Monday, 30 April 2012

Barcelona: 1 conference, 2 museums putting it to the test

Last week I was in Barcelona for the conference Glocal Audiences in Culture: Global Cities, Local Audiences, an Audiences Europe Network initiative. There were both museums and performing arts institutions in the programme, two worlds that rarely come together to discuss issues they have in common.

Quiet often, in these conferences we get to know projects which seem to be the answer to all our wishes and worries, but whose presentation remains rather superficial. We end up not knowing how they were developed and how (and if) they have been evaluated. This conference was no exception, but, even though, there were some moments and discussions of particular interest. The programme included one introductory session and five panels, which I´ll try to brielfy summarize.

Introductory session: Tourism vs. local audiences
We were presented with the results of a visitor survey which indicates that the big majority of the spanish do not visit museums in their country, but don´t fail to do so when travelling abroad; that more than half of visitors to Barcelona museums are foreigners, while 27% reside in this city. Visitors´ perception of museums is that they mean “learning”, “curiosity”, “peace”, “admiration”, “discovery”. Non-visitors´ or occasional visitors´ perception is that they mean “boredom”, “effort”, “incomprehension”, “discovery”. Speakers mentioned the need to create a feeling of belonging among local communities, to establish emotional links, to create spaces of encounter. One must admit that this is nothing new. I was thus left thinking if it makes sense to continue investing in this sort of one-off surveys which aim to study the relationship between audiences and museums in general, instead of working with the objective to change some of these indicators. On the other hand, in the case of museums which have the means to carry out continuous surveys (we were presented here with the Louvre case), which allow them to evaluate their work over time, registering modifications and new trends, one may find, no doubt, relevant indicators of change.

Panel 1: Big museums for local audiences
The need to concentrate on the individual and adapt the offer to everyone´s needs was once again mentioned here. Is it really possible that museums like the Prado and the Louvre, which receive millions of visitors every year, are able to fullfil this objective? This is what we dind´t find out in this panel. The mere presentation of initiatives is not enough for us to understand if the objective was met. In the meantime, there were mentioned here some points that deserve to be considered: the importance of collecting, using and sharing data; of seeking new partnerships, also among smaller museums, located in the area of the 'big ones'; of stepping outside the museum boundaries and going to meet the people; finally, of considering as a performance indicator not only the number of visitors, but also whether the museum has managed to meet (or not) visitor expectations.

Panel 2: Pricing strategies in time of crisis
Here´s a panel that didn´t meet expectations. Speakers presented their discount policies – the usual ones, those which have always existed – without a special consideration, as it was expected, regarding the challenges presented by the actual economic crisis. Challenges which, in my view, mainly concern those who normally visit cultural spaces (more or less frequently) and who might now have a more limited capacity to purchase tickets. What can we do in order to provide access to those who wish to visit and guarantee a revenue for our institutions? In what concerns free entries and the illusion that they bring, just by themselves, people who don´t have the habit of visiting, there seem to exist consensus (at least, nobody expressed his/her disagreement): this is really an illusion.

Panel 3: From user to client
Some truly relevant questions were raised in this panel concerning the need to put the individual in the centre of our strategic plans, to develop new audiences (I have stopped using this expression, but this is what was said) through relationship marketing, to create proximity and a personalized service, to take advantage of Customer Relationship Management tools (in Portugal, I believe that only CCB has been using them). There was also some discussion regarding the importance of maintaining a balance between what people want and programming needs (which reminded me of the very interesting Lead or Follow debate, which took place in January and the reading of which I recommend).

Panel 4:Tourist cities for local audiences
This was, in my opinion, the most interesting panel, where we truly shared and discussed worries and thoughts regarding the tension created in cities of all sizes between the local community and tourists. There is a real need to be relevant for different audiences, which requires very specific strategies in order to nurture and maintain a relationship with local people (from special programming to offering free coffee). The most interesting case for me was Hermitage Amsterdam, which ‘insists’ on positioning itself as an international destination, when tourists don´t see it this way and the local community, with which it has already established a very strong relationship, particularly appreciates the fact that this museum doesn´t draw the hoards of tourists one finds in other museums in this city.

