Sunday, 24 May 2015

Post scriptum

In the week of 11 May, my inbox was full of invitations for the celebration of the European Museum Night and International Day of Museums. On Facebook, the intensity was not lesser, with museums and their tutelages reminding us that all roads would lead to a museum. A great party atmosphere, an enormous offer all over the country, which was also translated into numbers: according to the media, there were 140 activities on the occasion of the European Museum Night (16 May) and 430 activities on International Museum Day (18 May) in 70 different Portuguese museums. The truth is that few of the activities proposed responded to ICOM’s challenge to reflect on “Museums for a sustainable society” (which left me thinking how museums actually perceive this yearly challenge and if it has any impact whatsoever on their practices – on Museum Day and in the rest of the year). Having said this, the richness and intensity of the programme, as well as the celebratory mood, could make one believe that the museum sector in Portugal shows clear signs of prosperity. Thus, news on 18 May of some museum staff going on strike, contesting the reduction in the payment of overtime, as well as the fact that they were obliged to work on a Monday (the day intended for weekly rest), were something of a marginal note  (watch the TV report)

Post scriptum

In the beginning of 2015, one of David Fleming’s first tweets was: “Hope museums find their voice in 2015 in alerting the public to the impacts of austerity on what we are able to do compared with before.” It was an alert that stayed with me, even more so, because David is the Director of National Museums Liverpool and one must admit that we are not very used to national museum directors, in this and other countries, being so outspoken publicly and clearly showing that his loyalty lies first of all with his museum and the responsibilities it has with the citizens and not with the governement of any given time.

More recently, Rebecca Atkinson-Lord, a British Theatre Director and Producer, suggested in the Guardian that arts organisations need a code of practice during austerity, must start talking publicly about cuts and let the damage show.

“Almost every organisation is downsizing its activities, streamlining, re-evaluating business models and searching down the back of the sofa for loose change. Right now, even the most robustly funded organisations are propped up by the hours of unpaid work their staff put in to serve and support the art they love. Politicians are fond of calling out employers who exploit unpaid workers, but it’s time for them to realise that the biggest exploitation of our sector’s goodwill is the government itself. The British arts and culture sector, a world leader and significant source of revenue from leisure and tourism spending, is built on an exploitative foundation of unpaid labour – that we all willingly collude in rather than sacrifice the arts ecology we love.” 

This is a powerful statement and one that doesn’t relate solely to the British cultural sector. It brought two things to my mind:

During the conference The Role of Culture, organized last April by the Secretary of State for Culture, more than one colleagues from the performing arts field - a field largely chatacterized by intermittent work - confessed that, given the actual working conditions, they feel utterly exausted and they keep asking themselves if it is worth carrying on or if they should simply give up, stop. How and why should one carry on, when all too often it is suggested to them that they offer their work for free or get paid only from ticket sales revenue; when one, in order to put up a play, must do absolutely everything: production, promotion, stagehand work, cleaning, selling the tickets, as well as rehearsing and interpreting....

No similar stories were shared by those working in the museum sector... And yet, we all know that if most museums are carrying on at this moment, it is because, the more the government cuts, the more museum staff invest: they invest their time, their expertise, they do extra hours for which they are not paid for and they even buy material needed by the museum with their own money or bake cakes and prepare coffee at home when the museum cannot spend money on coffee breaks in the organization of conferences or seminars.

So one wonders: what does it take for one to say “Enough!”? What does it take to acknowledge and let society know that this sector is sustained (barely sustained) thanks to the sacrifice, personal investment and exploitation of those working in it? Has Portuguese society felt the brutal effects of cuts in the cultural sector? Will the governement (this one or the next) will ever take responsibility in giving this sector the conditions to function adequately, if things are still happening, if everything goes on as if nothing changed?

And one last note: it’s an illusion to think that things do actually go on... No matter how much effort one puts, many of the activities and events proposed end up being a repetition of what has happened a number of times before, lacking originality, excitment or relevance. Planning and tasks that need expert involvement are carried out by people who do a bit of everything and the best they can. Sadly, this is not good enough. It’s not good enough for the professionals in the field and it is not good enough for the society this sector aims to serve. We all deserve better. In order to get what we deserve, though, it is urgent to stop collaborating in our own exploitation and the downgrading of the services offered by this sector to the society. We cannot be co-responsible for the current state of things neither for their perpetuation and worsening.

