Monday, 27 December 2010

While waiting for the marbles

The new Acropolis Museum looks like a huge meteorite that fell in the middle of a densely built area. It is not easy to appreciate the building from the exterior, it lacks a ‘respiration’ zone around it. As we are approaching, getting different views of the various volumes that compose it, we could even say that this is a strange and ugly object, arrogantly imposing itself in the space where it is inserted.

On the other hand, this work by swiss architect Bernard Tschumi, in collaboration with greek architect Michael Photiadis, conquers us unconditionally the moment we are inside it. This is not a building that overlaps the objects it is supposed to exhibit. On the contrary, it seems that every space was conceived considering the specific pieces it was going to receive. The views of the underground excavation (through the glass floor) are frightening (due to the height) and impressive. The main corridor that takes us to the exhibition – called “the slopes of Acropolis” – gives us the impression that we are indeed part of the procession that is heading up in order to deliver the offerings to the temple of goddess Athena. In the room of the archaic period we enter a garden of statues, solemn, smiling, somehow sad. Beautiful.
Photo: Aris Messinis (Agence France-Press)
The whole of the third and last floor is dedicated to the Parthenon. Luminous, graceful, with a direct and glamorous view to the Acropolis and the Parthenon, it has the exact dimensions of Athena´s temple. The majority of the objects exhibited here are plaster copies of the original frieze and metopes, today at the British Museum in London.


The battle for the restitution of the originals to Greece is part of a larger discussion, at international level, about the restitution of antiquities to their countries of origin (although the term ‘countries’ in this context might not be the most accurate). Apart from Greece, countries like Italy, Egypt, Peru, Nigeria, Ethiopia and others, are asking American, british, French, german museums to return pieces they consider that they form part of their cultural heritage, promoting them at times as national symbols, objects of national pride.

This seems to be a battle between nationalist states and universal museums. In December 2002, eighteen museums (all of them north american and european) signed a Declaration on the Importance and Value of Universal Museums. Condemning the illicit traffic of archaeological, artistic and ethnic objects, they consider, nevertheless, that objects acquired a long time ago (they do not specify how long) should be seen in the light of different sensibilities and values, reflective of that earlier era. These objects, one reads in the declaration, are today part of the museums that cared for them and made them available to an international audience. They do not belong to the citizens of one nation, but to the people of every nation. In 2008, James Cuno´s controversial book Who owns antiquity? Museums and the battle over our ancient heritage came to defend the universal museums. Cuno says that these museums should have the freedom to acquire antiquities even when they are of uncertain origin, in order to prevent them from falling into the obscurity of private collections, not allowing the great museums to fulfil their mission of educating the public about various cultures, exhibiting objects from all periods and all continents.

Two of the most balanced reviews of James Cuno´s book were written by Tom Flynn and archaeologist Colin Renfrew. Flynn criticizes the universal museums´ patronizing and colonial vision. He stresses the fact that all those who contributed with texts are directors of north American museums (with the exception of Neil McGregor, director of the British Museum), as well as the lack of reference regarding the relationship north American and European museums should foster with other countries, the museums of which are not mentioned in the book (read the full article here). Renfrew, on the other hand, criticizes Cuno for claiming a freedom without regulation, without any diligence, for universal museums in acquiring antiquities and supports the need to establish codes and clear acquisition policies at an international level (read the full article here).

This is a much vaster and complex discussions, that goes much beyond the limits of the summary written here. The arguments of both sides deserve to be analyzed with attention and objectivity. In the meantime, and without wanting to oversimplify a complex issue, I would say that I am not afraid that the claims for the restitution of certain objects will leave the so-called universal museums empty, not allowing them to pursue and fulfil their mission, as it is feared by their supporters. The claims are very specific and they are not about each and every object in those museums´collections.

When I look at the Parthenon I see an amputated monument. I believe that the originals of the frieze and metopes should be returned, since the necessary conditions for their care are guaranteed. Returned not to Greece and to the Greeks, but to their natural context, historical and cultural, in order to be appreciated by citizens of the whole world, to whom they belong.

