Monday, 26 July 2010

Reinventing the museum

Reinventing the Museum: Historical and contemporary perspectives on the paradigm shift is a book edited by Gail Anderson, a collection of articles written by people who, with their vision, influenced the whole thinking regarding museums´s raison-d´-être in the 20th century. It is divided in five parts:

I. The role of the museum: The challenge to remain relevant
II. The role of the public: The need to understand the visitor perspective
III. The role of the public service: The evolution of exhibitions and programs
IV. The role of the object: The obligation of stewardship and cultural responsibility
V. The role of leadership: The essential ingredient

John Cotton Dana, founder of The Newark Museum in New Jersey (New York), introduces the first part with an article entitled The Gloom of the Museum (1917). With lots of humour and clarity, with his revolutionary and visionary spirit, he challenges his contemporaries, the way he´s challenging us today, to take the message to broader audiences and serve the whole community and not only an elite, by making them accessible and relevant. There follows Theodore Low, with What is a Museum? (1942), where he defends the educational role of the museum and, like some of us today, reminds that museums must fulfil all their functions and not subordinate those related to communication and the public to those of collecting and preserving. We then move to Alma Wittlin´s A Twelve Point Program for Museum Renewal (1970), that introduces the concept of communication, as something larger that education. She calls for a moratorium in the expansion of museum buildings and the acquisition of equipment until we better understand the benefits for people from what museums offer or ought to offer. At the same time, Duncan F. Cameron wrote The Museum, a Temple or the Fórum?, claiming that museums cannot only be places of worship and cult, but also places where the people meet in order to discuss current issues, places of experimentation and innovation, places that welcome controversy. In 1990, Stephen Weil in his article Rethinking the Museum: An Emerging New Paradigm, considers the traditional five functions of the museum and identifies and defines a change of paradigm, where the museum turns from collector to educator, at the public´s service. The three following articles (Museums in the Age of Deconstruction; The Real Multiculturalism: A Struggle for Authority and Power; “Hey! That´s Mine”: Thoughts on Pluralism and American Museums), all written in 1992, talk about pluralism, equality, ethnicity, multiculturalism, given that various groups and communities considered minorities claim the right to be represented and to participate in the construction of the narratives presented by museums. The book´s first part ends with an article by Harold Skramstad, An Agenda for Museums in the Twenty-first Century, written in 1999, where he defines new models for 21st century museums: the museums as a new educational model, as a model community institution and as a designer and deliverer of experiences.

The second part, related to the role of the public and the need to understand the visitor´s perspective, brings together some of the articles that marked the most the museological thinking related to this subject, such as The Contextual Model of Learning (2000), by John Falk and Lynn Dierking or Marilyn Hood’s famous article Staying Away: Why People Choose not to Visit Museums (1983). Both consider visitor motivations and needs, as well as those of non-visitors, trying to help museums adapt their offer to those needs and find ways of answering the expectations. We also find here Claudine K. Brown´s article The Museum´s Role in a Multicultural Society, that aims to identify the various communities served by museums, not associating, though, the term ‘community’ to ‘ethnicity’, a factor she considers less relevant in the construction of the offer. She believes, and rightly so, that programmes especially made for ethnic groups have short-term results and she proposes that these groups are seen within their relationship with their communities, that is, family, neighbours, schoolmates and colleagues. There are two more articles in this second part related to visitor studies and marketing: United States: A Science in the Making (1993), by C.G. Screven e Can Museums be All Things to All People? Missions, Goals and Marketing Role (2000), by Neil Kotler and Philip Kotler.

The third part of the book discusses the role of the public service and presents the evolution in the production of exhibitions and educational programmes with the aim to establish a dialogue with the various audiences the museum intends to serve. In the first article, Museum Exhibitions and the Dynamics of Dialogue (1999), by Kathleen McLean we find examples of such initiatives that changed the way exhibitions are made. In Changing Practices of Interpretation (1997), Lisa C. Roberts presents the development of interpretation techniques, that recognise the existence of more than one version in a story and promote the involvement of exterior agents, such as the people that are part of the community in which the museum finds itself, with whom it aims to communicate and the story of whom it aims to tell. Lois Silverman, in Making Meaning Together: Lessons from the Field of American History (1993), presents a factor that influenced exhibition production, the very personal and unique way, based on previous knowledge and experiences, in which each person experiences and makes meaning of an exhibition. Mary Ellen Munlay, in Is There Method in Our Madness: Improvisation in the Practice of Museum Education (1999), talks about the need to follow the evolution in visitor profile and to understand what a visit means to them, in order to develop educational programmes that inform, promote dialogue and participation, question the present, provoke. An example is Mining the Museum, an installation by artist Fred Wilson, that came to question the concept of ‘museum’ itself, which is presented by Lisa G. Gorin in Mining the Museum: An Installation Confronting History (1993). The third part ends with Evaluating the Ethics and Consciences of Museums (1994), where Robert Sullivan questions the perpetuation of stereotypes and discrimination.

