Monday, 20 October 2014

Not to be missed? Mmm... why?

OAE, 2014-2015 season (images taken from the OAE Facebook page)

It has become very common when promoting a cultural event to mention what – when - where and then to add the magic phrase “Not to be missed!”. At times, a couple of lines are added to this information, basically to let us know that artist x is the best in his/her field or world known. Judging by the information sent to us by a number of cultural institutions, there´s nothing we can miss and there are a number of artists that are the best in their field and world known. The first statement is not true and the second is not precise.

Considering the growing offer of cultural events and activities, people have a lot where to choose from. For some, given their experience and knowledge, the choice is easier as they don´t need other people to tell them what they should see, what they can´t miss. For others, less knowledgeable regarding a number of artists and their work, there is some need for orientation. Some extra information that might help them understand what´s important and relevant for them, what they wouldn´t really like to miss.

Unfortunately, the statement “Not to be missed” - unless it comes from a friend, someone whose judgement we trust - doesn´t serve this purpose, it´s not enough. After all, everybody says the same. Likewise, to mention that the artist is the best is not convincing enough for those who don´t know him/her and doesn´t necessarily provoke an urge to get to know his/her work better. The truth is there are a number of artists who are very good in what they’re doing. Is there really a “best”?

Thus, the question in many people´s mind is “Why?”. Why can´t I miss the concert, the play, the exhibition? What´s so important, so special, so different, so groundbreaking, so touching, so appealing, so beautiful, so provoking, so relevant that it will be worth investing my time and money to see it instead of seeing or doing something else?

OAE, 2014-2015 season (images taken from the OAE Facebook page)
This poses a great challenge for those people working in communication. There is a need to move beyond the usual, beyond the obvious and easy information on what – when – where, and to search for the kind of information – as well as its visual representation - that might clarify, surprise, intrigue and appeal to the people cultural institutions wish to communicate with. There is also a need to choose the appropriate channels for making this kind of information available and easily shareable.

It is with great pleasure that I have been following the launch of the 2014-2015 season campaign of the Orchestra of the Age of the Enlightenment (OAE). Some essential background information before getting into this:

The OAE was created in the 1980s with the aim to start from scratch, to re-think the whole institution called “orchestra”: its rules, its codes, its restrictions (read their short biography) . In an early mission statement, one reads that the OAE is to “Avoid the dangers implicit in playing as a matter of routine; pursuing exclusively commercial creative options; under-rehearsal; undue emphasis as imposed by a single musical director; recording objectives being more important than creative objectives.”  [Wallace, Helen (2006). Spirit of the Orchestra]. Today, one reads on the website, “It still pushes for change and still stands for excellence, diversity and exploration. And over two decades on, there´s still no orchestra in the world quite like it.”

OAE, 2014-2015 season (images taken from the OAE Facebook page)

This whole philosophy is also applied on the relationship the OAE fosters with people, and especially younger people. At a time where a number of orchestras are struggling to renovate their audiences and stay alive and relevant  - not really knowing how to do it -, the OAE has long invested in this relationship. Among its various initiatives, I would highlight “The Night Shift”, a series of informal and relaxed late night concerts which break a number of traditions we tend to associate to the enjoyment of classical music. Over 80% of the people attending these concerts are under 35 years old and approximately 20% are attending a classical concert for the first time. Listen to what they have to say:

There is an easy, relaxed, accessible tone in the way the OAE communicates with people. It becomes obvious that they are clear about their mission and purpose, they are sincere, they enjoy sharing what they love most with all those who might be interested (including those who don´t know they might be interested). Their clear vision reflects on their language (both verbal and visual), as well as the platforms they use to communicate (for instance, a rich Vimeo channel and a very live and engaging Facebook page).

