Reflections on the WeberWorldCafé
Wild Thinking, Coffee and Notes on Table Cloths
It is the basic idea of the WeberWorldCafé to start an open conversation. The goal is to have a small group of people engage in many hierarchy-free, lively debates. Especially in the academic world, the hierarchy-free part is not easy – particularly in some countries in Europe, e.g. France and Germany, where teaching takes place in lectures or courses with many participants and where people are used to address each other formally. This is something we tried to counteract from the beginning by telling the participants right at the outset that the WeberWorldCafé is a place where every opinion or thought is important and should be expressed on equal terms. And everyone is allowed – or even forced – to ask questions as those are the very conditions for the events.
The international background of table hosts and participants helps to lower inhibitions to speak freely. Many come from different academic cultures, and everyone is basically a stranger – regarding the table topic, the format, the language spoken or to the other participants. In my experience, however, people tend to participate more enthusiastically when they feel comfortable. This is why we usually offer coffee and refreshments, cake and canapés.
One important aspect of the WeberWorldCafé is the opportunity to write on the table cloths. This is supposed to help you structure your own thoughts, keep questions in mind – and it also enables the following table guests to comprehend and reflect on what has already been discussed at this table in previous rounds. As you can see (click on the images to enlarge them) many have taken this opportunity to leave messages, statements, quotes and questions to the participants in the following rounds. Questions such as “Who gets to own the dinosaur?” or bold statements like “Curating is irrelevant” help to trigger new discussions. What is the story behind the dinosaur? Why is curating irrelevant – why is it not? By adding your own thoughts and statements to the notes that are already there you can create a network of ideas. It is not about finding answers or starting a discussion since you will not return to the same table twice. It is about giving impulses for the following discussions and helping you to connect the dots. When the event is over you can walk around and look at all the notes. Maybe they will mention some new aspects that did not come up in the discussions you joined, maybe they took up the same or similar ideas and developed the argument further. Interestingly, it is later often tough to match the cloths to their tables of origin, since the discussions, despite being conducted separately, tend to intersect and exhibit common themes and issues.
Different types of writing and different colors on the tables map the development of the discussions. They also demonstrate the gradually processing quality of the WeberWorldCafé. You “travel” from table to table. As you can see, some of the notes are indeed aphorisms, but most of them are based on the discussions. You might not be able to comprehend the whole event in its entirety through the notes on the table cloths, but you can get a good impression, especially of the event’s dynamics. The discussion about the dinosaur can also be connected to the question of looted artworks as well as the question if you really do need the original or if displaying a copy is just as good – this way, an object can remain in its homeland and at the same time travel the world and act as a cultural ambassador. The issue of prestige is connected to the desire for and hence value of the object which then trigger discussions about monetary value and whether the demand that museums generate help facilitate looting and smuggle.
“Museum, Power, and Identity” was our third WeberWorldCafé. We might get more and more experienced, but the WeberWorldCafé will always remain an experiment. For one, can never define the table groups before, it is impossible to anticipate the development of the discussions. With participants from different disciplines and areas the discussions can always take unforeseen turns. We cannot and we should not try to control them. The format will be new to most of the table hosts and many participants in the coming years but everyone seems eager to get a taste of it. And to us it is always new because we never know the exact outcome. But that is what makes it so much fun!