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Saturday, 16 May 2015

"Ganesh versus the Third Reich" and the question that was left for next time

Photo: Jeff Busby
It’s rare these days a play that stays with us. A play that occupies our thoughts for hours and days after leaving the theatre. A play we wish to discuss with others. A play we wish to see again, looking for more, looking for everything we know we missed the first time. “Ganesh versus the Third Reich”, by the Australian Back to Back Theatre (presented at Culturgest on 14 and 15 May), is a play that did this for me.

I was very happy to be able to see a performance by Back to Back Theatre in Lisbon, because they’re one of the very few companies that have managed to turn disability into a side-issue, not the main issue, and to place their productions on different stages around the world not as the minor work of intellectually disabled actors, but simply as interesting, challenging and exciting art.

The story in “Ganesh versus the Third Reich” – one of the stories - is that of Indian elephant-headed god Ganesh, travelling through Nazi Germany to reclaim the swastika, an ancient Hindu symbol. The other story is that of the company itself, a kind of autobiography, a place where reality and fiction get mixed and where they share with us their creative process - the result both of internal questioning, as well as of external challenges and criticism. Both are stories of power: the power exercised by a fascist regime over its citizens (and especially, in this case, disabeld citizens) and the power of ‘normal’ people over ‘disabled’ people (in this case, of a non-disabled theatre director over intellectually disabled actors).

Reading the programme before the play started, I realized that the company struggled with the issue of cultural appropriation and, at a first, they had decided that they couldn´t do this show.  Can Australian actors, who are neither Hindu nor Jewish, create and perform a story around a Hindu god and the Holocaust? Do they have the right to? Eventually, one reads in the programme, their way of thinking changed and the attempted self-censorship became the main argument to do the show. Things became even clearer when the company visited a building in Linz, Austria, that used to house a hospice for the intellectually disabled, people who, after the annexation of Austria, were exterminated by the Nazis. “If we couldn’t do this play, then who could?”, director Bruce Gladwin told us in a conversation after the show.

Photo: Candy Welz
At the same time, in the parallel story of the people involved in the construction of the play, many more issues come up. What is intelligence? Who’s considered disabled? Do the actors understand what they are doing? Can they distinguish reality from fiction? Is this something they want to do? Are they really involved? Is this ethical? Issues integrated in the story, but which are also part of the questioning the company promotes and the criticism it faces. This questioning is further intensified by the character of the manipulating director, the only one performed by a non-disabled actor. His role, intentions and ethical standards are openly questioned by one of the members of the cast. It’s obvious that he thinks he’s dealing with ‘lesser’ people. His abusive attitude may be subtle (for instance, when he softly asks one of the actors: “Have you got the mind of a goldfish?”) or open and out of control (when he attacks the actor who doesn’t understand the logic behind what he’s asking him to do or who simply doesn’t want to do what he’s told). The director’s physical appearance does not seem to be irrelevant or a mere chance in this context: aryan-looking, constantly changing clothes on stage and exhibiting his well-trained body, accentuating the contrast with the bodies of the other actors, challenging our perceptions of power, ability, beauty. In the end, it is those actors that unite and become stronger together, able to control and expel the director; we see the beauty in their solidariety towards the fellow actor verbally and physically abused.

Photo taken from the website of Back to Back Theatre
And finally, a challenge directly addressed to the audience: why are we there? What have we come to see? A freak show? Freak porn? It is the director who looks at supposedly empty seats asking these questions (and we are left thinking: “Are we supposed to answer?”). He believes that disability sells, there is a market for it. For him, Mark, the actor with the “mind of a goldfish”, is the most valuable / expensive person on stage: he’s obviously disabled, he’s the big attraction and, at the same time, he’s got the shortest role, the one he can handle.

I was puzzled with the fact that intellectual disabilty and all this questioning regarding the ethics around the work of the company had such a prominent place in the play. I hadn´t expected it, considering the reputation of Back to Back Theatre. After all, isn’t the whole purpose taking people’s mind away from the disabilty and ‘simply’ inviting them to see a play with professional actors? Bruce Gladwin explained, in the conversation that took place after the show, that this is not an issue that comes up in every production, but that it is a relevant issue in this specific story.

