Monday, 28 July 2014

In circles

Nelly´s, Greek refugees from Asia Minor, 1925-27.

Two of my grandparents were born Ottoman subjects. My hometown, Ioannina, in the north west of Greece, had fallen to the Ottomans even before Constantinople, in 1430. Almost 500 years later, in 1913, it was liberated by the Greek Army and became part of the Greek State. Along the centuries, there had been a number of uprisings against Ottoman rule, but they were unsuccessful. They resulted in greater repression, which, in turn, fed the determination of the occupied.

My hometown had a strong multicultural background – Christian, Muslim and Jewish. I was born in 1970, too late to witness it, although its traces are found all around. My house today stands 200 metres away from either the muslim or jewish cemetary. Most muslims living on Greek territory had to abandon their homes and move to Turkey, a country they didn´t know, a place that meant nothing to them, following the Treaty of Lausanne in 1923. Orthodox Christians living in Turkey were forced to move to Greece. Friends and neighbours were separated for ever and I spent my childhood dreading the Turks. The last Muslim of Ioannina died in the 2000s, while the jewish community, almost totally annihilated during the Nazi occupation of Greece in World War II, numbers today about 50 people.

The first and last time I entered my town´s Synagogue - as it is almost always closed - was in 1993, for the commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the deportation of the Ioannina Jews to Auschwitz. The person who sat next to me that day quietly cried through the whole ceremony. It was at that moment, in my early 20s, that I realized that History is much more than facts and dates in my books, as usually taught at schools and even at universities. History is the people that made it and the people that live its consequences, both public figures and, especially, anonynous individuals.

Whenever I travel, I always visit the Jewish Museums or exhibitions on the Holocaust in various cities, when there is one. I´ve seen some really good ones (Imperial War Museum, London; the Dachau Concentration Camp Memorial Site, Munich; Jewish Historical Museum, Amsterdam; Jewish Museum, Vienna; The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, Washington), some not so good, in terms of museography, but nevertheless interesting because of the subject (Jewish Museum Berlin; Jewish Museum of Greece, Athens), while I really look forward to the opportunity of visiting some more, like the South African Jewish Museum in Cape Town. Through these visits I go back to the History of a People proud of their origins, who respect and preserve their traditions, no matter in which part of the world they live and, most of all, despite the persecutions they have suffered since... well, always.  I feel deep respect and admiration for them and I don´t seem to have enough of listening to the story again and again, both the good and bad parts.

Quiet often in these visits we are faced with the “Never again” lesson. This is, of course, one of the purposes of telling the story, the fact that History is repeated and that we need to learn from the past. The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum actually takes a step further from the “Never Again” statement. It actively invests in studying, denouncing and preventing genocide around the world. It´s that museum that helped me come to terms with my feeling small, powerless, insignificant and taught me that we can all do something to prevent genocide: learn more and share it with friends and family. It does not mention Palestine, though.

And this is an actually bigger lesson, the real lesson, for me. One that shows that the “Never Again” will happen - again and again and again - because once we are confronted with it, we start calculating. We calculate the pros and cons for us personally, who we should openly support, when we would better keep silent and neutral, when we should assume a reconciliatory position. This is exactly what many politicians and common citizens alike have been doing since the beginning of yet another Israeli assault on Gaza, one which has so far taken many – mainly civilian – lives, destroyed many homes, left terrrible marks on human beings. Like all previous assaults. When a carnage like this is taking place (even more, perpetuated by the regular army of a democratic state), the first thing we have to do (we, the West, defender of democracy and human rights) is not to discuss the origins of the conflict, the rights and wrongs of each side. The first thing to do is to clearly, inequivocally, loudly condemn the assault and demand an immediate end to the carnage. Then we may, and must, converse.

