Monday, 21 January 2013

Don´t shush me!

Photo taken from Culture 24 (© Courtesy Wallace Collection)
Back in 2003, the Royal Academy hosted an exhibition on the Aztecs. River, a two-year-old child, exclaimed “Monster! Monster!” when he saw the statue of the Eagle Man. The guard immediately asked the family to leave, considering that the child was misbehaving.  The mother, Dea Birkett, was a journalist and a few days later she was writing in the Guardian an article entitled Travelling with kids, questioning: “If we curtail their unfiltered attraction to art as a toddler, how can we demand they appreciate it aged 20? I hope my children don't misbehave. But shrieking with joy at a statue doesn't seem, to me, something to frown upon. I would have been much more disturbed if he'd shown no response at all. But perhaps you were at the Aztecs, too, and glad when that loud child left. Perhaps I've spent too long surrounded by shouting kids to appreciate how irritating they can be? What do you think? Should River stay or should he go...?”. The incident was widely discussed at the time and Dea Birkett founded Kids in Museums, a charity dedicated to making museums more child and family frienldy. Kids in Museums has just celebrated its 10th anniversary at... the Royal Academy! The museum´s Head of Learning, Beth Schneider, siezed the opportunity and wrote a long article for the Guardian describing all the steps taken in the last ten years to make the museum more welcoming for families and especially for younger visitors.

Tate Modern came under fire for not putting an end to the BP sponsorship after the environmental disaster in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010 (read here and here). Initiatives like Liberate Tate, Art not Oil and Platform have not let the matter die out, not only in relation to the Tate, but to all british cultural institutions accepting sponsorship from the oil company, including the National Portrait Gallery, the Royal Opera House and the British Museum. Last year, these institutions renewed their sponsorship agreements, considering that the support of BP to culture and the arts has been consistent and substantial and there´s no reason to renounce it because of one major incident. Nevertheless, the British Museum demonstrated total openess to criticism and gave it space on its own premises. Last November a theatre flashmob, organized by the Reclaim Shakespeare Company, took place in the museum´s Great Court, protesting against BP sponsorship of the Shakespeare exhibition, showing at the museum. A museum press officer reaffirmed the institution´s gratitude for BP´s continuous commitment and, at the same time, recognized Reclaim Shakespeare Company´s right to protest, claiming that there were no ill feelings (read here).

When Woolly Mammoth theatre announced an encore run of Mike Daisey´s The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs, it was heavily criticised by many. The monologue dealt with and denounced the corporate practices of Apple and Foxconn, Apple's supplier in China, but some time after it premiered, Mike Daisey was accused of fabricating some facts. He admitted it, publicly apologised and removed all contested material. Woolly Mammoth Theater remained firm in its decision for a take 2 of the performance and its long-standing collaboration with Mike Daisey. Instead of avoiding the controversy, it actually used it to promote the show, announcing it as “the most notorious and controversial play of the decade”. It promoted a very healthy dialogue with both supporters and critics on its facebook page, and actually posted negative reviews, feeding the conversation. On the last day of the show, Apple co-founder Steve Wozniac, who hadn´t escaped Mike Daisey´s criticism in the play, was at the theathe for an after-show talk with the playwright and the audience.

Mike Daisey in The Agony and Ecstasy of Steve Jobs (Photo: Sara Krulwich/The New York Times)

What´s the common thread in these three stories? That the cultural institutions involved didn´t bury their heads in the ground, didn´t pretend they didn´t notice, didn´t ignore people´s voices. People were heard. Not in the sense “the client is always right”. Actually, in two of the three cases here presented there was no change in the decision. But there was an understanding that there is another side, people with convictions, expectations and needs. They are not there to unconditionally adore us – ‘us’, cultural institutions. They´re there to question, to criticise, to demand, and also to guide us. Because they care. And because we care too, we don´t hide away. We engage in the dialogue, we promote it, we feed it. We invite them to get involved in what we are doing. We become part of their lives. And we get their support.

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