costumes, which are used in a great diversity of rituals. It is the diversity of the mask’s functions that make it so interesting. Masked rituals are constantly evolving in order to adapt to society’s demands. This adaptation is a condition for their survival, and this is very important to show and explain in a museum such as our institution. It is one of the main reasons for collecting in our museum. Collecting is done in order to show the diversity of the human communities and their beliefs in spiritual or invisible forces. As the tangible testimony of an intangible tradition, the mask (and by extension, the costume) is definitely linked with the identity of the person wearing it but also, on a larger scale, with the identity of the community. In that sense, the ritual and the mask are universal, since they connect people to their roots and to the meaning of their presence on Earth. Hence the interest of learning how to preserve, collect and present these items in a better way in our museums.

Permanent exhibition 'Masks from all over the World'

‘Masks from all over the World’

The museum has two permanent sections. One is dedicated to ‘The masks from all over the world’ which invites the visitor on a captivating journey across the five continents. The other section is an ‘Interpretation Centre on the Carnival of Binche’, which opened in November 2018 and allows visitors to immerse themselves in the heart of this unique folklore recognized by UNESCO and to discover the carnival of Binche, its history, its actors, its customs and traditions by means of an immersive and multi-sensory experience.

Permanent exhibition: 'Interpretation Centre on the Carnival of Binche'

‘Interpretation Centre on the Carnival of Binche’

The link between carnivals and traditional masked rituals is made between the two sections, since European carnivals have to be considered as masked rituals which have very ancient pagan roots and are therefore comparable to the traditional masked rituals from Africa, Asia, America and Oceania.

Moreover, the museum shows two to three temporary exhibitions per year, allowing browsing various topics, mixing traditional and contemporary approaches. The museum also sometimes organises exhibitions abroad.

 

What does your role as the Director of the International Carnival and Mask Museum involve?

As the director/curator of the International Carnival and Mask Museum of Binche, I am responsible for the preservation and the development of our collections. This means that the collections have to be preserved on a day-to-day basis, and stored in the best possible conditions. This can be a challenge since the museum is located in an 18th-century building, which was previously a college.

The development of the collections concerns new acquisitions. Our research fields are the ethnology and the anthropology, two sciences which are deeply involved in the importance of the ethics of acquisitions. The way we acquire and present the collection pieces is crucial and has to be made in a way which respects the populations linked with those items. Since these objects are the symbols of the culture and the identity of some populations, it is very important to learn how to collect them, show them and explain their history in the most professional and durable way.

The scientific planning of the exhibitions is also part of my tasks, including the development of collaborations with other museums and researchers in the field of ethnology and anthropology. This is a very exciting part since it can lead to the creation of new exchanges, co-curated exhibitions, participation in conferences or workshops, editing catalogues etc.

The management of the team is also part of my role, and has to do with the day-to-day organisation of the museum, such as making team meetings, planning the work of each person, organising the budget of the museum, following the administrative process of the museum, etc.

 

What projects are you and your colleagues currently working on?

We are currently preparing an interactive visit of the new permanent section on the carnival of Binche, with, among others, a 360° movie.

We are also launching on 22 June 2019 an exhibition called ‘Happy Heads‘ presenting the work of two contemporary artists, Benoit+Bo. They are reinterpreting paper maché masks used traditionally in the lantern festival of Chinese New Year by taking pictures of people (from Belgium and other countries) in their private or professional context with those masks. The exhibition juxtaposes their works with our collections in such a way that a link is created between the past (the traditional ritual) and the present (the view of this ritual by contemporary artists).

We are also preparing an exhibition for October 2019 called ‘Ticuna. People from Amazonia’, on traditional Indian Ticuna people living in the Amazon in Brazil. This is the occasion for the museum to show an exceptional collection of about hundred pieces collected over the last 15 years, through a Belgian field ethnologist, Daniel de Vos, who created a very special relationship with these people. Thanks to his research, we can show and explain the mythology, beliefs and masked rituals of the Ticuna. Movies and pictures will complete the exhibition. One of the Ticuna will come for the opening of the exhibition and will deliver a speech on his community and the difficulties the Ticuna encounter to preserve their traditions in the actual context of the modernisation and the continuous fight they have to lead in order to preserve their territories.

 

In 2019, what challenges do you think the International Carnival and Mask Museum is facing? Is this very different from the challenges affecting the wider museum sector in Belgium?

Among others, the task of a museum is to exhibit and preserve its collections, material by their very nature. Nevertheless, when a whole intangible knowledge is added to these objects, it is necessary to wonder how the museum can paint a reliable and representative picture of it, if only it’s possible.

As the tangible testimony of an intangible tradition, the mask (and by extension, the costume) is definitely linked with the identity of the person wearing it but also, on a larger scale, with the identity of the community. In that sense, it might be very delicate to present in the best and most expressive way those pieces in the day-to-day museums and to reflect their context and history in a dynamic and clear way.

The museums in Belgium, and on a broader sense, everywhere else in the world encounter great challenges regarding their collections and they have to adapt themselves in the day-to-day world. The question about the museum’s role is a difficult matter. It is a matter of preservation? Contextualisation? Witnessing? Bringing to life? Making it accessible? We must ask ourselves if the museum is efficient as far as its message(s) and its publics are concerned. Do we have to allow museums to evolve? If yes, in what way?

 

What is your future vision for the museum?

Museums must be ready to change their methods and enlarge their functions in order to evolve with the changes in our societies.

I do believe that museums have to re-define themselves in order to continue to be alive. Therefore, we are organising many different activities on the sides of our exhibitions, in order to propose to the public that they discover the museum in a ludic and interactive way. I think that museums have to integrate new technologies, but a balance has to be found with the artefacts (the collections). Indeed, the real objects have to stay the main focal point of a museum, but new technologies can be a way to interest people and bring more information and more life to those objects. In the specific context of intangible heritage and rituals, it makes even more sense.

The museum has to be alive, through various activities, and to attract different kinds of public, from children to adults. One of the ways I found to ‘get the museum out of its walls’ is, for example, to bring some people from a specific ritual tradition somewhere else and let them make their own carnival or ritual in the museum and in the streets of the city. This leads to a real exchange between communities. We did it already with a group from Sardegna (Italy), and a group from Dunkerque (France) and it was a great success.

I also think that the integration of local communities in the museum’s life is crucial and that it can be made in different ways. For example, in the new section dedicated to the carnival of Binche, I proposed to the Binche communities involved in the carnival to bring us their photographic archives. We propose to display a selection of these archives on a tactile screen in the section. In this way, the content can be frequently renewed and the community feels involved in the museum.

I also think that it is very important to stay aware of what’s going on in other museums and other countries, in order to keep our mind open and be ready for new challenges and new collaborations.

 

ICOM UK would be pleased to connect any members with the International Carnival and Mask Museum in Binche, Belgium.  Email us at uk.icom.museum@gmail.com

Visit the museum’s website for more information http://museebinche.be/

ICOM UK