OAE, 2014-2015 season (images taken from the OAE Facebook page)

This season´s campaign has a clear and strong activistic visual. The musicians are part of the campaign, they´re the protagonists. The posters in the streets present a contemporary visual, beautifully integrated in the urban environment. The short messages on the posters are complemented with statements by the musicians and other members of staff who talk about their favourite piece in the season. The OAE’s horn player, Martin Lawrence, says: “I’m looking forward to this concert [the New World Symphony], mainly for the manic energy and spontaneity of conductor Adam Fischer. I am fascinated to know what his approach will be to these war-horse pieces – it won’t be normal… I am expecting huge drama, monstrous pianissimos and being on the edge of my seat.” Do you know of another classical music orchestra that communicates like this?

The OAE wants to be and to remain relevant. They don´t assume people will know, they´re there to make everything more clear, more understandable, more enjoyable. They are accessible, passionate, human. They have a good sense of humour and they´re not afraid to show it. They don´t tell people “You can´t miss us” or “We´re the best”. Their very suggestive motto is “Not all orchestras are the same”... And ooh... they´re certainly making it clear for me how sorry I should feel to be missing them!

More on this blog:

Monday, 6 October 2014

Preserving for what?

Imperial War Museum

On my second year in London, back in 1994, I could see the cupola of the Imperial War Museum (IWM) from my kitchen window. It was a beautiful view of a beautiful museum. To the surprise of many people, this is my favourite museum in London.

On my way to the first Congress of Military Museology, I was thinking that I never considered the IWM, which was going to make a presentation on that day, a military museum. To me, the IWM is a people´s museum (shouldn´t they all be?). A museum of the military and the civilians, of men and women, of grown ups and children, of human beings and animals (I am thinking of some of the exhibitions I saw there). It´s much more than dates, battles, tactics, types of weapons, treaties. It´s a museum that tells the stories of people whose lives were affected by war.

Promotional postcard of the First World War Galleries at the Imperial War Museum

The IWM presentation was included in a panel that would discuss the Military Museums and the the Great War Centenary. The first speaker was Maria Fernanda Rollo, a university professor and coordinator of the project Portugal 1914. This is a web portal, with very rich contents gathered with the collaboration of various institutions and professionals with different backgrounds, as well as the general public. The aim is to promote active citizenship, committed to the protection, preservation and safeguarding of a collective heritage, as well as to raise awareness of the importance of remembrance and the preservation of historical knowledge. “This is a virtual museum, that tells stories, where one learns with affection. It´s a museum that is alive”, said Maria Fernanda Rollo.

Promotional postcard of the First World War Galleries at the Imperial War Museum
I smiled when I heard this statement. Because, implicitely, Maria Fernanda Rollo was revealing to us her perception of museums: a dead space, a space where stories are not told, a space where affection doesn´t have a place. A perception which is widely shared by many people in our society at various levels (do you remember why painter Paula Rego wished for the museum of her paintings in Cascais to be called “House of Stories” and not “museum”?).  But I also smiled while listening to my good friend Gina Koutsika making her lively and stimulating presentation on the initiatives of the IWM for the commemoration of the centenary. Gina showed us how alive a museum can (and should) be, how full of stories and feelings, how close to the communities it serves. This is not a museum in the virtual world, it´s a real one, it exists.

Promotional postcard of the First World War Galleries at the Imperial War Museum

Once the debate started, my mind travelled to another museum visit, some ten years ago, at the In Flanders Fields Museum (Ypres, Belgium). Another remarkable museum in the town that stood in the way of the German army and was totally destroyed during the war. A museum full of human stories, where the visitor may take up the identity of one of the town’s inhabitants and follow his/her story during the war. The one thing that marked me the most, and that I never encountered in another museum since, was the most simple way of showing that one object could be many stories. By exhibiting a pile of white handkerchiefs, the museum told the story of the multiple uses of that one object: it could be a sign of surrender; or a way to protect oneself from lethal gases covering one´s nose; or something to cover one´s eyes when facing the death squad.