It hasn´t happened, though. Apparently, we don´t value human life equally, so all European countries in the United Nations Human Rights Council may abstain (all of them!) from the vote to open an enquiry regarding alleged violations of human rights in Gaza; apparently, some “never again” situations are justified, so our governments may continue supporting and selling arms to the Israeli government; apparently, each case is a case and everything depends, so there are some “never again” cases where we, common citizens, may reserve the right to be more “balanced” or neutral.

Apparently, we don´t learn from what History can teach us, basically, that occupying, humiliating, terrorizing a People has never kept the perpetrators in power for ever and, most of all, it has never brought peace.



Until September.

Monday, 14 July 2014

Curiosity killed the visitor

Art Museum of Estonia. One reads on the label: "Villu Jaanisoo, 1963 / Chair I - II, 2001. Motor tyres. Art Museum of Estonia". (Photo: Maria Vlachou)

Last Saturday I attended a small conference entitled “The audiences of MNAC” (National Museum of Contemporary Art – Museum of Chiado), on the occasion of the 20th anniversary of the reopening of the museum after the fire in Chiado (Lisbon). During the almost three hours of presentations and debate, in which little was said about the audiences, I sat next to a label that was related to the work of art exhibited on the wall. One could read:

“Mockba, 2004
Oil on canvas, oil on acrylliv sheet
VPV Collection”

I looked at it a number of times as I was listening about the history of the museum in the last 20 years told by its directors (very interesting details I was not aware of), its collection, the name it should have, its purpose, the building that should house it, etc. I looked at the label thinking that the work exhibited did not mean something to me either aesthetically or conceptually, but, curious in undestanding if there was something more to it, something I could not grasp, I would have liked to have something more (and more interesting) than those three lines. After all, the option to exhibit that work of art had a reason behind it and I would have liked to understand better.

It happens to me many times in museums. I am that kind of visitor who has got a number of diplomas, but does not pretend to know and to understand all languages and to be able to unveil every mystery. I am also that kind of visitor who feels self-confident, who doesn´t feel embarrassed (or stupid) in admitting that he doesn´t understand, that he would like to know more, to have more interesting and relevant information, in an undestandable language. I tend to think that the person who opted to put that label on the wall doesn´t understand (and perhaps is not interested in understanding) who I am and what I am looking for. Thus, I am that kind of minority visitor. Many others feel stupid and blame themselves for it. They don´t come back, they lose their interest, they retract, they don´t “dare” again, they never take their children.   

I was faced with this issue a number of times in the last weeks. When visiting Vhils´ exhibition at the Electricity Museum, I found in one of the rooms a label repeating six times “Laser-carved old wooden doors”, followed by the dimensions of the doors. What is the purpose of such a label? Why and who was it made for?



Another recent visit was at the Municipal Museum of Aljustrel, which tells the story of the mines in that area of Portugal. A story told in this way:

The translation is mine. Apologies for any gross mistakes.

Another exhibition that caught my attention was that of Helen Mirra at Culturgest. It´s an exhibition of strips made of fabric and painted in single colours. At first glance, they don´t mean much to me and this was the reason why I was very interested in getting more information. When I fould it in the brochure, it became clear to me that my curiosity was not going to be satisfied and that this exhibition was not for me.

Extract taken from the brochure.

In the various training courses I gave in the last two months, we discussed in length communication and language. At times the trainees, although they would recognize that the language used was not efficient and the story told was not that interesting, they would express incomprehension as to how this communication could take another form, one that would fulfill the museum´s or the exhibition´s objectives and at the same time meet the visitors´ needs, the majority being non-specialists.

The example of two Portuguese convents comes to mind: the Convent of Tomar and the Monastery of Alcobaça. They both aim to tell visitors the story of the building they find themselves in, nevertheless, the approach, the option of the story to be told is clealy distinct. Which serves the needs of the museum AND the visitors better?

Texts from panels at the Convent of Tomar.
Texts from panels at the Monastery of Alcobaça.