Considering that collections, or the object that compose them, are the nucleus around which all museum activity is developed, the book´s fourth part questions the role of the object. The article that introduces this part, What Is the Object of This Exercise: A Meandering Exploration of the Many Meanings of Objects in Museums (1999), by Elaine Heumann Gurian, is exactly what the title says: a very interesting exploration of the of the way the concept of ‘object’, and consequently the concept of museum, has changed in the last decades. The following articles (Collecting then, Collecting Today; Collection Planning: Pinning Down a Strategy; Who Cares? Conservation in a Contemporary Context; Deaccessioning: the American Perspective) discuss issues related to collections management, conservation and deaccessioning. There are two particularly interesting articles that discuss cultural property, rights, responsibility, illicit trade, the relation with countries and communities of origin: A Philosophical Perspective on the Ethics and Resolution of Cultural Property Issues (1999), by Karen J. Warren, and Deft Deliberations (1991), by Dan L. Monroe and Walter Echo-Hawk.

The fifth part is dedicated to the role of leadership. The book´s editor, Gail Anderson, stated in the introduction: “The best intentions, the most innovative exhibits, and the most coveted piece of art quite literally cannot by themselves make the difference in the future of a museum – it is the vision and the quality of the leadership that make the difference.” Stephen E. Weil opens this section considering the obligation to be accountable to society and demonstrate museum impact on people´s lives, in his article Creampuffs and Hardball: Are you Really Worth What You Cost or Just Merely Worthwhile? (1994). The same author, together with Earl Cheit, present in The Well-Managed Museum (1989) a checklist of the attributes of a well-managed museum. The three following articles consider issues related to laws, rules, ethics and accreditation (Museum Accountability: Laws, Rules, Ethics and Accreditation) and governance (Toward a New Governance and Institution-wide Change in Museums). The section ends with Persistent Paradoxes (1997), by Robert Jones, an article that aims to question the values of ‘traditional’ museums and the need to be aware and adapt to new realities, in order to remain relevant and manage to survive.

Reinventing the Museum is a stimulating and, in some cases, surprising book. The articles included in it represent a century in the development of thinking about the role of museums and help to contextualize many actions, initiatives, decisions and discussions around them. Recommended reading for those aiming to elaborate real strategic plans.

Monday, 19 July 2010

And after all, what´s my vision?

I thought it wouldn´t be fair to do a critical analysis of the IMC strategic planning at the Mapa das Ideias seminar without revealing my vision for 21st century museums, just in case anybody asked me... I shared it with the seminar participants and it can be registered here as well:

I dream of museums for the people, relevant and accessible.
Museums that not only preserve the past, but make us think about the present and the future.
Museums that are attentive towards what´s happening around them.
Museums that involve, inspire and entertain.

I am reading a very good book, where I discovered that I share my vision with someone who lived 100 years ago (should this be a reason for rejoicing or discouragement?). I´ll write about the book next week.

Monday, 12 July 2010

After all, what does 'strategic' mean?

On the occasion of my participation in a seminar organized by Mapa das Ideias next Thursday, I had another look at the issue of strategic planning.

It seems that nowadays the adjective ‘strategic’ defines any kind of idea, project, initiative. The term is used and abused and I am asking myself if those who use it really understand its meaning. Let´s have a look at the etymology of the word:

Strategy (greek strategia). 1. Part of the military art of combining and employing the means of war in planning and directing large military movements and operations; 2. The art of directing operations and combinations in order to achieve an end.

Thus, not every action is strategic. In order to be, it must be part of a plan through which we aim to achieve an end. In the majority of the cases, we fail in the definition of the ‘end’. We also fail in elaborating a diagnosis that will take us to the definition of the end. Normally, measures and actions are announced without considering the point where we find ourselves and the point we aim to reach. Looking again at the document of the Institute of Museums and Conservation (IMC) Strategic Planning of the IMC: Museums of the 21st century (available
here in portuguese only), on which I first commented in my post on March 15, I consider it a typical example of this way of elaborating plans so called ‘strategic’.

For Thursday´s seminar, I was asked to make a critical analysis of the above-mentioned document. I took the opportunity to look again at two other documents.

In 2005, the british Department for Culture, Media and Sports (DCMS) initiated a process entitled Understanding the Future: Museums and 21st century life, that aimed to consult various agents related to museums (we should highlight the absence of the word ‘strategy’ and the presence of the word ‘life’). DCMS identified five main themes for this process:

1. Collections and their uses
2. Learning and research
3. Careers, training and leadership
4. Coherence and advocacy
5. Partnership and measuring value

Based on these themes, 13 questions were formed. The Department presented a summary of the responses in a document available
here. Following this diagnosis:

1. They created a collaborative working group, involving various stakeholders, who then consulted widely with groups and associations to discuss areas of direct concern;
2. They promoted a wider seminar in order to discuss proposals;
3. They published a national strategy Framework, setting long-term goals, entitled
Understanding the Future: Priorities for England´s Museums.