Panel 5: Cultural institutions take the street
And it was this last panel that kept a pleasant surprise for us. An inspiring project of great impact: The Grand Tour was a National Gallery initiative, in partnership with Hewlett Packard (HP), which spread in the city centre, sometimes in the most unexpected places, chosen with a great sense of humour, high quality copies (prints) of the gallery´s most famous paintings. The objectives were: to raise awareness regarding the museum; to inform the public that some of the most known paintings could be found in the gallery; to let them know that entry was free; to make people talk about art. Next to each copy, there was a label with some basic information about the piece and a phone number for those who wanted to know more. Information was also available on the microsite and cold be downloaded. The museum considers that mission was accomplished: the number of visitors increased significantly, and many were coming holding the map that was created for this initiative looking for the original works. In many cases, the photos speak for themselves, in the meantime, there was also a book about this experience and people´s reactions to it.

Photo taken from the blog The Crossed Cow
Photo taken from the blog The Crossed Cow
Photo taken from the blog The Crossed Cow
I took advantage of my two days in Barcelona to visit two of my favourite museums. Arriving at the Maritime Museum, I found out that the permanent exhibition was closed due to works. I didn´t remember having seen a warning on the website (available only in catalan and spanish), but I checked when I got back to my hotel: there was no warning. Thus, I visited a temporary exhibition on the Titanic. Before I entered, I looked for the cloakroom to leave my heavy bag, but there wasn´t one. Entering the exhibition, I was given an audioguide (this one, yes, in more than two languages), which obliged visitors to follow a specific path, without being able to choose which objects or sections they might want to learn more about. When cases were small, too many visitors accumulated in front of them, making it impossible to see the objects we were hearing about. I turned the audioguide off and read just a few labels. Along the different sections of the exhibition, more than once I wondered if the objects in front of me were originals or copies (a museum has the obligation to mark the difference). I approached three members of staff to ask for information about this, all very nice, but none of them spoke english.

Museu Marítim de Barcelona, Titanic exhibition  (Photo: mv)
The following day it was the turn of the Museum of the History of Catalunia, in my opinion, one of the best history museums. I was glad to see english labels this time. In the past, I couldn´t understand how at the history museum of a people who wished to proclaim their difference and autonomy that same history was not told to foreign tourists, at least in english. On the other hand, the french friend who came with me to that visit, a history teacher at the French School of Barcelona for four years now, had never heard of this museum, he was visiting for the first time (and loved it). Wouldn´t one expect that among this museum´s priority target audiences would be history teachers of the city and region?

Museu d´Història de Catalunia  (Photo: mv)

These are, yes, two of my favourite museums in this city, because they know how to tell a good story. Nevertheless, they both put the reflections and conclusions of the conference to the test and reminded me that, in many cases and even in what concerns issues that seem to be obvious or simple, theory and practice remain quite distant. Why is that?

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Monday, 16 April 2012

The stories we tell ourselves

When I was 11 years old and our car broke down during a visit to Constantinople, I was very surprised that a number of people came to assist us and they neither gave up nor did they attack us when they found out we were Greeks (we were supposed to be hating each other). At the age of 12, I was shocked to hear in a foreign documentary that Alexander the Great was an imperialist and a people´s murderer (everybody was supposed to admire and acknowledge his greatness). At 19, again in Turkey, in Smyrna, I felt puzzled when an old fisherman started crying when he found out we were Greeks and said he was from Crete (wasn´t he supposed to speak greek then?). During that same trip, arriving at Afyonkarahisar, I felt disturbed when I saw in the central square a statue representing a battle between a Turk and a Greek, the latter being on the ground (the Greeks were supposed to be always on their feet). At 23, while visiting a history museum in the town of Halifax (UK), I felt outraged when I saw photos of fighters of the cypriot resistance against british rule where they were being identified as “terrorists” (they were supposed to be honoured by everyone as heroes).

Afyonkarahisar, Turkey (Photo: mv)
These are some of the moments when ‘my story’ was challenged. The clash was considerable at all of them. Useful, as well. Because, as the surprise, the shock, the puzzlement or the outrage subsided – but, also, the more I traveled, the more people I got to know – I was becoming more and more conscious of the existance of more stories, apart from mine, but which related to me too, they came to complement my own, at times contradicting it. There have been more moments like these, but now they are somehow ‘expected’, they are welcome, they bring the pleasure of discovery and knowledge, they provide an approach, a different understanding, without necessarily resulting into an agreement.