Photo: Candy Welz
It is shows of the quality of questioning and production of “Ganesh versus the Third Reich” that can actually have an impact on our mentality and stereotypical thinking regarding disability, either they openly discuss it in the script or not. It takes time and a number of close encounters, like this one, before we all get to feel more comfortable in dealing with disability and embracing it as a different state of normality. When the actors were asked to talk to us about their time in the company, I couldn’t understand what Mark Deans, an actor with Down Syndrom, answered. My natural reaction would have been to ask if his colleagues, who spend time with him and understand him better, could help us also understand what his answer was (it’s funny that this also happens in the play, when the director seeks more than once help to confirm what one or other actor has told him…). I had a quick look around the room and realized that, if I did such a thing, it would have been considered offensive to Mark. Everyone listened to his answer, without understanding, and stayed quiet. Maybe next time....

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Monday, 11 May 2015

One good idea, two responses and some lessons

It’s 125 years since Vincent Van Gogh’s death. Starting May 3 and for 125 days, the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam will be answering 125 questions regarding the painter, his life and his work. The museum invites anyone interested to ask a question to send it through their website and a page especifically created to present the results of this Q&A (watch the promotional video and visit the webpage).

The first 8 questions have been answered and I find myself eagerly waiting to see what comes next. It strickes me how simple the basic idea behind the project is and what a wealth of knowledge it’ll help put together: not only with regards to Vincent Van Gogh, but also, and equally importantly, with regards to the Van Gogh Museum’s visitors (both physical and virtual), their interests, existing knowledge and queries and the museum’s current and future response towards them.

Another thing we must mention here is that this is not an isolated “good idea”. It falls into the museum’s larger policy of establishing a relationship with people of different backgrounds, based on the clear mission of making “the work of Vincent van Gogh and the art of his time accessible for as many people as possible, with the goal to enrich and inspire them”.

This was also the challenge given to webdesigners who worked on the museum’s new website, presented in the end of last year. David van Zeggeren, of Fabrique, wrote in an article published in the Guardian, that they were precisely asked to develop a website that would support the mission of the museum. How did they do it? By creating two distinct areas: Visit the museum and Meet Vincent. “We had to ensure it was easy for visitors to plan their visit, but also tempt them with inspiring stories about the artist. (...) With this “Meet Vincent” concept, the team had to make not only the collection (and thus the museum) accessible, but also the artist. (...) Each story has been specially written and designed for the website and offers new approaches to the work of the artist and his contemporaries.”

Answering people’s particular questions is also the simple basis behind the Brooklyn Museum’s Ask App, which I mentioned in my last post. Driven by its mission, to act as a bridge between the rich artistic heritage of world cultures, as embodied in its collections, and the unique experience of each visitor”, the Brooklyn Museum is looking to change (improve) the visitor experience from entry to exit. The Ask App has involved for more than a year now web, interpretation and curatorial staff and it’ll be launched in June. All parts of the process have been generously shared by members of the team on the museum blog, for anyone interested to learn along them. This is a more sophisticated answer to the need to engage with people in a more personalized and meaningful way. I find it truly amazing, as it also involves Location Aware Technology, which is used to tell the staff answering questions which gallery a visitor is standing in and what works of art are nearby, giving them the opportunity to give a more complete answer and guide the visitor around. Every step of the development of the app is being evaluated and sometimes there are simple and practical consequences, such as rethinking a label, since visitors ask the same question about a specific work of art.

The Brooklyn Museum Ask App dashboard (image taken from the Brooklyn Museum blog)
Despite the level of sophistication of the two projects being quite different, their common basis – answering people’s questions – made me bring them together is this post. I believe there are some clear lessons one can gather from both:

Everything starts with a clear mission: projects are not being developed simply because someone had an idea that seemed good or because a commemoration is coming up, but because they help the museum fulfill its mission. Really, every idea for a project should be tested against the mission. How often do we do this exercise?

The right people must be involved: this probably sounds as a luxury in countries struggling with severe cuts and overworked members of staff doing a bit of everything. But, if we wish to be relevant and part of people’s lives, a time comes when priorities need to be set straight and clearly and the objective must be something more than “OK” iniciatives and “OK” results - even if we insist on presenting them as “extraordinary”. How soon can we start working on this?