It´s not impossible to communicate differently, to say interesting things in a simple way. By simple, I don´t mean to say infantilising, turning banal, compromising the scientific quality of the information that is being shared. What is truly impossible is to continue listening to politically correct statements on how museums are for everyone, how they need to be relevant, welcoming, to create a feeling of belonging in people, while at the same time in practice we continue to despise and depreciate the needs of those same people, we continue to offend their intelligence. I believe it is perfectly legitimate to do an exhibition for experts, one of the many target audiences a museum or an exhinition is called to serve. But one must admit this, so that the rest of the audience may consider to be “warned”. To continue writing in order to communicate with specialists, while saying that the exhibition is for all increasingly indicates, in my point of view, a certain lack of honesty on behalf of those responsible. The theory is good, it is clear, we all know it. What does it take to put it into practice? And more, do we wish to put it in practice?



Still on this blog




Monday, 30 June 2014

"Either...or" or simply "and"?

Nicholas Penny, National Gallery director (photo taken from the Guardian) 
Two museum directors in London announced this month that they will be stepping down as soon as their successors are appointed: first, Sandy Nairne from the National Portrait Gallery and then Nicholas Penny from the National Gallery. Two museum directors who are thought to have been very successful in this job.

Although neither has specified some special professional reason for stepping down (at least, my Google search hasn´t brought something up), Guardian´s Jonathan Jones believes the reason might be the increasing pressure on London museum directors due to populist expectations, a media assumption that every exhibition must be a hit and a political belief that galleries should provide not just well-run collections, but entertainment and education for everyone. And he states:

“(…) Are we about to see a new technocrat generation of museum bosses who keep their heads down, put PR first and do all they can to meet goals defined by politicians and the press? (…) That kind of pressure doesn't exactly leave much room to experiment. Museums cannot just be machines for entertaining us. They should have a quieter side where the art comes first, the crowds second and a scholarly side that reveres someone like Penny. This looks depressingly like the end of individuality in the museum world.” (read the article)

It´s getting harder and harder for me to understand why museums are still and constantly faced with dichotomies: objects or people; scholars or technocrats; quietness and reverence or publicity and accessibility. Does it have to be like that? Isn´t it possible to strike a balance? Can´t they be ‘AND’?

When reading Elaine Heumann Gurian´s ”Civilizing the museum” a couple of years ago, I remember experiencing a great sense of relief when reaching the chapter “The importance of ‘and’”. She was commenting on the American Association of Museums report Excellence and Equity (a report that was distributed to each and every museum studies student in 1993 at UCL, where I was studying). One reads:

“(...) This report made a concerted attempt to accept the two major ideas proposed by factions within the field – equity and excellence – as equal and without priority.” Further down: “(...) for the museum field to go forward, we must do more than make political peace by linking words. We must believe in what we have written, namely that complex organizations must and should espouse the coexistance of more than one primary mission.” And also: “It has occurred to me that perhaps my whole career was metaphorically about ‘and’.”  

We must believe in what we have written, that´s one point. And the other point is probably that we must go ahead and do what we write or talk about. Because it´s not impossible to do it. Who´s the best person for the job? Can it be one person only? Would teams which involve professionals with different sensibilities manage to reach multiple objectives in a more balanced way? Are we trying to set up this kind of teams? Is everyone heard equally?

“Publicity and accessibility are everything”, Jonathan Jones writes in a negatively critical tone in his article. Publicity might not be everything, but accessibility certainly is. Museums are for anyone who might be interested in them, but not all people approach their contents with the same level of knowledge or interest and with the same kind of needs. It´s a hard job, indeed, but, should museums wish to fulfill their mission, they need to have a quieter side and they need to have a celebration side. They need to please those who know and they need to enchant those who don´t know as much or who know nothing. It was as early as 1853 that British naturalist Edward Forbes wrote: “Curators may be prodigies of learning and yet unfit for their posts if they don´t know anything about pedagogy, if they are not equipped to teach people who know nothing.” Those people matter too. Those people might matter even more.