In one way or the other, museums of all kinds tell stories, make interpretations. Almost 20 years ago, I was starting my studies in museology. In my first readings, preparing my first courseworks, I often came across references regarding the fact that people acknowledged the ‘authority’ of museums, were looking for the ‘truth’ in them, trusted them and recognized their importance, even those who didn´t visit. At that time, it seemed to me that that´s how it should be and I recognized the enormous responsibility this trust brought upon museum professionals when interpreting collections, an interpretation that should be ‘objective’. Almost 20 years later, the museums I like the best are those which don´t consider themselves to be an ‘authority’, don´t aim to be ‘objective’, accept the plurality of narratives (coming also from non-specialists) and are not afraid to provide space for them to be expressed and shared. The museums I like the most are those which question themselves and question me, question ‘my story’.

A recent visit to the Musée do Quai Branly, my first, made me think again about these issues. I remembered all the controversy that surrounded the creation of this museum, that brought together the collections of the ethnology laboratory of the Musée de l´Homme and of the Musée des Arts de l´Afrique et de l´Océanie. In the words of President Jacques Chirac at the inauguration, this museum represents the rejection of ethnocentrism, of this unreasonable and unacceptable pretension of the West to hold within itself the destiny of humanity. It represents the rejection of the false evolutionism that claims that some peoples remain in a previous stage of human evolution and that their so-called “primitive” cultures are merely worth serving as objects of study for the anthropologist or, at best, as an inspiration for the Western artist.

In the period that preceded the opening of the museum, a survey was carried out with the aim to find out what was the public´s point of view regarding its creation. The results, presented in the article Du MAAO au Musée du Quai-Branly: Le point de vue des publics sur une mutation culturelle, allow us to conclude that the citizens´ worries and expectations concentrated on two issues: should Quai Branly be an art or an ethnology museum; and should it be a museum about colonialism or rather a kind of full stop in an uncomfortable and painful story and a new starting point. These same issues were the object of reflection and criticism on behalf of the specialists too.

In Quai Branly´s permanent exhibition I found an art museum. A museum that invited me to simply contemplate and appreciate beautiful objects. This wasn´t what I was looking for and I don´t think that through this kind of approach one manages to “reject ethnocentrism” and elevate the cultures of other peoples to the status they “deserve”. The permanent exhibition does not actually tell any story, much less that of the creation of this collection.

(Image taken from the Musée du Quai Branly website)

Nevertheless, Quai Branly offers much more: temporary exhibitions (those, yes, inquisitive, perplexing, surprising, such as, at this moment, Exhibitions: L´invention du sauvage), conferences, guided tours, workshops, cinema, theatre, dance, music. A very rich parallel programme that aims to complement the permanent exhibition, explore it, scrutinize it, to actually bring cultures to dialogue (the museum motto is Là où dialoguent les cultures).

Even though, I felt that there might still exist a ‘but’. I felt that the dialogue might just be between ‘our’ culture and ‘theirs’ (and maybe even a kind of apology, ‘ours’ towards ‘them’). In the article The Opening of the Musée du Quai Branly: Valuing/Displaying the "Other" in Post-Colonial France, of 2006, one can read that the museum was conceived and built without getting in touch with the minorities, except in the week of inauguration – a marketing manoeuvre, according to an interviewee -, in order to guarantee a positive response. On the other hand, in The Public Sphere as Wilderness: Le Musée du Quai Branly (which dates from 2009 and is a very interesting account of the museum´s first years of existance, with an extensive list of references in the end), we can see that, at the time, just one third of the museum visitors were tourists (meaning ‘foreign tourists´), while among the rest, 60% were frequent museum goers and 40% a new museum-going public, attracted by the links the museum provided between them and their cultures of origin. These are the statistics. In a very entertaining session with an African storyteller on a Sunday morning, I just saw white families. In the photos that illustrate the brochure of the March-May programme we also see just white audiences. Could this be a coincidence?

(Photo: mv)
Although the challenge of shared ‘authority’ is common to all museums, I always felt that the task was somehow more complex in what concerned history or ethnology museums. Museums which deal with life stories, with political events, with traumas, conflicts, hatred, with ‘us’ and ‘the others’, with people. I always visit them with the enormous curiosity to find out if they accepted the challenge and how they dealt with it. By coincidence, a few weeks before visiting Quai Branly, I watched this video with Nigerian writer Chimamanda Adichie about “The stories Europe tells itself about its colonial history”. Knowing the ‘other’ is hearing his voice. In the first person. And in order for this to happen, an encounter must be provided. This is what good museums know how to do: create spaces of encounter. Of dialogue as well.