Finally, evaluation: a clear mission and clear objectives allow for clear evaluation indicators to be set, so that we are able to monitor if things are developing according to plan and make the necessary changes. Can we honestly say that the number of exhibitions presented, the number of activities proposed and the number of people who attended are good enough indicators when we present our reports at the end of the year? What are they telling us – they, alone - about the quality and impact of our work, in relation to the objectives initially set?

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Monday, 27 April 2015

Museum Next starts here

Christian Lachel, BRC Imagination Arts (Photo: Maria Vlachou)
It seems to me that the three words that were mostly heard at the 2015 MuseumNext conference were: emotion, stories, engagement. Words that clearly mark the change that has been taking place in museum attitude, aiming to establish, with the help of their collections, a better, more relevant and meaningful relationship with people - more people, different people, common people.

A presentation that was wholly dedicated to this subject was “Emotionalizing the Museum”, by Christian Lachel of BRC Imagination Arts. “Does the experience transform your guests and compel them to share it with others?”, Christian asked. And this is probably the right question to ask. Although the transformation we all so much desire to make happen might take time to be consciously acknowledged by individuals (if it is acknowledged at all), the compelling wish to share with others is a more immediate indicator of the occurance of a meaningful encounter. And the starting point is people’s heart, acoording to Christian. The process of creating an engaging experience is one from the inside to the outside and not vice-versa. One that aims to involve people through a meaningful story, looking then for the right tools and creating the appropriate physical environment for the encounter.

Christian Lachel, BRC Imagination Arts (Photo: Maria Vlachou)
Another issue that repeatedly came up was that of digital vs physical. At the same time that museums are racing to embrace the new digital tools and platforms in order to create more engaging and meaningful experiences, they often seem to take a step back, re-evaluating the advantages and strengths of the physical encounter.

An inspiring project of the Brooklyn Museum, the Ask Mobile App, has gone through these stages of thinking and evaluating (which are openly shared on the museum’s blog – a great example of professionalism, generosity, transparency and accountability that more museums should have the courage to implement). As Shelley Bernstein explained to us, at a time when the Brooklyn Museum is re-evaluating a number of points of contact with its visitors (its austere foyer, its confusing reception area, the lack of seating), it also wishes to improve their experience allowing them to ask on-site and in real time any question they might have regarding the objects or the exhibitions in general. The project is still being tested in its details and will be launched in June. 

Shelley Bernstein, Brooklyn Museum (Photo: Maria Vlachou)
At an earlier stage, the museum had members of its staff on floor and discovered that visitors loved engaging in conversation with them. Such a large museum would need a lot of people, though, to be able to cover all areas. In order to optimize the idea of the direct and in-real-time contact with a member of staff, they decided to turn to technology. A team of six people will be available to answer visitor questions sent through their mobiles using the Ask Mobile App. Evaluation so far has shown that people still consider this contact to be personal and the museum is confident that this will be one more way of fulfilling their mission of being “a dynamic and responsive museum that fosters dialogue and sparks conversations”. For one thing, the museum has discovered that people seem to take more time looking at the objects... looking for questions to ask!

Is there anything more personal and physical, though (and funny and inspiring), than being taken to a museum tour tailored to your needs and interests by Museum Hack? “I hate museums!”, this is how Nick Gray started his presentation. And he did hate them... once. Now all he wants is to share his passion for them with people who still hate them, people who feel that museums are not for them. A colleague from the Museum of Architecture and Design in Oslo called Museum Hack “our natural allies”. And aren’t they indeed! Nick’s favourite object at the Metropolitan Museum is the fragment of an Egyptian queen’s face. This is what he had to say about it (quoting from memory): “If these are the lips, can you imagine the rest? How beautiful she must have been? And although we don’t know who she is and which tools were used to make her, we know she’s made of yellow jasper. Yellow jasper was so-so expensive, that the only other object at the Met made of it is this tiny. In a scale of hardness from 1 to 10, where diamond is 10 and marble is 3, jasper is a solid 6. It makes marble feel like rubber...”. Aren’t museums f***ing awesome?!

Nick Grey, Museum Hack (Photos: Maria Vlachou)
My visit to the recently renovated International Red Cross and Red Crescent Museum somehow put all these thoughts and ideas to the test. It’s a museum that greatly combines the physical and the digital, using technology in order to enhance the meaning of the objects, to share powerful stories and to engage the visitor – both emotionally and intellectually – in the discussion of quite sensitive universal questions. The three main chapters of the story are “Defending Human Dignity”, “Restoring Family Links” and “Reducing Natural Risks” and each space/chapter was created by a different architect, proposing quite distinct environments. One of the most touching moments for me was in the room that exhibits the gifts offered by prisoners of different conflicts to the Red Cross delegate in charge of their case. It made me think of the beauty, sensitivity, creativity and humanity that can still emanate after the horror of barbarity, brief glimpses of a renewed hope. I must say, though, that the most powerful moment was touching the extended hand of a witness on a screen, a gesture that would trigger their testimony. A brilliant conception, linking the physical to the digital and creating a profoundly emotional and memorable experience.

I must say that in almost every museum visit, presentation and discussion during the conference, there was an underlying issue for me: can museums fulfill their social and educational role, can they be relevant and engaging, if they don’t also clearly assume their political role? Right on the first day, Gail Dexter Lord introduced the concept of soft power as “the ability to influence behaviour through persuasion, attraction or agenda setting”. How can museums exercise this power? "We cannot take sides", colleagues often exclaim. Oh, but we do... Sometimes with our silence or by pretending to be neutral; more often with the objects we choose to show or not to show, the stories we choose to tell or not to tell.

More than taking sides, though, assuming our political role is to assume that there is actually more than one side to every story and to allow for space for these views to become known, to be discussed, so that citizens may get better informed, see their own views being challenged, meet and listen to the ‘other’, develop empathy and understanding, take a stand. Museums are not islands and, as Tony Butler (Derby Museums / The Happy Museum Project) said, “What’s happening out there is as important as what’s happening inside”. Isn’t it urgent, and doesn’t it make sense, that museums in the 21st assume their role in promoting democracy?

Gail Dexter Lord (Photo: Maria Vlachou)

Monday, 13 April 2015

Shall we re-brand?

Recently, due to some articles and posts I read, the question of how museums are perceived by people re-emerged in my mind. I felt there is an urgent need to take branding seriously, as a sector.

To those not very familiar with the concept of branding, I suggest viewing Peter Economides’ brilliant speech Rebranding Greece, where he explains things very clearly:

- A brand is a set of impressions that lives in people’s heads.
- Branding is the process of managing these impressions.
- Strong brands create strong and consistent impressions.

Museums have definitely created strong and consistent impressions. The very popular expression “it’s a museum piece” – meaning something old, dead, dusty, not useful, something from the past – is the proof of what these impressions actually are.... Our need to promote museums saying they are “live spaces” also indicates that we know perfectly well what people think about us.

One reads: "Is your company a museum? It isn't, is it? Change now your museum piece."
Some years ago, I did my first interview for the ICOM Portugal bulletin with the Director of Marketing of Xerox. The main subject of our short conversation was the company’s campaign for the exchange of old printer parts with new. The gentleman tried to be kind to museums when I questioned him about the association they made: “(...) Many of our customers are very reluctant to replace old equipment while it still works. This is a common attitude towards some of our ‘pet items’, we like to keep them regardless of the actual cost of maintaining or knowing that technological developments have already put them ‘out of fashion’. In a company, the ‘out of fashion’ element can make the difference between success or survival. A museum is typically a place where we can see valuable pieces of another time. The campaign aims to communicate that, despite the equipment working and being valuable, its antiquity does not allow it to have the functions and characteristics of the current technological era. That is, it is behind the times and its place is in Museums, where we can see how our ancestors lived and worked.” It was a thoughtful attempt, but we can all read between the lines, can’t we?

The title of the article is: "The green world will be at your disposal... in a museum"

More recently, I read two articles (here and here) about mongolian artist Daesung Lee’s project “Futuristic Archaeology”. The photographer explained that human action on the environment was one of his concerns and suggested that green landscapes will become scarse and we shall recall them in a space where they will be presented dead, untouchable and unattainable: a natural history museum. We can all read between the lines, can’t we?

The third case I would like to discuss is that of a museum campaign: the Holocaust Museum of Buenos Aires. Tha campaign dates from 2011, but it came to my attention now, through a post on Comunicacion Patrimonio. The museum slogan is “Un museo, nada de arte”, trying to place emphasis on people and their story. Each photo of the campaign presents a Holocaust survivor and says: “He/Her and millions of other people did nothing to be in a museum”. I do get the point.... And still, I don’t... The museum approved a campaign (a beautiful campaign, I must say) which reinforces a series of stereotypes: that when we talk museums we talk art museums; that people needn’t be afraid, they won’t find art in this museum; that museums are about the great (great artists?) and not about common people. As I said, I think this is a beautiful campaign, one that puts people in the forefront. But I can´t help disagreeing with the fact that, in order to put their message across,  they used a number of stereotypes that help reinforce people’s negative impressions of museums. And they are one...

Do people’s impressions coincide with what museums are today? I won’t deny that some museums, in almost every country, are still very much worthy of what people think of them. But many are not. Museums have largely changed their attitudes, ways of working, image, and this is why they need to seriously think of ways to change those perceptions in people’s heads.

One of my favourite books is “Designing Brand Identity” by Alina Wheeler. I went back to reading the chapter “When is it needed?” (meaning, when is ‘branding’ needed), and she identifies six reasons when one needs to look for a brand identity expert: 1. new company, new product; 2. name change; 3. revitalize a brand; 4. revitalize a brand identity; 5. create an integrated system; 6. companies merge. The case of museums falls clearly under the 3th reason, considering that they need to reposition and renew their corporate brand; they’re no longer doing the same thing they did when they were founded; they need to communicate more clearly about who they are; too many people don’t know who they are; they wish to appeal to a new market.

Impressions in people’s heads are powerful. Stereotypes take a long time to dissolve. No wonder many still keep away (also helped by the way museums communicate their offer in general, unable to appeal, many of them, to the common person, the non-specialist visitor). Museums need to take an active role in changing these perceptions and they need to do it carefully, knowingly, urgently and... united.

Monday, 30 March 2015

What's in a title?

Choosing the title of an exhibition, activity or event is not something easy. Not when one wants it to convey something about the content and to be curious or funny enough in order to attract people’s attention – and also, to be efficient when applied on promotional materials. What one usually finds when opening a cultural agenda are titles that either claim the obvious (for instance, the name of an artist we might or might not know) or attempt to describe the content in a rather dry, dull, repetitive way – words like “place”, “memory”, “look”, “treasures” are words museums are very fond of. Another case we should consider is that of contemporary plays and performances, whose titles may be 2-3-lines-long, only to be abbreviated  for “everyday use” by the artistic team itself and by the audience, leading to what should have probably been the title in the first place....

I tried to remember titles that worked well for me, and two came immediately to mind:

Wien Museum (Photo: Maria Vlachou)
“Unter 10 – Wertvolles en Miniature” (Under 10 – Treasures in miniature), at the Vienna Museum, was a 2013 exhibition that presented objects from the museum’s collection based on the strict rule that no item could be more than 10cm in width, height, depth or diametre. From objects that aimed to simply respond to the challenge of miniaturisation to baby utensils, smelling bottles or illegal political leaflets, this exhibition made us look (also with the help of magnifying glasses..), and look better, differently, into the collection. The museum was not on my visit list, but I couldn’t resist the title.

Entrance of the exhibition "Disobedient Objects", V&A (Photo: Maria Vlachou)
More recently, “Disobedient Objects” was another exhibition title that caught my attention. It first came up in my news feed last summer, among dozens of different news titles. I stopped scrolling down and opened the piece. Quoting from the Victoria & Albert Museum website, “From Suffragette teapots to protest robots, this exhibition was the first to examine the powerful role of objects in movements for social change. It demonstrated how political activism drives a wealth of design ingenuity and collective creativity that defy standard definitions of art and design.” I was able to visit the exhibition last November and it lived up to my expectations. The object that touched me the most was a defaced lybian banknote (the scribbled face being Gaddafi). It reminded me of a Lybian man being interviewed right after seeing Gaddafi’s corpse and saying: “We had always thought he was a big man. He is small, he is so small.”

Defaced lybian banknote from the exhibition "Disobedient Objects", V&A (Photo: Maria Vlachou)
It is also worth talking about some refreshing examples that have recently come up in Portugal.

“Vivinha a saltar!” (Alive and jumping!) is an exhibition at the Bordalo Pinheiro Museum about two symbols of the city of Lisbon: the “varinas”, the women selling fish in the streets, a  popular figure in the work of Rafael Bordalo Pinheiro; and the sardine, which has developed into an icon of the city and a source of inspiration for contemporary artists. The name of the exhibition, “Vivinha a saltar!”, was one of the varinas’s most famous cries when promoting their merchandise and had been the title of a chronicle about portuguese politics and society published by the newspaper “A Paródia”, founded by Bordalo Pinheiro.

Last week, the Municipal Museum of Penafiel, in the north of Portugal, celebrated World Poetry Day on 21 March with “Dois garfos de conversa” (the literal translation being “Two forks of talking”), a conference about the town’s poets, followed by a dinner at the museum. The museum director explianed to me that both title and poster were created by the museum team.

On that same day, the youth collective Faz 15-25 celebrated its first year of existence at the Arpad Szenes – Vieira da Silva Museum with films, poetry, talks, workshops and food, inspired by the museum’s temporary exhibition “Sonnabend | Paris – New York” and addressed to youth audiences. The title of the initiative: “Faz-Tá POP!”.

Finally, the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation surprised us last December with an invitation “P’ra Rir” (To Laugh), a cinema series (now in its second edition) which gives people the opportunity to watch cinema in a big room, the Foundation’s recently renovated Grand Auditorium. According the João Mário Grilo, responsible for the programming, the laugh seemed to be an appropriate inaugural gesture. “And it would be wrong to think that this is a (yet another) “comedy series”, because in cinema, as in life, one laughs in different ways, even with dramas.”

In both big and small cultural institutions, the process of choosing a title may involve different people and departments: curators, directors, publicists, education and communications staff. Recently, the Gulbenkian Foundation decided to involve the public in the choice of the title of a 2016 exhibition at the Gulbenkian Museum. As mentioned in the beginning of the post, the objective when choosing a title it to come up with something that is able to convey the content, to attract people’s attention, to be efficient when applied on promotional material (in this case, good graphic design is a definite plus). One last piece of advice, from our colleagues from the Australian Museum: “Make sure staff at reception/front-of-house are comfortable saying the name aloud as they'll often be the ones selling the exhibition to visitors.” They’re right!

With thanks to: Elisabete Caramelo, Isabel Aguilar, Maria José Santos, Rui Belo, Sara Pais

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Monday, 23 March 2015

Philippe de Montebello revealed

I´ll say it right in the beginning to get it over with: yes, I got upset reading Philippe de Montebello's two statements regarding the issue of restitution in the book “Rendez-vous with art” (p. 54 and p. 208). Having said that, the rest of the book is absolutely charming! A beautiful, inspiring, surprising series of conversations between Montebello and art critic Martin Gayford, revealing the man behind the art historian and long-time director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Following these conversations, we feel an urge to look and to look better, even if it is only a photo in a book – hoping, of course, to be in front of the original one day... As Montebello himself puts it: “(...) nothing can replace the experience, the very physical sensation of being surrounded and engulfed in the actual space.” (p. 51)

Probably one of the most touching moments comes right in the beginning of the book, where Montebello answers Gayford’s question about that single moment, that single experience that may have led him to a life in the arts. Montebello shares with us that very special moment, when he was 15, and his father took home André Malraux’s “Les Voix du Silence”. And suddenly, there was Uta...

“She was Marchioness Uta in Naumburg Cathedral and I loved her as a woman (...) with her wonderful high collar and her puffed eyelids, as though after a night of lovemaking” (p.10; image taken from Wikipedia)

I was left thinking: would he have ever put this on a museum label? How many people would have looked, looked better, looked more, should they had read something like this about a statue?