As I write about these dichotomies, one more need emerges for me as a professional, but as a citizen too. I would like to hear the voices of those responsible for managing our museums (and cultural organizations in general) regarding these issues. I would like to hear clear statements, I woud like to feel there is a vision behind them. I would like to know on what kind of plan I may base my criticism. Jonathan Jones is concerned about technocrats who keep their heads down, I am concerned about directors (museum, theatre, orchestra, library directors) who keep their mouths shut. I was in a debate some time ago where someone said “Fortunately, I was never asked to take up positions of directorship and that means I have always been able to say what I think.” Is this fortunate? Isn´t it profoundly worrying?

There is no doubt that there is a great difficulty in dealing with managers or directors with an opinion. In this kind of democracy of ours, someone who takes a certain position is expected to show a kind of ‘loyalty’ that stops him/her from publicly sharing their views (especially when contrary to a government´s positions). I am not defending that each and every issue, each and every disagreement, should be dealt with in public. Nevertheless, there are issues that concern us all. When the State appoints certain people to certain positions, I would like to know what´s expected of them. Once those certain people accept the job, I would like to know what they aim to do and how they plan to go about reaching the objectives. And if they feel that they are not given the conditions to do their job well or if they don´t feel they are up to what´s expected of them, I wish to know about that too. When two museum directors (in London or elsewhere) announce within two weeks from each other that they are leaving, I would like to understand why. When other museum directors (in London or elswhere), keep on staying despite the state of the affairs, I would also like to understand what´s keeping them.

Monday, 16 June 2014

Old friends, new friends

Seattle Symphony Orchestra with Sir Mix-a-Lot.
Some cultural organizations are interested in evaluating their programming and the ways they package and prmote it, aiming at diversifying their audiences. On the one hand, this is a necessary step towards accomplishing their mission. On the other hand, it is also a question of survival: how long will they exist for if they don´t manage to renew their relationship with people?

When the issue is the diversification of audiences, a certain concern usually emerges: and what if, by trying to establish a relationship with new people, we alienate our old friends, those who have followed and supported us for a long time?

When this question arises, two examples come to mind.

Starting in the US, and now also in Britain and Australia, theatres promote the so-called “relaxed sessions”. They were first introduced to allow families with autistic children to enjoy a play together, as a family. Lights and sound are regulated, absolute silence is not required, people are allowed to leave the room in the middle of the play. Small adaptations which ultimately make these sessions accessible also for parents with younger children, people with mental disabilities and their carers, people who are new to a space or art form, etc. Relaxed sessions are clearly advertised, not only with the aim to promote the offer, but also to inform other people that these sessions will present slight changes to the usual presentations. Thus, the latter may choose to attend them or opt for another day.

The issue is somehow the same when it comes to popular museums or blockbuster exhibitions which attract large number of audiences, many people being first comers. Queues, lots of people in front of the artworks, photos being taken, loud conversations, a constant buzz. Not exactly some museum lovers´ cup of tea. What to do? Apart from controlling the number of visitors through the online issuing of tickets for specific time slots, maybe also let people know when things might be calmer, allowing for a different kind of experience? Like early in the morning and, especially, late in the afternoon; during late night openings; in some cases, at lunch time; in the middle of the week; on beautiful days rather than rainy days? A number of museums and travel guides are already giving this kind of tips.

I guess the real issue here is: is there only one way, some people´s way, of enjoying an exhibition, a play, a concert? Is there a ‘correct way’ of doing it? Does this offer belong only to a specific kind of audience? Are we really sending old friends away by trying to make new ones?

I would like to stress at this point that I am not suggesting altering an organization´s mission or product in order to establish new relationships. A different product would mean a different organization, a different mission and a different relationship, not the one we are concerned about. This means – in order to give a recent example - that when the Seattle Symphony Orchestra boasts of holding a unique place in the world of symphonic music since 1903, its concert with Sir Mix-a-Lot, altough it seems to have been fun, does nothing special towards fostering a relationship with new people for the love, understanding and enjoyment of symphonic music. The orchestra is simply moving into a different territory in order to bring more (and different) people in - although we have to take into consideration the fact that the lady who seems to have enjoyed the concert the most declared that she was thinking of returning and had got the orchestra´s schedule – she will return for what, though?) - read the article in the New York Times.