In Flanders Fields Museum

From Ypres, my mind crossed the boarder and went to France, to the Musée de la Grande Guerre du Pays de Meaux and its amazing project “Léon Vivien”. Good museums can find imaginative ways of putting their collections in good use, bringing them to life and connecting them with people. Léon Vivien is a fictitious character, a soldier, whose story is told on a special Facebook page through a number of objects, followed and commented by thousands of people. Good museums can do well both in the real and virtual word.

Eventually, the issue of remembrance came up in the debate. Lieutenant-General Mário de Oliveira Cardoso was another speaker on that panel and he quoted philosopher, essayist and writer George Santayana: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it”. Remember the past, preserve historical knowledge. Yes, that´s the aim of a number of insitutions, including museums. But why? What’s the purpose? Is it being achieved? Are the stories preserved and remembered just for their own sake or rather because they can be a link to the present, to current human stories, not only our own but those of others too? Can the stories preserved and remembered help me connect to the Other, make his/her story my own?

Europe is full of military, history, first and second world war, holocaust museums. They all aim to preserve the historical past and show the importance of rememberance. “Never again” is the motto we encounter in many of them. Are these museums aware that recently, following the atrocities that took place in Gaza, the cry “Death to Jews” was heard once again in some European cities? Have they reacted? Have they taken the opportunity to put their collections in good use and to show what is the purpose of preserving the historical past and remembering? Isn´t it precisely in a moment like this that museums should intervene publicly and contribute towards clarifying and shaping public opinion? Otherwise, preserving for what?

Other texts

Los jóvenes tienen que conocer esto para saber en que país están viviendo
Interview with Ricardo Brodsky, director of Museo de la Memoria (Santiago de Chile)

Le MuCEM ne doit pas devenir un musée pour touristes
Interview with Jean-François Chougnet, director of Musée des Civilisations de l´Europe et de la Méditerranée (Marseille)

Who funds the arts and why we should care
Interview with Charles Esche, curator of São Paulo Biennial

Monday, 22 September 2014

Gay, black, disabled... can we stop talking about it?

Gay Jazz Festival, Philadelphia (Photo: Bruno Bollaert, taken from The Examiner)

Last May, Philly magazine announced that history was about to be made with the organization of the first Gay Jazz Festival in the US. The announcement intrigued me. It rather seemed to me like history was going backwards. I visited the website of the William Way LGBT (Lesbian-Gay-Bisexual-Transgender) Community Center that would host the  - I quote: “groundbreaking” - event looking for more. One read: “Philadelphia has enjoyed a legacy of being a great music city. We’re also a city that affirms the lives of LGBT people. Hosting the first LGBT jazz festival in North America provides an opportunity to showcase the rich and vibrant culture of our city. (...) The festival will serve as the finale for the William Way LGBT Community Center’s annual music series and highlight the intersection between sexual orientation and gender identity within the jazz community.”

I believe that an important principle when dealing with other people, other cultures, is to first listen to the people themselves, to try and get to know and understand them better; their thoughts, their life experiences, their sensibilities, their needs and convictions. Thus, I am sure the Centre must have had a clear view on the necessity of a gay jazz festival, but still, even after consulting its website, it was not clear for why this initiative might be considered “visionary”. Why would gay jazz musicians need a gay jazz festival to present their work? Would this help raise awareness regarding gay people´s rights? Could it be because they don´t usually have a place in the jazz festivals being organized in the US and abroad? Why should a music festival aim to highlight “the intersection between sexual orientation and gender identity within the jazz community” (and how would it do it?) and not simply the artists and their music?

I am frequently asking myself more or less the same questions when it comes to disabled artists. People working with them and the associations representing them claim that they don´t usually get to see their work presented in the usual festivals and the programming of cultural venues in general. It is considered of lesser quality and many times, once a venue programmes a show or an exhibition, they feel that they have filfilled their obligations towards disabled artists and no more is needed in a season. This is a reality indeed. Are we moving forward, though, and are we somehow solving the problem by organizing “special” disabled artists festivals, exhibitions, etc.?