Montebello goes on to admit something we rarely hear from curators, but which is true about most museum visitors: “I have found that when I have forced myself – often with the help of curators – to look at things about which I was indifferent or that even repelled me, I discovered that, with a little knoweldge, what had been hidden from me became manifest.” (p. 59)

What kind of knowledge is needed for this ‘epiphany’ to occur, one might ask. Not facts about the artist’s life, not a detailed and dry description of stylistic elements; not in the first place, not for the non-specialist visitor (the majority, that is, of museum visitors). One seems to find all the answers in Freeman Tilden’s “Interpreting our Heritage”: “What lies behind what the eye sees is far greater than that which is visible” (p.20); (...) “the  purpose of interpretation is to stimulate the reader or hearer toward a desire to widen his horizon of interests and knowledge and to gain an understanding of the greater truths that lie behind any statement of fact” (p. 59); (...) “Not with the names of things, but by exposing the soul of things – those truths that lie behind what you are showing your visitor. Nor yet by sermonizing; nor yet by lecturing; not by instruction, but by provocation” (p.67).

Another couple of examples from Montebello’s book might illustrate these points:

“(...) it’s utterly delighftul. The shoe flying off into the air, heading for the statue of Cupid at the side, that enchanting tree so frothy and unlike a real tree: it’s all like a décor de théâtre, a theatre set. This is a gorgeous painting about having a good time and about which one doesn’t have to think very hard, just abandon onself to the sheer pleasure it provides: a picture I’d have no trouble at all living with.” (p. 81, Jean-Honoré Fragonard, The Swing, 1767; image taken from

“(...) I then focused on the deep burn marks at the bottom of the frame, obviously made by votive candles, confirming that this was indeed a devotional picture. Just a few additional details resuted from close examination, not the least of which was that the picture was in impeccable condition, a rare thing when it comes to Trecento gold-ground pictures, as most works have suffered greatly over time, mostly I’m afraid at the hands of restorers.” (p.65, Duccio di Buoninsegna, Madonna and Child, c.1290-1300; image taken from

“But I am happy just to enjoy the expression on Adam’s face, so sweet, and the way he is holding the apple branch – it is not a fig leaf – with two fingers, as well as the foliage required to cover his nakedness. Dürer has so engagingly endowed his classically inspired figures with tender sensuality; and I love Eve, Venus-like with her pretty Nürnberg fräulein’s face. You see: no art history, just my own very personal response.” (p124, Albrecht Dürer, Adam and Eve, 1507; image taken from

I don’t believe most people visit museums looking for an art history lesson on their panels and labels – or physics or music or any other discipline for that matter (some do, of course, and their needs are equally legitimate, but museums usually cater for them with various other means). People do not visit museums looking for someone to tell them what they should feel or think either, as defended by Alain de Botton in Art is Therapy (Rijksmuseum), where one finds labels such as this: "You suffer from fragility, guilt, a split personality, self disgust. You are probably a bit like this picture" (regarding Jan Steen's painting The Feast of Saint Nicholas). I think that most of us are first of all looking for something that can be meaningful to us, something that may delight us, surprise us, make us feel good or richer or more conscious of ourselves and of the world. Many of us are looking for stories, stories of other people, human beings we can connect to - either those depicted or those wishing to share their knowledge with us.

Deciding which story to tell is not an easy choice for a museum; writing it in a clear and concise way is equally difficult. But it is not impossible, as Montebello shows us in his book, where he abandons his ‘institutional self’ and manages to share his enormous knowledge as an art historian in a simple and human way that is meaningful and relevant for many more people. It is not impossible, as Paula Moura Pinheiro shows us every week in her TV programme “Visita Guiada” (Guided Tour), where we discover that curators and art experts in Portugal are fascinating people, able to share with us much more than the facts usually presented on labels and make us wish to know more, to visit the museum, to be able to see the object - or to go back and see it again, after what has been revealed to us).

It is possible. It is a question of choice and skill. It doesn’t lack scientific content and it communicates.

“I’m not sure I would be thrilled because I am so focused, so absorbed and captivated by the perfection of what is there; that my pleasure – and it is intense pleasure – is marvelling at what my eye sees, not some abstraction that, in a more art historical mode, I might conjure up. It’s like a book that you love and you simply don’t want to see the movie. You’ve already imagined the hero or the heroine in a certain way. In truth, with the yellow jasper lips, I have never really tried to imagine the missing parts.” (p.8, Fragment of a Queen’s Face, New Kingdom Period, c. 1353-1336 BC, Egypt; image taken from the Metropolitan Museum website)

More on this blog

More readings

Philippe de Montebello and Martin Gayford (2014), Rendez-vous with Art. Thames and Hudson