The first use of the term, the beginnings of ecomuseum, or ecomusée in French, was in 1971. Hughes de Varine and Georges Henri Rivière were the two developers and foundational writers on the ecomuseum concept. They devised the name ecomuseum for Robert Poujade, the French Minister for the Environment at that time. The green movement was very fashionable in France during the early 1970s. So the term ecomuseum was selected not for its aptness for which it names but for mostly political purposes. Rivière and de Varine each contributed their own concentrations to the concept’s development.
Hughes de Varine and Georges Henri Rivière
De Varine really championed for the democratization of museums and wanted to promote the role of the community. He typically worked within a more economic and political framework and agenda. In the late 1980s, after there had been considerable discussion of ecomuseums, de Varine presented four key objectives of the ecomuseum. First to be an object and data bank for the community. Second, serve as an observatory of change and help the community react to changes. Thirdly to be a focal point for gatherings, discussions, innovation, to be a laboratory for the community. Lastly to reveal the community and region to its visitors, be a showcase.
Rivière worked with the Regional Natural Parks of France and was interested in ethnographic work and rural material culture. Rivière published numerous writings on the ecomuseum concept throughout the 1970s and 1980s. Rivière gave three key variations to his ever evolving conceptualization of ecomuseum. Rivière’s first definition favored the ecological and environmental aspect of the concept. In his second definition, he shifted focus to the experimental nature of an ecomuseum and the community’s role. The third definition gave attention to the interpretation of local history and culture and the nature of a specific territory that had unconventional boundaries.
For the past two decades, one of the most recognizable writers on ecomuseum is Peter Davis, a professor of museology. Davis published Ecomuseums: A Sense of Place in 1999 and a second edition was released in 2011. The work presents a comprehensive historical and philosophical background of the ecomuseum concept as well as an overview of the current examples and developments.
Davis – two key aspects
According to Davis, there are two key aspects of the development of ecomuseum. The first is the concept’s association with the development of new museology. Networking, multidisciplinary displays, site museums, and community involvement were all characteristics of new museology. Ecomuseums and new museology enjoyed a paralleling and supportive development through the 1970s and 1980s.
The second aspect is found in the three types of museums that served as precursors to the ecomuseum. The first is the heimatmusuem that began in Germany in the nineteenth century but only gained significant momentum under the nationalist regime. The heimatmuseum celebrated various localities and strove for an attachment to the homeland. The second type of museum is the open air museum. The first one of these opened in Sweden and provided a very fun and entertaining environment for its visitors. Dances, music, demonstrations, and costumed guides were all features of this museum. Open air museums integrated recreation and learning. In the United States, open air museums took the form of the folk museum and became very popular during the 1950s. Folk museums are typically based around significant sites, focus on how people lived in the past, and seek to conserve buildings, technologies, and skills. The folk museum was unique in its ability to democratize, explore ordinary life, and highlight the local or regional. The third and final type of museum is the neighborhood museum. The Anacostia Neighborhood Museum, which opened in Washington DC in 1967, was the first of this museum type. It provided a focus for the community and served as a source of support and inspiration.
Today the number of ecomuseums is over 600 worldwide. France, Spain, Portugal and Italy are the hubs in Europe where there has been the greatest proliferation and achievements of and by ecomuseums. There is vast variation in the examples present across the globe. Variation in the definition of ecomuseum still remains. There is not a single strict definition of ecomuseum nor is there any one system of measure or evaluation for ecomuseums.