Another process that would lead to the elaboration of a strategic plan was initiated in 2008 by the Municipality of Lisbon. Culture agents were asked to give their opinions on the following themes:


More codified themes, when compared to the british straightforwardness, which were translated into concrete questions that were discussed in open debates. In this diagnostic phase, apart from the analysis of the issues discussed during the debates, there took place the study of existing bibliography, interviews, the analysis of case studies, as well as the opinions and suggestions of all those involved. Based on the diagnosis, they identified the vision, the strategic axes and objectives, which led to the formulation of measures and concrete projects. The result of this process may be found in a document called Strategies for Culture in Lisbon (available
here in portuguese only).

Back to the document presented in January by the Ministry of Culture, we inevitably have to ask:

- Was there a diagnosis and how was it made?
- Were museum agents involved?
- Where can we find the vision of the Ministry of Culture / Institute of Museums and Conservation for the museums of the XXI century?

In other words, where are portuguese museums today and where do they want to be? Unfortunately, we are not going to find the answers in this four-page document. Actually, let´s admit it, this document is not a strategic plan. Presented little after the Minister of Culture and the new directors of IMC came into office, it is not the result of a wider consultation in the sector with the objective to make a diagnosis, in the first place; it does not present a vision; it shows some lack of understanding as to what constitutes a strategic axis, a measure or an action; it does not define priorities; it does not show the way forward. Actually in April, less than three months after it was presented, in an interview to the magazine L+Arte, João Carlos Brigola, IMC Director, defined it as a document that is part of a work in progress, which, after considering all the opinions expressed, would have a definitive version. Well, the above-mentioned examples of strategic planning are enough to understand that the way to do it should have been the opposite.

Monday, 5 July 2010

Sponsorship: a blessing or a curse?

Photo: Akira Suemori/AP

São João National Theatre missing 600 thousand euro to fullfil its programme was the title of an article in the newspaper Público on the 30th of June (read here in portuguese only). The article informed that the prestigious national theatre had lost one of its sponsors and that the director was confident that, even at a time of crisis, and given the theatre´s prestige and history, someone would show up willing to help.

It´s usually at a moment of crisis or cuts that we, cultural institutions and professionals of the sector, start talking about alternative funding sources and, more specifically, sponsorship or patronage. What should be a continuous and consistent work in fundraising, not associated to moments of crisis, becomes a cry for help, that make of us a poor relative, waiting for someone to feel sorry and save us.

I can´t imagine a company that would invest its money for feeling sorry, wanting to save someone from drowning. I don´t mean to question, of course, the prestige of São João Theatre or any other cultural institution. On the contrary, I believe that the prestige and the continuous and high quality work should make the news potential sponsors might read in the newspapers.

We are not going to find sponsors through the newspapers. This is exactly what Carlos Fragateiro did a few years ago, when he was the director of D.Maria II National Theatre (read article here in portuguese only), and, as one would expect, it didn´t result in anything. Nuno Carinhas, director of São João National Theatre, is now doing the same. We shouldn´t announce that we are looking for sponsorship because there was a cut; because we lost another funding source; because we are missing money in order to be able to fulfil our programme. A sponsorship is a partnership between equals, that benefits both sides. The objective of fundraising should be to do more and better, to go further, and not to solve financial problems. The projects proposed – either institutional or related to programming – should be strong, of quality, well structured, attractive, projects that certain companies, for reasons of either prestige or branding, would not want to miss the opportunity to become associated to.

All this reminds me of all the controversy regarding BP´s sponsorship to Tate Modern. A party to celebrate 20 years of this sponsorship caused a series of protests on behalf of many artists and has resulted in a heated exchange of opinions in the Guardian since the end of last month. All because of the accident, last April, on BP´s platform in the Gulf of Mexico that caused the greatest environmental disaster in the last years, ot ever.

Jonathan Jones, in his article
Tate is right to take BP´s money, was provocative. At a moment of big cuts, as the actual moment in the UK, “If they [museums] can get money from Satan himself, they should take it”, Jones said. As far as the BP sponsorship to Tate is concerned, he was questioning what was after all the benefit for BP for sponsoring the prestigious museum. “...I wasn't even aware of its Tate sponsorship – until now. If supporting Tate is meant to associate BP with cool art, it is a failure. I must have seen the BP logo a thousand times on press releases and it never lodged in my mind. I have never thought Tate=BP, let alone Tate=BP=oil is good.”

John Sauven answered Jones´s questions in his excellent article
BP arts sponsorship: can Tate afford it?. “Until the Gulf of Mexico disaster, BP's green sunflower was found only in carefully selected locations designed to give the company an air of clean, British authority: Covent Garden, the National Portrait awards, a new exhibition at the Tate. These are some of our best loved pastimes, and for BP this feelgood factor is simply priceless”.

This is the association companies are looking for and not to save us from our financial troubles. Sometimes things might not go as planned though. The disaster in the Gulf of Mexico and BP´s responsibilities put Tate in a difficult position. An institution that proclaims that it will not accept funds from a donor that is believed to have acted illegally in obtaining them or that aims to be a leader in response to climate change, has now some difficult decisions to make. Opinions are divided, as we can see in the article
Crude awakening: BP and the Tate, for which the Guardian interviewed various leading cultural figures. A very interesting reading.