Monday, 3 December 2012

Says who?

Giselle Ciulla, 'curator' of Giselle´s Remix. (Photo taken from the website of Clark Art Institute)

uCurate is an initiative by Clark Art Institute in Williamstown, USA. It is a digital application that allows people to design imaginary exhibitions made up with objects from the museum collection. Proposals enter a competition and the winner gets to set up a real exhibition with the museum´s help. In this first edition, and after evaluating almost 1000 proposals, the winner was an 11-yaer-old girl, Giselle Ciulla, who´s inviting us now to visit Giselle´s Remix (more here).

It´s so good to see Giselle´s happy face and we can almost feel how proud she is of her exhibition. This is also the role of museums in society, a role that allows for involvement, active participation, which recognizes that there are more than one versions of the ‘truth’ and creates a place for them to be shared, even if this is about 11-year-old children. The objects´ labels were written by Giselle herself. They convey simplicity and freshness, they demonstrate sensitivity. A few years ago I had seen lables written by visitors at the Tate Britain and I had also liked them a lot. For me, they were, for me, as interesting as the others, the ‘official’ ones. At the time (it was in 2004) Maev Kennedy of the Guardian had found the initiative dubious. On the otehr hand, Tate Britain´s director at the time, Stephen Deuchar, was saying that he would be particularly interested in the contributions of visitors who might know much more on a painting than the museum experts or the artists themselves (read here).

On 12th to 14th of November I was at the conference In the name of the arts or in the name of the audiences, organized by Culturgest in collaboration with the programme Descobrir of the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation. One of the main concerns of those present seemed to be the issue of ‘authority’ regarding the interpretation of a work of art. When I did my master´s, we were ‘warned’ that people acknowledged authority in museums, they considered the information they found in them as a ‘validated truth’. But even at that time, and it´s been almost 20 years, we were questioning ourselves regarding the possibility (and the obligation) to create the space for more than one story to be told.

Well, there is still a concern and lots of thinking about it. The concept of participatory museum (so well substantiated in theory and in practice by Nina Simon) is being widely accepted. An interesting case, among others, at the above mentioned conference was that of the dTOURS at the contemporary art exhibition dOCUMENTA. These were (paid) guided tours given by people of various ages and backgrounds, the majority residing in Kassel, the city that hosts the exhibition. The dTOURS had taken place for the first time in the previous edition, dOCUMENTA 12, and they had resulted in a number of complaints from the audience. Although the organizers had informed that the tours would be given by non-specialists, participants still felt ‘cheated’, their expectations had been different. Nevertheless, and despite the not so positive evaluation, dOCUMENTA 13 repeted the tours.

A number of issues are raised here: Why repeat an initiative, in exactly the same way, if it was not positively evaluated? Are we ignoring – in the name of experimentation, of exploration, of a wish to do more and better – people´s basic needs, such as listen to what a specialist has to say on a specific subject, such as in a ‘normal’ guided tour, such as in a ‘normal’ label? Are we walking towards an opposite extreme, where “visitors know best” (even “more than the artists themselves”, to quote again the Tate Britain´s former director)?

Clay Shirky´s book Cognitive Surplus: How Technology Makes Consumers into Collaborators  tells us about the pro-am (professional – amateur) movement and how new technologies allow us today to use people´s enormous cognitive surplus. People are eager to contribute with their knowledge (without being paid for it, just because it makes them feel good, useful, involved) towards all sorts of projects, social causes, etc. Wikipedia is such an example. Ian David Moss argued in his blog Createquity that the model of Wikipedia may be applied to culture, in programming or in distributing funds (read here).

People continue looking for information in museums. In an article by Stephen Weil entitled “The Museum and the Public” (included in the book Museums and their communities, edited by Sheila Watson), I read that, after the era of ‘celebratory’ and assertive museums, there was a new trend, that of admitting that what´s being said is not a closed issue, it could be open to different interpretations or the subject of ongoing research. It´s worth mentioning that it was a natural history museum (the American Museum of Natural History) one of the first to present labels which said “what we know so far”, “but we might be wrong, it´s happened before, there is an ongoing reserach”, etc. Maybe because scientists are more at ease than other specialists with testing and error and with admitting that they had been wrong. 

Specialists don´t know everything, but they know a lot, more than we do in their specific areas. We may find them in and out of museums, they may be professionals or amateurs, and together they may contribute in the development of our knowledge. I, as a visitor, still look for their opinion, for their ‘version', not because I wish to accept it as if it was the Bible, but because with it I can build my own opinion, my own knowledge. At the same time, going beyond information, and considering that a museum visit is also feelings, surprises, emotions, sharing, previous knowledge and experiences, memories, the specialist – when also a good mediator or facilitator (or...) – will know how to create that space where everyone can contribute with their ideas, their experiences, their interpretations, their reactions. That space where there are no specialists and non-specialists, right or wrong. Thus, the participatory museum for me is not the museum  which, in the name of cultural democracy, passes the responsibility for one of its main functions over to the visitor. The participatory museum is that which gives ‘Giselle’ (each one of us) the tools to build and admit without fear her tastes, opinions, sensitivities and which creates the space for them to be hosted and shared with everyone.

This text is based on my short intervention during the closing of the conference In the name of the arts or in the name of the audiences, on November 14.

More readings
Museu2.0: a arte de ouvir o público, in the newspaper O Globo (27.11.2012)
Selling a product vs building a movement, by Nina Simon
When painting labels do their job, by Hrag Vartanian in Hyperallergic
Stories from the field: The Walters Art Museum, by Dallas Shelby
"GO", a group show at the Brooklyn Museum, by Martha Schwendener 
The power of non-experts, by Desi Gonzalez

Still on this blog
We are for people. Or… are we?
La crise oblige? (ii) Programming challenges
Building a family: lessons from the social sector
Free to visit an art museum
Museums: new churches?

No comments: