Friday, 26 June 2015

The message, the language, the options

Paula Sá Nogueira on the TV programme "Inferno".
The discussion that was generated after the announcement of the allocation of subsidies from the Directorate General for the Arts (DgArtes) made me think once again about the way this sector communicates with the public, citizens and taxpayers. There is a larger issue, of course, that of the subsidy itself: the system of application, the evaluation of the proposals, the monitoring of the entities, the purpose and duration of the subsidy. But today, here, my reflection focuses on communication.

Paula Sá Nogueira (PSN), from the Company Cão Solteiro (which, for the first time in 20 years, did not get a subsidy from DgArtes) was interviewed earlier this month by the TV programme "Inferno". When the presenter asked het to try to explain to "the majority" her claim that the State has an obligation to fund the arts, PSN explained:

"The arts promote thinking; thinking promotes the evolution of man; so there must be investment in thinking and the arts. (...) Maybe the arts are what prevents us from giving a shot in the head in the morning. So either you invest in the arts or in cemeteries." (video)

PSN’s interview was shared and commented by people in the field, especially by other artists. The general opinion is that she spoke very well. However, for me, the issue was the message, the language and their suitability for the medium (in this case, the television). I also thought about the choice of the person who should speak to the public, to “the majority", at a moment like this. How did the ordinary citizen, the taxpayer who supports the work of Cão Solteiro and others, receive PSN’s statements? Was he clarified? Angry because Cão Solteiro did not receive the subsidy, even if he had never heard of this company before? Did he consider giving a shot in the head?

I do not mean to be ironic. I also liked PSN’s interview. But I work in this field, I understand what PSN means to say, I know the context, I know the specificities of operating in this sector. And in that capacity, I would say that the message does not come across and that we should show a greater concern when addressing the "majority". Our arguments, when it comes to mass media, can not be those used for internal consumption, appreciated and understood by our peers, but ineffective with many other people, who are also stakeholders. And maybe it should not be the artist himself speaking; at least, not always.

In 2012 I had written about another interview, conducted shortly after the announcement of a 100% cut in annual and occasional subsidies (Ministry of Culture: Which culture? Whose Culture). At that time, the interviewee was Jorge Silva Melo (JSM) in one of the morning TV news programmes. He said: "I, as a spectator, will not be able anymore to discover young talents. (...) The subsidies do not support the artists, they support the spectators. Because if I want to see a play by theatre company Truta, and if they don´t get a subsidy, I´ll have to pay approximately 100 Euro per ticket and I haven´t got that money. But I have the right to see what young creators are doing, what´s preoccupying them, what they are thinking about. It is this kind of support that has been taken from me, as a spectator. (…)”..

I considered, and still consider, JSM’s response to be very intelligent and, more than that, appropriate to the context in which it the interview took place. He put himself in the shoes of the spectator, he tried to explain how the cuts affected him, as a citizen, and others. He set aside the usual, somehow egocentric, argument of the artist, whom many people see or hear once in their lifetime, when he loses the support of DGArtes, an intervention that might only serve to reinforce the idea of ​​subsidy-dependence.

It is urgent to think the way we communicate with the outside world more strategically, choosing the most suitable speaker, message and language for each context. The British campaign "I Love Museums" shows a possible way: it allows for the voice of ordinary people to be heard, those who will be affected by the cuts (read the testimonials). I think that makes sense, considering that the message is supposed to reach the government and the political parties and that politicians evaluate everything based on the votes they can lose or gain. The campaign also encourages people to write directly to the MP of their constituency and graphic materials are made available online in various formats to facilitate spreading the message on social media and other platforms. I must also say that the fact that it is organized by the National Museum Directors' Council was a pleasant surprise for someone who lives in a country where the voice of national museum directors is not heard publicly, regarding the impact of the cuts on the functioning of the entities for which they are responsible.

This type of feedback, a qualitative indicator of our impact on society and on people's lives, is not unknown to us. But I think that we don’t actively seek it, we don’t register it and we don’t know how and when to use it. I Love Museums reminded me of the case of Casa Conveniente, which in 2011 was the first Portuguese theater company, if I remember correctly, to resort to crowdfunding, with the campaign "Be a patron of Casa Conveniente for €12". When in November 2011 Mónica Calle and Alexandra Gaspar participated in a conference on financial sustainability, organized by ICOM Portugal, they shared with the participants wonderful and powerful testimonies that people who wished to support (many with more than €12) sent by email, along with their donation. Several times after that I wondered if those testimonies were later used in some way. I didn’t see them when the company renewed its request or in promotional materials or on Facebook.

However, these are examples involving people who, a priori, like a certain cultural or artistic project, who are already related to it. I return to my initial concern, that of "the majority", as the host of "Inferno" put it, which also includes those who don’t know or don’t relate. How to talk to ordinary people about the need to support with public money work that they might not enjoy or understand or even know about? How to make "the majority" consider that this support goes to a common cause, an indispensable cause, one that brings benefits to those who enjoy and those who don’t directly enjoy it? It would be easier, perhaps, if we were talking about a school or a hospital, but we are talking about the arts. Our task is quite complex, we know it. What are we going to do about it?

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Thursday, 4 June 2015

Something is happening in Evora

The banner hanging on the façade of the Forum Eugénia de Almeida Foundation (FEA) in Évora made me smile ... "What museum do you dream of?" is a kind of promise or invitation to reflect and to dialogue.

It looks like that's just what the FEA and curator Filipa Oliveira seek: "(...) the beginning of a new path and the first moment of a new relationship between the FEA, the city of Évora and Portugal; (...) a programmatic reflection around the dilemma of how to articulate the singularity and specificity of its local context with the challenges posed by international contemporary artistic creation and the currents of thought associated to it."