Outras referências Elginism
The Committee for the Reunification of the Parthenon Marbles Articles by Kwame Opoku in Modern Ghana
Who draws the borders of culture? (Article by Michael Kimmelman in the New York Times of May 5, 2010) The Medici conspiracy: The illicit journey of looted antiquities - From Italy´s tomb raiders to the world´s greatest museums (Book by Peter Watson and Cecilia Todeschini)

Monday, 20 December 2010

Etched in memory

In the post Let´s talk business, last May, I was talking about analyzing memories as a way of evaluating the impact of the visit to a museum, of an exhibition or of a performance. I have been following with interest the publication of some of the results of a big survey with museum-goers on the blog Museum Audience Insight.

Museum Audience Insight is the blog of Reach Advisors, an american company of marketing research and strategy, that works with many museums. In the beginning of the year they launched a survey with the objective to collect data that could answer questions such as:

- Do childhood experiences at museums affect motivations and expectations of adult museum-goers?
- If certain types of childhood experiences are common among our most engaged adult visitors, can museums “stack the deck” so that children today have similar experiences?
- How crucial are school field trips to raising new generations of museum goers? How crucial are fathers?
- How important is curiosity as a motivation?

The survey was launched via mailing lists, Facebook pages and Twitter of 103 museums in 5 countries (USA, Canada, UK, New Zealand, Australia and India), although 97% of the respondents were from the USA. More than 40,000 responses were compiled. The methodology is explained here and here.

One of the main lines of inquiry concerned early childhood memories. The researchers are trying to understand, among other things, which are the factors that make a museum experience memorable; what ages are more impressionable; how early childhood memories differ among different audience segments. They asked people to talk about their earliest or strongest childhood museum memory, to say how old they were in that memory and who they were with. After that, they could go on and tell everything they remembered from the visit.

In general, the average age of memories was 7. More than half of the respondents remembered the presence of their mother. A bit less than half remembered their father. School visits were crucial for adult museum visitation, especially among people whose parents had a lower educational level. Memories related to history museums and historic sites (24%), natural history museums (21%), science museums and science centres (21%), art museums (17%).

In the last two months, Reach Advisors have published more and more specific results of the survey. All complemented with statements from people who took part in it. On the 28th of October there was a post totally dedicated to natural history museums (“When you´re seven, it´s all about the dinos, baby!”). That´s because data analysis indicated that memories from these particular museums stick around for decades, vivid and detailed memories. The determining factors here are the scale of the objects, dinosaurs, dioramas, but also, surprisingly, rocks and minerals. There are also many memories from natural history museums shops.

There was another post after that on interactive experiences (“Hands-on exhibits are very fun!” – Hands-on experiences in childhood memories). Researchers concluded that these are very important components in what concerns museum experiences. Nevertheless, memories that include only a hands-on experience tend to be less vivid and detailed, unless related to a specific object or an exhibition.

Another element that can profoundly mark memories from a visit is the building itself. In the post “A grand and beautiful building with cool things’ to look at” – Architecture in early childhood museums memories” we can read that in certain cases, more than the objects exhibited or the activities, it is the buildings that mark people´s memories. Nevertheless, scale and grandeur do not make them cold and prohibitive for children, contrary to what might be expected. Almst all memories are positive and certain among them refer to smaller and more modest buildings.

In the posts “Museums are awesome!” and “Awesome? Try fascinating!” we read about the analysis of language when describing the memory. The scale of the building and objects, as well as glitter, beauty and the exotic, impress children and stay in their memory. These experiences are described as ‘awesome’. On the other hand, experiences that have awaken an interest in a certain subject or the desire to learn more, the adjective mostly used is ‘fascinating’.

The last post of the series (more will follow) is entitled Career choices: how museums sometimes make a difference. It presents the cases (few, but significant, really) of people for whom a visit to a museum gave them an interest in a specific subject that determined their career choice when they became adults.

I was 8 years old when I first visited the Louvre. I was following my parents in the rooms and corridors of the museum, until we reached a huge staircase. And when I lifted my eyes, I saw at the top of the staircase the Victory of Samothrace. I was deeply impressed, I couldn´t take my eyes off her. I don´t know if it was at that precise moment, but it was during that trip that I told my parents I wanted to work in a museum (I changed my mind many times in the years that followed...). And every time I am back at the Louvre, I approach the staircase hoping and knowing that the Victory of Samothrace will have the same impact on me, as the first time.