The cultural offer is not the property of certain audiences, does not belong to a restricted number of people. It belongs to everyone interested and also to everyone that could be interested but hasn´t had the chance to taste it. Thus, I believe that cultural organizations can and should provide for more than one type of audience and by this I mean that they can look for different ways of presenting a specific product. Sometimes, it might not be possible to do this simultaneously, pleasing everyone at the same time; but it´s possible to do it separately so that everyone may find what they are looking for. Other times, it might bring together old and new friends, allowing each side to possibly discover new aspects of what they thought was known to them.


More on this blog:




Monday, 26 May 2014

Is it sad when a museum closes? Why?

Toy Museum, Sintra, Portugal
About a year and a half ago, my Australian colleague Rebecca Lamoin wrote in this blog about the Queensland Performing Arts Centre´s effort to understand what was the institution´s public value. Crucial questions were asked: What is the most important thing we deliver to our community? Why does our community love us? What people in our city would miss if we weren’t here anymore?

There are a number of cultural institutions around the world collecting data (more than quantitative data) that may help them define and prove their importance in people´s lives. Why? Because it might not be obvious to everyone, especially tax payers and political decision makers. It would make sense, though, even if it was just an internal mental exercise to undertake such an assessment. It´s worth taking a moment from time to time and evaluating the success factors of our projects and the relevance of our offer for the people we aim and are supposed to serve.

These thoughts came back once the news broke of a possible closure of the Toy Museum in Sintra (greater Lisbon Area). It seems that the museum is no longer sustainable, due to cuts in State funding and a sharp decrease in school and family visits. Culture professionals were quick to react. “It´s a shame”; “It´s sad”; “A tragedy”; “A misery”; “My favourite museum”. And every time I was reading a statement like that, I was asking myself: “Why?”. Why is it a shame? Why is it sad? Why is it a tragedy? Why is this someone´s favourite museum? What lies behind this kind of statements? What is their substance? Who knows? Does the museum and the foundation running it know?

But these were not the only questions in my mind. I would be also interested to know what normal visitors – not just culture professionals – think of the possible closure. How many times have they visited this particular museum? Why do they value it? What will they miss if it does eventually close? And beyond museum visitors, what does the population of Sintra think and feel regarding the closure of a museum in the town centre? Are they worried? Are they upset? Are they ready to fight for it and demand support from the municipality and the State?

Questions are also raised regarding the museum´s management. How long has this been going on? Did the Foundation take into consideration the changing - and rather hostile - political and economic context in which it is operating? What kind of measures has it taken so far? What is their plan B?

I haven´t found answers to these questions so far in public forums. I only know of a public petition on an online platform which, at the time I am writing these lines, has got approximately 2600 signatures. The text focuses on the collection and quotes only the collector, for whom, naturally, the objects are of great importance. It´s really a statement in the first person singular. The photo illustrating the petition shows an empty museum with series of objects behind glass, reaching almost the ceiling. I was left wondering how someone could have thought that this - quoting exclusively the collector and showing an empty museum - is the right approach at such a difficult moment. An approach that might convince those who know and, especially, those who don´t know the museum of its value and importance.

The Toy Museum is not an isolated case, unfortunately, in a country whose government does not consider culture to be a priority. A couple of years ago, the case of the Cork Museum in Silves (South Portugal) was handled in much the same way. A museum that once won the Micheletti Award of the European Museum Forum (an award for innovative museums in the world of industry, science and technics), ended up closing and I have no information regarding the destiny of its collection. Other projects, also in the performing arts field, are struggling or even disappearing. I suppose my ultimate question is “What are culture managers in this country doing about this?”. There must be more than “Such a shame” and “Such a pity” statements, there must be more than petitions. This is simply not enough, our organizations deserve more from us. People in this country deserve more from us.


