In the last 2-3 years, it has been a pleasure seeing the way museums have been marking Saint Valentine’s Day on their Facebook pages. From objects in their collections, to architectural elements to flowers in their gardens, they’ve made me smile, laugh out loud, look better, learn something new. In a simple, imaginative, humorous way, and from a distance, some cultural institutions have marked on my calendar a day I otherwise find rather uninteresting.
Not all cultural institutions mark this day. Some might be thinking that this is not a serious thing to do, that it is something frivolous, commercial, it doesn’t relate directly to their exhibition or theatre play or concert programme. It does relate to something else, though: life.
When hurricane Sandy hit New York in 2012, MoMA PS1 director, posted this on the museum’s Facebook page:
How did this relate to his museum? To the temporary exhibition? It didn’t. It related to something else, though: life.
In 2014, the year of the Mundial in Brazil, some cultural institutions presented exhibitions, organized events, made all sorts of references to football. Some might have hoped to lure followers among football fans. Others might simply have thought: this is also life, let’s celebrate it!
The Charlie Hebdo attack made me once again think of the role cultural institutions have in society and the capacity they have to relate to it. And also to put their theory into practice. Theory says that culture helps us to be humans, to be tolerant towards the ‘Other’, to live together, to learn from each other, to share and defend values, to think critically. When the cultural sector comes under attack, we use these same arguments to defend it and to defend the importance of what we do for the society. But when that same society laughs, cries, falls in love, feels in despair, celebrates, mourns... then we take some time (too much time, even) to consider whether it is appropriate for us to acknowledge it, to relate to it. Quite often, we remain quiet.
So, the morning after the Charlie Hebdo attack, I expressed my dismay at the fact that no Greek or Portuguese cultural institution had acknowledged the tragedy. A tragedy that related directly to most things culture stands for. Seconds after I published my post, the Onassis Cultural Centre published theirs. Later on, the Benaki Museum. Relief.... After that, some colleagues let me know of similar attitudes on behalf of the Museu Nacional da Imprensa or the Bordalo Pinheiro Museum. Some more cultural institutions followed. On the 9th of January, the Carmo Archaeological Museum was inviting us for a debate with cartoonists and academics. Relief.... Still, I am not aware of any large / national portuguese cultural institution acknowledging the events.
A friend wrote to me at that time and asked: “But which cultural institutions do you expect to react? All of them? The ones that somehow relate to what happened? (that would be, for instance, the Museo de la memoria e de los Derechos Humanos in Chile or the Museu Nacional da Imprensa in Portugal, wouldn´t it?) The French cultural institutions? Well, I don’t want to sound naive, but I would have liked to see reacting all the cultural institutions which claim to want to have a role in forming a better society; which claim to embrace and promote certain values; which claim to want to be relevant for people; which claim to want to be part of society and to help form responsible and critical citizens.
Let me clarify here that by “reaction” I don’t mean a hasty response to an incident or a superficial association to a celebration, without consideration for what the institution stands for and with the intention of using it for cheap public relations or simply for not being “left out”. People know opportunism when they see it and they don’t appreciate it... By “reaction” I mean the thoughtful, responsible, honest and coherent response of a cultural institution that is clear about its mission and about the role it wishes to play in people’s lives. And this does not only involve programming or educational activities. It involves being constantly aware of what is going on around us and the way it affects people's lives, so that, as a result of a defined and coherent policy of intervention, the institution may promptly give its contribution towards the kind of world it aims to help build.
What is relevant and what is not relevant for a cultural institution? Well, that’s probably not the question. The question is rather: what makes a cultural institution relevant? I recently gave a course, where we discussed the place and role of cultural institutions in the contemporary society. In the last part of the session, we did a practical exercise:
- The Charlie Hebdo attack
- Saint Valentine’s Day
- The natural disaster in Madeira in 2010
- The big anti-austerity demonstration in Portugal on 15 September 2013.
Would your institution react?
If yes, how?
If not, why not?
Ed Rodley, Museums and social change