What´s your earliest or strongest museum memory?

Thursday, 16 December 2010

Guest post: On access to culture, by Cecília Folgado

In the last days access to culture and the universal declaration of human rights have been in the centre of the debate within the cultural sector. Personally, I do not rejoice in the centrality of the issue. I confess that it upsets me and induces me to ask for space in a borrowed blog.

I get upset because of my personal experiencenad those who know me know, of course, that I grew up in a town (capital of a district) without cinema, without a library and with a cultural activity concentrated in the local theatre group, its international festival and the town popular festivals. There was also, of course, television, where one would discover things, films, musics.

I left the town in 1993 and, 17 years and a Centre for the Arts and Performances later (a result of the network of cinema-theatres envisioned by Minister Carrilho), there´s not a big difference. It´s true there is a larger offer, there are shows, there is even a jazz festival. And there´s a new museum. Cinema is still residual, such as other cultural and artistic expressions. There is still, of course, television, and nowadays internet as well (which gives the illusion that we are in the centre of everything and have access to everything).

These days, the centrality of the issue of access to culture and the claim to it is taking place in the context of the 23% cut suffered by the structures that get a quadrennial support by the Ministry of Culture (in reality, a cut suffered by all structures receiving support). Now, to be honest, this is not a claim for access to culture, what is at stake is exclusively the access to the financial means that are necessary for one part of the cultural sector: the artists/authors and their structures (a central part, but, even though, one part, because culture is not only about creation or creators).

State funding is necessary, that´s for sure, even though there should be some urgent and serious thinking regarding its volume, form and opportunity; but it should be distinguished from the right of access to culture. Because the later is bigger, larger and more fundamental than any funding system.

Access to culture implies that we all have the same opportunities, whether we were born in Portalegre or Cova da Moura, whether we walk or use a wheelchair, whether we know how to write or not. This is the access defended by the UN: access that allows for equality and non-exclusion. This access, recognized and guaranteed, will only become true if we bother (we, the cultural sector) to elaborate a cultural policy that is consistent, whole, for the future, a policy that strengthens the cultural tissue, in the areas of expression, creation, but also, and fundamentally, in the territory; it will only become true once we understand that funding is an investment and it should go beyond creating, beyond producing.

It´s true that in times of crisis and in times of cuts can be frightening and scary times: the sector is fragile and orphan (6 ‘adoptions’ in 11 years), the dependency (instigated by the State) immense. But, as it has already been written in other texts and other blogs, maybe this is a time of opportunities. It would be better if the time and energy spent claiming money that does not exist were used to take a look at ourselves, each one of us, each agent, each structure, each area of expression and try to understand in what way we can work better, more efficiently; to work more efficiently not in order to make ‘profit’ or to become ‘merchants’ of culture, but in order for the sector e culture not to succumb after each ministerial change or each economic and financial crisis, and in order to guarantee real access for all to culture.

CECÍLIA FOLGADO BA in Marketing Management (IPAM, Matosinhos) and MA in Arts Management (City University – London). In the areas of Marketing Management and Cultural Production, she worked with Núcleo de Experimentação Coreográfica (NEC), Companhia Instável, Fundação Narciso Ferreira de Riba de Ave (2000-2003), Henri Oguike Dance Company e Akram Khan Company, (London, 2003-2006). In 2007 she was part of the production team of the Cultural Forum State of the World (Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation). Since July 2007 she is Deputy Communications Director of São Luiz Municipal Theatre. She studies Creative Cities and sustainable development through cultural planning (subject of elaborated her MA thesis). She gives training in Communication and Marketing (Setepés) and Cultural Management (Theatre and Cinema School, Lisbon Polytechnic Institute).