More on this blog

Monday, 12 May 2014

Notes of despair


Cannabis was legalised in the State of Colorado in 2012 and the first shops commercializing it opened in the beginning of this year. According to The Independent, more than half of Colorado voters believe legalizing recreational marijuana has been good for the state. At the same time, the newspaper reports that the authorities have got serious concerns due to the consumption of inappropriate dosages, either by inexperience or confusion. A college student died last month when he jumped from his balcony, after consuming six times the recommended dosage.

In the middle of all this, the Colorado Symphony Orchestra (CSO) has announced their brand new “Classical Cannabis: the high note series”. This is a series of concerts at the Red Rocks Amphitheatre, where patrons will be allowed to consume cannabis. Not in their seats and during the concerts, though, but in a separate area. And it´ll be a BYOC policy (meaning, a “Bring Your Own Cannabis”). And people are also advised not to drive, “due to the nature of the event”, but to use alternative ways of transport. Actually, it is worth reading the disclaimer on the orchestra´s website:

"Attendees of the event must be at least 21 years of age and must read and agree to the Event Disclaimer. The purchaser, holder and/or user of this reservation acknowledges that this event is being held on private property and, only individuals with paid reservations may enter. Participant understands that attendees may use marijuana at this event, as is their right under Colorado law. Cannabis will not be sold at the event, however, and the price of the reservation is entirely unrelated to whether one chooses to use cannabis or not. Those who choose to use cannabis assume any and all risk associated with such use. Information about the health effects of marijuana are available on the State of Colorado website. Participants are advised that it remains illegal under Colorado law to drive while under the influence of marijuana. Participant hereby agrees to release, hold harmless, and indemnify the Colorado Symphony Orchestra (CSO) and their owners, partners, employees, directors, officers, agents, affiliates and related entities from any and all claims by or on behalf of Participant arising directly or indirectly out of Participant’s use of THC and premises. This release includes claims and liabilities arising from any cause whatsoever, including, but not limited to, negligence on the part of CSO. This release is effective on the date Participant purchases the event reservation.”

Red Rocks Amphitheater
Why would an orchestra want to do this, I kept asking myself as I was reading all this. Well, according to its executive director, “Part of our goal is to bring in a younger audience and a more diverse audience, and I would suggest that the patrons of the cannabis industry are both younger and more diverse than the patrons of the symphony orchestra”.

Well.... didn´t this younger and diverse audience go the CSO´s concerts before because they couldn´t consume marijuana? Did they love the music but kept away from it because they couldn´t BTOC – Bring Their Own Cannabis? Was this the barrier?

The sponsors of the series are – surprise, surprise – corporations related to the cannabis industry. The Huffington Post interviewed two of them:

Richard Yost of Ideal 420 Soil, a New Hampshire company that sells soil and other cultivation products to marijuana growers, sees sponsoring the concerts as a chance to link his company to one of the best orchestras in the nation and to make the point that pot consumers can be clean-cut and sophisticated. ‘You can be intelligent and savvy and enjoy cannabis as well,’ said Yost, adding that he plays Mozart while he works on business plans.

Another sponsor, Jan Cole, said her Boulder-based pot retailer The Farm has helped fund arts events in her hometown and a concert by Ziggy Marley in Denver. She said she hoped for a long-term association with the symphony, because its audience was ‘our crowd ... people who like art and music and alternative products.’"