Michelle Ryan, "Intimacy", Unlimited 2014 (photo taken from the Unlimited website)

 Between 2 and 7 September another edition of the festival Unlimited took place in London, a big event, with works especially commissioned for it, which “celebrates the artistic vision and originality of disabled artists”. In a country like the UK, which, compared to others, has already taken a number of necessary steps towards respecting disabled people´s rights, what is the role of a festival like Unlimited today?

Between 13 September and 15 October the Musée de Grenoble is organizing Le Mois de l´Accessibilité. One reads on the website that the museum invites people with disabilities to discover their exhibitions and activities during the whole year, giving all necessary assistance. So, what is the purpose of this “special” month?

Considering these and other initiatives, I keep questioning myself who attends these festivals, exhibitions, activities and what happens after? Do they attract the already “converted” or they appeal to a wider people? Do gay or disabled or black artists become more acknowledged by the sector and the public? Are they seen as the professionals they are? Are we moving towards an inclusive representation, where they are seen first and above all as artists, or rather curators and audiences still go to see something “special”, confined in a specific space and time, its “own” space and time? Do these festivals help us move towards caring more and more about the art and less and less about “the rest”?

I´ve written in the past about promoting shows which involved disabled people without giving a “warning” to the public that this would be the case. People bought their tickets, watched the show, they might or not have felt a certain discomfort and some left very pleasantly surprised with the quality of what they had seen. Wasn´t this a step towards learning that the “rest” didn´t actually make a difference? Shouldn´t our goal – the artists´, the curators´, the education and communications professionals´, the disabled people´s associations´ - be to work towards turning the difference mainstream?

When reading “Museums and Migration” (ed. Laurence Gouriévidis) this summer, I was pleased to see that this was the principle followed in some museum exhibitions in countries like Canada, Australia or the UK, countries with high levels of immigation that have seen at certain times government strategies that aimed to deal with “the tension between the recognition of a culturally diverse society and the need to articulate a national identity that projects a culturally cohesive nation” (Mary Hutchison and Andrea Witcomb, p.228). These museums moved beyond the ethnic festival, the Week of China – India – Pakistan – Nigeria – Bolivia, etc. (usually concentrating on music and food), and looked for ways to turn the migrant communities´ stories part of the main national story and to “promote positive feelings about people feeling at home across cultures and the idea that people in many parts of the world live within cultures that are already transnational, cosmopolitan and characterized by cultural hybridity” (Kylie Message, p. 60).

I believe that this is the way forward; it´s to stop drawing attention to the difference and making it part of the story. I quoted once before Morgan Freeman who considered Black History Month to be ridiculous, refusing to see his history resumed in a month, and, when asked “So, how are we gonna get rid of racism?”, he simply answered: “Stop talking about it!”. Do we still need gay, black, disabled, ethnic months-festivals-fairs-shows? Maybe we still do, I don´t deny it. But do we also have a plan for moving things forward?

More on this blog

The beginning and the ending of a b&w week in Vienna

Other texts

Monday, 8 September 2014

What lies beyond?

Freeman Tilden
When reading Elaine Heumann Gurian´s “Civilizing the Museum”, a bit more than a year ago, I remember having one thought and two feelings. I thought how it was possible to have come for the first time across her writings and visionary thinking about museums so late, after studying and working in the field for almost 20 years. I had a warm feeling of comfort, realizing that ideas and concerns constantly on my mind were not exactly new and that someone like Elaine had expressed them so beautifully and thoroughly before, influencing a number of people and institutions she worked for. But I also had a bitter feeling of frustration, realizing how slow really change is, since things Elaine has pointed out some time ago and worked for are still an issue today.