Monday, 13 December 2010

A blue (or any other colour) hug to the crisis

Two years ago I went to buy tickets for a play at the Almada Municipal Theatre (AMT). The employee at the ticket desk informed me that for the price of the tickets I wanted to buy (or a bit more, I don´t remember exactly) I could become a member of the Friends Club. Thus, for a year I could have free tickets to all AMT productions, substantial discounts for other productions, as well as free tickets or discounts for all my companions (regardless of the number). It wasn´t difficult to calculate that for the price of four tickets (two adults and two children) for one play I could practically have free access to the whole AMT season. I remember thinking at the time that the AMT didn´t seem to worry much about generating revenue; and that it would have better admitted that entry to its plays was free, rather than giving the idea that the subscription price was wrongly calculated or that there was no ‘higher’ cause behind promoting the Friends Club.

Institutions that promote subscriptions normally do it because they guarantee benefits both for the institution and for its publics (building loyalty among existing and potential ‘clients’). A big part of the book
Standing Room Only: Strategies for Marketing the Performing Arts, by Philip Kotler and Joanne Scheff, is dedicated to pricing policies and strategies that aim to build loyalty. Among the benefits for the institution, the two authors highlight: guaranteeing a source of income; the possibility to reduce the costs of promoting the shows (the costs of attracting and renewing subscribers are lower that the costs of attracting single-ticket buyers to each production); more space for the artistic director to experiment; a larger audience for more ‘alternative’ or experimental productions or projects that do not involve known or popular artists, since it´s all included in the ‘pack’. On the other hand, subscribers get discounts; they get priority seating; they have the right to change tickets; they have access to a number of other services (parking, discounts at the restaurant, special events, educational programmes, meetings with the artists, etc.); they are given the possibility and the opportunity to ‘train’ their taste, since, once again, the ‘pack’ also includes experimental, new or less known projects.

Thus, I was left thinking what could have been the objectives of AMT when creating the Friends Club, since the subscription price did not seem to be able (or even wish to) guarantee the above mentioned benefits. I didn´t renew my subscription: a personal choice, of course, related to my way of life, my need to have more freedom and flexibility in choosing the productions I want to see, that form part of the (large) offer in the Lisbon area; a proof that, if people don´t really invest in the subscription, they don´t think they have got anything to lose by not attending more shows and thus lose the incentive to renew; a proof, as well, that extremely low prices or free tickets are not able by themselves to build loyalty, even among those who attend many performances. (Regarding the issue of complimentary tickets, a subject that has also been discussed in this blog
here and here, a recent post in the blog Arts Marketing is an excellent summary of the points that need to be considered.)

I thought again about the AMT Friends Club last week, when I received a letter by express mail, signed by AMT director Joaquim Benite, inviting me to a general meeting (although I am not a member anymore). Last Sunday I also received a phone call asking to confirm if I would be attending the meeting. The reason for the meeting was a €150,000 cut imposed by the Ministry of Culture, the equivalent of 10% of the theatre´s budget. In the letter we could read the following statements, among others: “(…) a crisis that furthers the development of confusion and the strengthening of those powers that don´t give up on pushing Arts and Culture towards the ‘laws of the market’ (…); “(…) revivification of the old and persistent struggle against the subventions of the Public Powers to the Theatres, aiming at making Culture and the Arts become part of a mercantile system and the subversion of the constitutional precept that guarantees everyone the right to cultural and artistic fruition.”; “At the AMT we are not willing to simply watch, in a conformist and passive way, the advancement of the Ministry of Culture .” (Joaquim Benite is also the author of
this text on the AMT site – in portuguese only).

I was left thinking if the way AMT itself is reacting to the crisis and the specific situation created by the cuts in Portugal is not also revealing a certain conformism and passivity. This does not only apply to AMT, but to many other institutions as well. Many countries have gone or are going through a similar crisis. In all of them there are voices, more or less official, that consider the crisis to be an opportunity to look, honestly and realistically, at the sector and at the way it functions. Instead of clinging to ‘vested’ rights, to our dependency from the State, to a rhetoric that aims to equate the healthy and efficient management of our institutions to the commercialization of our offer, isn´t this the moment to try and establish new, different relationships, that would allow for a bolder vision and the pursuit of a more stable and sustainable future? Isn´t this the moment to evaluate our resources (financial and human) and to try to optimize them and manage them more wisely, efficiently and imaginatively? Including money spent on stamps and phone calls?