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Jeremy Harding, At Quai Branly

Monday, 2 April 2012

Ministry of Culture: Which culture? Whose culture?

“The protection of human rights, in a cultural society, requires the observance of cultural rights, these being universally accepted rights. There are no human rights, much less democracy, without cultural justice, without cultural diversity and pluralism and, much less, without guaranteeing the right to exist, the right to visibility, the right to difference and cultural dignity.” Flávia Piovesan in Building democracy: cultural practice, social rights and citizenship (text in portuguese)

Bandstand in Alentejo, Portugal (photo taken from the blog À espera de Godot)

An 11-year-old boy told me the other day that only when he is on holiday in Algarve he can go to the cinema, because in Évora, where he lives, there is no cinema. My first reaction was desbelief; then shock; then shame; in the end, anger. Évora, a district capital, a university town, has not got cinema in 2012.
This made me think again of António Gomes de Pinho´s interview in the TV programme Câmara Clara (26.02.2012), where he said that maintaining a Ministry of Cultural that had been losing its political weight, was an exagerated expense, an autophagic consumption; this is why António Gomes de Pinho had been defending the extinction of the Ministry, the reduction in services and the investment of the resources available in the creators, who are the ones who make culture.
Despite agreeing with the first part of this argument, I cannot agree with the solution proposed. The existence of a Ministry of Culture is not justified, in the first place, for supporting creators and its extinction does not affect (in the sense of benefiting or harming), in the first place, creation. A Ministry of Culture exists so that the young boy from Évora (and many more boys and girls, men and women, all over the country) can watch cinema; can go to the theatre; can attend concerts; can visit a museum; can have a library. It also exists to protect and safeguard, for all of us, our cultural heritage and to create the necessary conditions so that some people can develop their creativity and share it, with all of us, thus contributing for what is going to be the heritage of future generations. It exists to guarantee that the sector is ‘populated’ by professionals who are adequately prepared, on a technical point of view, to carry out their duties. It also exists in order to contribute in the development of citizens who are attentive, critical, sensitive, tolerant, intervening. A Ministry of Culture exists, in the first place, in order to guarantee the citizens access to it, being this a human right that every State is obliged to defend.
Despite all this, the dialectic of the majority of the professionals in the cultural sector is far from defending this fundamental right. Ignoring society (forgetting about it?), it seems to me that our argumentation focuses mainly on the revendication of State financial support and our voice is normally (and more and more sporadically) heard after the announcement of cuts or extinctions or, at times, of certain nominations. We are quite an egocentric sector (although there are some bright exceptions – starting from the education services of many museums around the country) and we are not particularly worried about the fact that, when we revendicate, we revendicate alone, for ourselves, without the involvement or support of a big part of our society (or even a small part, for that matter). When faced with this fact, we prefer to think that society lacks an interest in ‘culture’. Which culture? Whose culture?
Thus, it was a pleasant surprise to hear theatre director Jorge Silva Melo (SIC channel, 17.03.2012) commenting on the 100% cut in annual and one-off grants for the performing arts. Silva Melo gave a whole new orientation to all this, focusing his worries on the spectator: “(...) I, as a spectator, will not be able anymore to discover young talents. (...) The grants do not support the artists, they support the spectators. Because if I want to see a play by theatre company Truta, and if they don´t get a grant, I´ll have to pay approximately 100 Euro per ticket and I haven´t got that money. But I have the right to see what young creators are doing, what´s preoccupying them, what they are thinking about. It is this kind of support that has been taken from me, as a spectator. (…)”.
Although Silva Melo was commenting on a very specific issue – one of the many a Ministry of Culture should worry about (let´s continue discussing at that ‘level’, of a Ministry, despite our reality being ‘minor’) -, his words are an example of how we should be building our argument: without forgetting or allowing to forget for a moment at whose service the State is; at whose service a Ministry of Culture is; for whom public museum exist; or who creators and artists who are being supported aim to communicate with and share their thoughts; among many other things.
On the other hand, both culture professionals and culture authorities must realize as soon as possible that it is urgent to open the dialogue up, to involve the community, to aim for a greater representativity of the country´s various cultural realities – when we support, when we programme, when we plan, when we promote -, to aim for pluralism and respect for the anxieties, worries, needs and tastes of many citizens (both creators and audiences) and not only for those of a minority. Because the majority of the citizens are not lacking an interest in culture in general; they might, yes, be lacking an interest in ‘ours’.

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