The exhibition I will visit is called "The Coming Museum". Quoting once again the curator: "An exhibition-manifesto. ‘The Coming Museum' is exactly that: a mission statement. The show asserts these principles not by listing them, but by presenting a number of questions that may help us reflect on the role and importance that spaces like FEA have today. 'What is the purpose of art and art exhibitions? What is the purpose of curators? What is the purpose of museums? How do we, the public, relate to this entity? Do we desire it? Do we need it? Do we want the museum we have the right to or the one that is given to us? And what do we want this museum for? What role do we want this museum that we dream of to have in our community?’ (...) "

I loved it! I loved the positioning, I loved the questions, I loved - yes, yes, yes! – the simple, accessible way - but no less intelligent or knowledgeable, for that matter – in which Filipa Oliveira seeks to communicate with visitors. This is not the time for her to show off, trying to impress us (or turn us away...) with long and complex sentences, with flowery words which, when together in a sentence, convey no meaning and with references to names that few among the visitors would know. The curator does not seek to put the common visitors (the non-specialist visitors) 'in their place”, to ignore them because they’re ‘ignorants’. She is trying to involve them, to share her thoughts and to communicate with them.

Having said all that, I think, however, that this attempt for a new positioning, engagement and the promotion of a joint reflection and dialogue still needs to better consider a number of details, in order to meet the expectations of the FEA, the curator and also the visitors.

Let's see how my visit took place:

Yona Friedman, Street Museum (2008-2015)

After the initial smile caused by the banner, I approach the building. Still in the exterior, there is an installation entitled "Street Museum" by Yona Friedman ("acrylic boxes, community objects", one reads on the label). On one of the cases, people wrote "Our museum" and "The best museum in Évora." There are objects (those called “community objects”?), such as empty wine bottles of the Eugénio de Almeida Foundation arranged in a box. There is also a lot of garbage. Is there some meaning here or was there no cleaning service? I'm puzzled...

I enter the building and at the reception I am given a multi-page brochure on the exhibition "The Coming Museum", which I put in my purse to have a look later. For now, I want to visit the exhibition. I look around and I don’t know which way to go, there’s no signage. I walk into a room that is not the exhibition I am looking for. I come out and I start going up the stairs. On the wall, a statement: "The museum is a school. The artist learns to communicate. The public learns to make connections". I don’t like it, don’t agree. After they have asked us what museum we dream of, why are they making such a statement...?

Luis Camnitzer, The Museus is a school (2009-2015)

I reach the first floor. Here's an exhibition, yes, but I don’t know if it's the one I am looking for, it is not identified. A nice gentleman, properly identified, introduces himself as a volunteer and says he’s at our disposal, should we need something. He confirms that this is the exhibition "The Coming Museum ". From there, and for much of the exhibition, he’s always following us, giving explanations, anticipating moments. We didn't ask for this...

In the rooms and in relation to the works exhibited, the approach is the usual: labels with the artist's name, the title of the piece, the materials it is made of. In most cases, it all remains meaningless for me. I never dream of a museum like this, but it is the museum I normally get...

Carlos Garaicoa, Draft City (2011). Wood, watercolour pencils, plexiglass, metal.
I'm sitting in a dark room where the film of a performance is exhibited. At one point, and because I'm sitting, I remember the brochure in my purse. I look for it, I open it and .... revelation! Texts, contexts, everything I felt I needed and I would have expected to find on the exhibition walls, is here, in my hand! Things start to gain meaning, including the installation outside the museum or the statement that bothered me when coming up the stairs. I feel more orientated, more prepared to reflect on what is exhibited. As in the museum of my dreams...

They didn’t tell me at the reception what the purpose of the brochure is, it’s a pity. And if the purpose is indeed to provide the necessary information throughout the visit, considering the length of the texts (moreover, without a distinction between Portuguese and English, which makes us think that we have to read the double), it would be necessary to have more seats in the rooms and in places where visitors could read and see the works at the same time. Ideally, these texts (well written and, in general, accessible in terms of comprehension) should have been a bit shorter so that they could have been placed on the wall, next to the works.

Click on the image to enlarge.
It is in this brochure that we also find the introductory text by Filipa Oliveira, the one I cited earlier. We feel surprised at the fact that the curator addresses the visitor in a informal way. It is unusual in Portugal and it is not consistent with the way the question on the banner (and on the back cover of this same brochure) has been formulated, in the usual formal way. We are also left thinking that the question, the one that sparked a smile and seemed to be inviting us for a dialogue and joint reflection, is probably a rhetorical question. The curator herself tells us in this text what museum we should dream of: "[a museum that deals] with many of the issues we think as essential to this debate: participation, sharing, diversity, exploration, community and the creation of new narratives and new pespectives". I don’t disagree, on the contrary. But if the question on the banner was sincere, this would be the moment for the curator to admit, rather than making a statement, that this is the museum she dreams of and that his dream may or may not be shared by visitors, that she is willing to discuss it.

The details I have set out here resulted in the experience in the exhibition "The Coming Museum” not fully corresponding to my expectations. But something is certainly happening in Évora. The reflection that Filipa Oliveira shares with us, the way she communicates it, the exhibition and parallel programming which are not limited to the FEA, but expand elsewhere in the city of Évora, are, I believe, the right ingredients to achieve the positioning that was initially announced. I will try to keep in touch. It will be with great pleasure, curiosity and expectation that I will follow FEA’s work, which might just become the museum I dream of.

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 Korean 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.