When I finished Freeman Tilden´s “Interpreting Our Heritage” last month, I smiled. I had the same one thought and two feelings. How is it possible to only read Tilden now?! How inspiring his writing, how clear everything becomes when one goes through his six principles of interpretation and numerous examples. And how disappointing to see that, more than half a century later, we´ve learnt little and practiced even less.

Tilden wrote the book in 1957, when he was 74 years old and after a long career as journalist, novelist and playwright. As Russell E. Dickenson points out in the forward of the fourth edition, “In his association with parks, Tilden developed an interest in how the national parks shaped American identity as well as individual identity, urging citizens to derive meaning and inspiration for and from precious natural and historical resources.”

This is what Tilden wished for citizens and this is where his expectations of interpretation and interpreters lied. “Interpreters decide what stories to tell, how to tell them and who to tell them to, a serious responsibility [p.2]; (...) The visitor´s chief interest is in whatever touches his personality, his experiences and his ideals [p.36]; (...) But the purpose of interpretation is to stimulate the reader or hearer toward a desire to widen his horizons of interest 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. Not yet by sermonizing; nor yet by lecturing; not by instruction but by provocation [p. 67]; (...) to put your visitor in possession of at least one disturbing idea that may grow into a fruitful interest [p. 128]”.

His vision thus summarised, here are Tilden´s six principles of interpretation:

1. Any interpretation that does not somehow relate what is being displayed or described to something within the personality or experience of the visitor will be sterile.

2. Information, as such, is not Interpretation. Interpretation is revelation based upon information. But they are entirely different things. However all interpretation includes information.

3. Interpretation is an art, which combines many arts, whether the materials presented are scientific, historical or architectural. Any art is in some degree teachable.

4. The chief aim of interpretation is not instruction, but provocation.

5. Interpretation should aim to present a whole rather than a part, and must address itself to the whole man rather than any phase.

6. Interpretation addressed to children (say up to the age of twelve) should not be a dilution of the presentation to adults, but should follow a fundamentally different approach. To be at its best it will require a separate program.

When reading this, I did, of course, think of museums; of the richness that lies within them which is inaccessible to so many. In many cases, by choice: the choice of those who have the great responsibility of interpreting, of revealing, of provoking, of touching most peoples souls and not just the brains of a few, but, although having the power to decide, their main concern is to communicate with and be acknoweldged by their peers. This is one reason, in my opinion, the most important, the most determinant. Another reason is that, in this context, professionals who have technical preparation in this field struggle to be heard and, all too often, lose the battle. Another reason still is that many other people working in this field haven´t got technical preparation for what they are asked to do, and they are not given any either. I remember once at a training course, during a heated discussion regarding the resonsibilities of museum people working for themselves and their peers, one lady raised her hand and said: “Please, don´t say that we are only worried about ourselves and our peers. I just don´t know how to do things differently, and this is why I am here”....

It is the combination of these factors that makes Heumann Gurian, Tilden, Cotton Dana (to mention another favourite of mine) sound bitterly relevant and contemporary, more than 20 or 50 or 100 years later.

It happens that I finished Tilden´s book and started writing these lines in the middle of a national park, that of Tzoumerka in Greece. The beauty of the scenery was breathtaking. I kept thinking of his words: “Interpretation takes the visitor beyond the point of his aesthetic joy, toward a realization of the material forces that have joined to produce the beauty around him.” And this is what the people I met did for me. They took me - with simplicity, enthusiasm, and a profound knowledge of things - beyond, much beyond what was visible to me. They were not all professionals, but they were people with a love for that place, wishing to share it. And they made my whole experience even greater.

Still on this blog

Curiosity killed the visitor

Plaka Bridge, National Park of Tzoumerka, Greece

Monday, 28 July 2014

In circles

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Until September.

Monday, 14 July 2014

Curiosity killed the visitor

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The translation is mine. Apologies for any gross mistakes.

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

Extract taken from the brochure.

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

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

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

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

Still on this blog

Monday, 30 June 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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