I believe we get to know a person (or an institution) better in moments of crisis. By looking at their values, their priorities, the way they make decisions, the kind of decisions they make, the way they keep (or not) focused on their mission. I find more honesty in the words of the sponsors than in those of the CSO executive director’s. Through its association to the orchestra, the cannabis industry is looking for prestige and a more sophisticated look. Through it´s association to the industry the orchestra is looking for.... desperately needed money. They might actually get the younger and diverse audiences too. This is an event that might very well attract them, this is a happening. But will it be more than a happening? Will they come back? Will the CSO manage to keep them on board? I have serious doubts about that, for two reasons: because happenings like this have no long-term effects if there is not a long-term plan that will aim at eliminating barriers, the real ones, and establishing and nurturing a relationship with people; but also, in this case, because the CSO is not being honest regarding its objectives and “the younger and diverse audiences” know it.



More on this blog







Monday, 28 April 2014

Show me the people


I often think that panels and labels in art or history museums fail to convey passion, marvel, joy, pride, sadness, despair, enthusiasm; to talk to people about other people; to create empathy, the need to read more, to find out more. The language is usually dry, academic, factual, incomprehensible – I am sure – to a number (perhaps the majority?) of museum visitors.

These thoughts came back to me while visiting the Benfica Museum in Lisbon. It’s the city´s newest museum, it opened its doors in July 2013 and has had almost 43.000 visitors so far (entry is not free, adults have to pay €10,00). Its aim is to tell the story of the club and its different sports - football being, of course, the one overshadowing every other.


There are lots of things to say about the museum, but I would like to concentrate on the message and feeling it conveys through written communication and the connections it creates to people.

This is clearly a museum for and about people. A museum about passions. It aims to tell a story in a way people, all kinds of people, will understand it and feel related to it and involved in it. With art or history museums in mind, I would say that the option here is not to simply narrate facts or to explain techniques. The option is to reinforce the club’s identity – by presentings its values, objectives, achievements, contribution to the country as a whole and to individual lives.

(joining of two photos)
When it comes to people, one finds in this museum both the ‘artists’ (football players, other athletes, coaches) and those who enjoy the ‘art’ (famous people and anonymous members and fans). Everyone´s thoughts and feelings have a place on the museum’s walls, nobody is more important than someone else. Thus, we find an installation with the faces of club members, as well as a special setting quoting writers, singers, actors and other public figures who support the club.

(joining of two photos)


“It’s different, it’s football”, you might say. “They’ve got money, it makes a whole lot of a difference”, you might say.

Starting from the latter, it´s not about money. It´s about attitude. Money may allow a museum like the Benfica Museum to use a number of audiovisuals and other expensive tricks that enhance the experience. But all museums, no matter how much money they’ve got, have panels and labels (and leaflets and websites). The language they use, the story they choose to tell, the people they address are options that have got nothing to do with money.



Does football appeal to more people than art or history or archaeology? At a first glance, maybe, yes. But if we give it a second thought, maybe art and history and archaeolgy have a big appeal too, but not when presented in museums... Maybe when a friend tells us a story and raises our curiosity; when we watch a report or documentary on television; when we read a piece of news on the Internet or Facebook. In other words, when we find ourselves in a comfortable context where someone is talking to us in a language we understand , shares his/her knowledge and enthusiasm about a subject wishing to communicate with us,  puts feeling into the narrative, makes it a normal conversation among people.



Can´t museums talk and write about art and history and archaeology and many other subjects conveying passion, marvel, joy, pride, sadness, despair, enthusiasm? Can’t they talk and write to people about other people? Can´t they create empathy, the need to read more, to find out more? I believe they do, some do, but many others choose not to. The need to impress and get the approval of our peers becomes in many cases the priority when making this kind of decisions. We say “We are here for everyone, museums are for people”, but the practice does not confirm the rhetoric.



The difference between the Benfica Museum and many other museums I´ve visited is that it stays true to its mission. It´s a museum for and about people and this is not just rhetoric, it’s something one may confirm in every option (more or less successful; more or less necessary) of telling the story. In the Benfica Museum I felt the people, I felt their passions, their pride, their anguish, their sadness, their joy. And that ended up keeping me in the museum much longer than I had initially expected.

More on this blog