Isn´t this also the moment to gain courage and make difficult decisions? When there is a need to make cuts, the most obvious choice seems to be to cut in the programming budget, maintaining fixed expenses, mainly related to personnel. Aren´t we forgetting, though, that the raison-d´-être of our institutions is programming? Shouldn´t this be the last item in the budget where we should cut? In the cultural and other sectors, in this and other countries, analysts of the crisis are pointing towards an inflation in the number of employees in many public institutions, that seem to exist, after all, in order to employ people. Are they all necessary? Are they all competent? Have they all got appropriate training for carrying out their duties and tasks? The analysts say no. My experience also says no.

Let´s look at the crisis as an opportunity, yes. The opportunity to develop new management models, to adapt to a new reality, to be creative and imaginative in solving the problems; the opportunity to grow, away from the State patronage; the opportunity to become more demanding, more rigorous, more efficient. Let´s also create a space for new voices to be heard, the voices of a new generation of culture professionals, that may contribute together with the personalities that are widely known and respected in the field (for example, I suggest reading the post
Crises que vêm por bem: Contribuições para um sector cultural diferente - in portuguese only – published by Miguel Magalhães in the blog Cost Disease Diaries on December 8). Let´s also try and put the right professionals at the right place, involving in the field people whose training and know-how may contribute in transforming it. In other words, let´s join our efforts against conformism and passivity. This is an opportunity.

Monday, 6 December 2010

On how to build an immigrant

I am borrowing the title from an article by Ana Bigotte Vieira (read here in portuguese only) published in the blog BUALA – African Contemporary Culture on the 10th of November. The author presents, without sentimentalities and excesses in her writing, the situation experienced near Ceuta, on moroccan territory, a place where people of various nationalities gather and wait for the right moment to attempt the desperate and hopeful leap against the barbed wire. They have against them the exhaustion, the hunger, the abuses of the owners of the illegal immigration networks, as well as of the moroccan and spanish police, and also SIVE, a system for the detection and blocking of the boats of immigrants in the open sea, composed by radars, cameras and connection to a satellite, that allows the authorities to stop them from reaching the coast.
The article by Ana Bigotte Vieira reminded me of one of my favourite books. Eldorado, by Laurent Gaudé, came into my hands by chance. I started reading it with a certain indifference – I had nothing else to read on that day – but soon the French author´s writing captivated me and I couldn´t let go of the book until I had finished it. This is the story of Italian captain Salvatore Piracci, who for twenty years has patrolled the Mediterranean intercepting the boats of illegal immigrants, many times left adrift in the open sea by traffickers. One day his faith in his mission is profoundly shaken after the encounter with a survivor who has lost her child during the trip. The captain leaves everyone and everything and follows the path of the immigrants, becoming one of them. At the same time, we follow the story of two brothers leaving Sudan hoping to reach Europe, the new Eldorado. Only one of them will reach the destination.
I was also reminded of Laurent Gaudé´s book when I first saw the work of Cameroonian artist Barthélémy Toguo Road for Exile, as part of the exhibition Islands Never Found, presented at the State Museum of Contemporary Art in Thessaloniki, Greece. Even before getting to know this work´s title, the fragility of the balance of the pieces piled on the boat, the lack of space, the transparency of the sea water (beautiful, but hard and deceitful at the same time), created with bottles of vodka, reminded me of the stories narrated by Gaudé, of the world he described. Barthélémy Toguo has created so far five versions of the piece Road for Exile. One of them was exhibited last year at Carpe Diem in Bairro Alto (read here in portuguese only).
Recently I read one more novel related to the subject of immigration. Leaving Tangier, by Moroccan poet and writer Tahar Ben Jelloun, is the story of a Moroccan brother and sister who are looking for a better life in Spain. A book about a reality that was largely unknown to me (about the tactics of the moroccan regime or about love affairs and homosexuality in an arab country), the permanent contrast between the traditional and the modern, and also betaween Europe and the North of Africa. The approach becomes more interesting given that the author has been living in Paris for the last forty years, between (or within) the two cultures.