Monday, 31 March 2014

What's in a word?

Folheto do World of Discoveries
How many times have you visited a museum that was not a museum at all? And just how upset does this make you feel?

After years and years of visiting museums, I am able now to identify some “signs” and avoid being tricked, but still, not always. And I am also thinking, of course, about all other visitors, non-professionals, who might not be able to “see the signs” and for whom the word ‘museum’ might be carrying a specific ‘promise’.

The abuse of the term is something we encounter in many countries; probably in all countries. A small collection of anything put on display and there you go, we have a museum and, quite to often, we charge for it... Can anybody open an establishment of some sort and call it a “pharmacy” just like that? And do people indstinctively call a restaurant “café” and vice versa (while there also exists, at least in Portugal, the hybrid definition “café-restaurant”), even if both establishments offer services withing the area of catering? Doesn´t each one have specific characteristics transmitted (‘promised’) to customers through the name they are called by?

My concerns about the use of the word ‘museum’ came back while listening to the presentation of a new project, World of Discoveries – Interactive Museum and Thematic Park, soon to open in the city of Porto (Portugal). The presentation was included in the seminar “Tourism and Cultural Heritage – Opportunities and Challenges” organized in Lisbon by Pporto dos Museus.

World of Discoveries is a private project that will aim to tell the story of the Portuguese discoveries, a chapter in the country’s history that attracts many people, both national and foreign. If I remember correctly, it involves at this moment 35 members of staff, including people with a background in museology. Presenting the project, Helena Pereira highlighted the team´s concern to offer a both enjoyable and educational experience, a rigorous presentation of the historical facts, a product of quality. The story is going to be told through multimedia devices, as well as through a journey in time that will take visitors through a number of especially created historical settings. The potential is enormous, of course, and the project is being developed in order to be able to guarantee its financial sustainability. Prices will be €8 (children from 4 to 12), €14 (adults from 13 to 64 years old – I always find it curious when certain venues define adulthood from the age of 13) and €11 (seniors).

Mapa no folheto do World of Discoveries
World of Discoveries has chosen to explain the nature of its offer as “Interactive Museum and Thematic Park”. It was actually presented as a new model of museum, that of the 21st century, given the means which will be used in order to tell the story and which go beyond the display of objects. I don´t actually agree that this is a new model, as science centres have been using similar means for a long time now, that is exhibits specifically created to tell a story and not historical objects, which we find in science museums. And this is the point I would like to make: I haven´t seen so far a science centre calling itself a “science museum”. Why would an interactive interpretation centre be called an “interactive museum”?

According to the ICOM definition, “A museum is a non-profit, permanent institution in the service of society and its development, open to the public, which acquires, conserves, researches, communicates and exhibits the tangible and intangible heritage of humanity and its environment for the purposes of education, study and enjoyment”. The ICOM definition embraces a number of institutions which are not museums, but are considered as such, given that they assume a number of common functions and share concerns and objectives. Those institutions are science centres, planetariums, interpretation centres, zoos, aquariums, exhibition galleries maintained by libraries and archives, to name a few. Now, most of these institutions don´t change the way they are defined: a zoo is still a zoo, an archive is still an archive and an interrpeatation centre is... precisely that.

World of Discoveries is not the first case in Portugal to raise my concerns as to what is exactly being ‘promised’ to people, potential visitors, and if the use of the term ‘museum’ might be imprecise and potentially also misleading. A few years ago, I had questioned in an ICOM meeting the option of calling the Côa Museum, which was not open yet at the time, a “museum” and not an “interpretation centre”. There is a centre in Aljubarrota that bears many similarities, in terms of product/offer, but it is actually called Interpretation Centre of the Battle of Aljubarrota.

“What’s in a word?”, you might ask. Everything, I say. There is absolutely no intention on my part in raising issues of “quality” or “validity” here.  I have visited a number of very interesting interpretation centres, in Portugal and abroad, and although I am not a big fan of thematic parks, I do believe they can provide enjoyable, interesting and valid educational experiences to many people. But it’s in the name that lies the meaning, the promise, the creation of an expectation, the kind of experience one might have, the decision to have it or not, to pay for it or not. This is why I believe that things should be called by their name.

Monday, 17 March 2014

Broken clay pots

"Some use for your broken clay pots", by Christoph Meierhans, at Maria Matos Theatre (Photo: Jan Lietaert)

Last week, I saw at Maria Matos Theatre “Some use for your broken clay pots” with Christoph Meierhans. Inspired by the ancient Athenian system of ostracism, where a political leader who became too powerful could be sent to exile, Meierhans wishes to propose a new system os democracy, a new constitution which, he believes, will also produce a new type of citizen.

I followed his theory with interest and he left me thinking: do we, as citizens, actually need a different system in order to ‘ostracise’ or disqualify bad or incompetent politicians? Can’t we simply, within the rights that are given to us from the current system, not vote for them? 

Monday, 3 March 2014

Being "just"

It´s curious that the first thing I read about the protests in Venezuela was not a piece of news in some newspaper, but pianist Gabriela Montero’s open letter to Gustavo Dudamel. In this letter she was saying:

“But I cannot remain silent any longer. Yesterday, while tens of thousands of peaceful protesters marched all over Venezuela to express their frustration, pain and desperation at the total civic,moral, physical, economic and human break down of Venezuela, and while the government armed militias, National Guard AND police attacked, killed, injured, imprisoned and disappeared many innocent victims, Gustavo and Christian Vazquez led the orchestra in a concert celebrating Youth Day and the 39 years of the birth of EL Sistema. They played a CONCERT while their people were being massacred.”

This is what made me look for news to see what was happening in that country. A few days later, another Venezuelan musician, Carlos Izcaray, en ex- El Sistema student, was making an online appeal:

“Through this medium I’d like to call on all of you to unite, with instruments in hand, to repudiate and strongly manifest against the rampant violence and human rights violations that are currently being perpetrated by the Venezuelan government on its own citizenry. Lets render our tribute of support to those who have exposed and given their lives whilst defending our Liberty. This basic right of all free people has now been unequivocally sequestered by a despotic and tyrannical Government, one that wishes to lead through fear, intimidation, and violence.”

These two musicians have chosen to live outside Venezuela, probably both for professional and political reasons. Gustavo Dudamel also lives and works abroad, but he maintains his ties with El Sistema and through it – or because of it – with his country’s government. So I read Mantero´s and Izcaray’s passionate declarations considering that the position from which they expressed their views need not be as diplomatic as Dudamel’s, who has to consider, apart from his own views, the context in which El Sistema is operating and its dependance on the Venezuelan government. I must confess, though, that I was not prepared for his disappointingly “diplomatic” statement to the LA Times:

“I'm a musician. If I were a politician, I would act as a politician for my own interest. But I'm an artist, and an artist should act for everybody.

Dudamel expects (and accepts) politicians to act for their own interest? And artists for ‘everybody’? How are they acting for everybody? Who’s everybody? Are politicians who act for themeselves included?

A few days later, another controversy erupted, this time in New York, when artists, activists, professors and students associated to Occupy Museums, GULF Labor and other groups staged a protest at the Guggenheim Museum about labour conditions on Saadiyat Island in the United Arab Emirates, where Guggenheim is building its franchise. Two things stood out for me while I was following the development of this story. First of all, the fact that the Guggenheim did not bury its head in the sand, remaining silent and hoping for all this to go away. Unlike what is common practice here among politicians and cultural institutions alike, who behave as if they were  untouchable and immune to citizens’ criticism, Guggenheim director, Richard Armstrong, issued his own statements, made the institution’s position clear, did not shy away from any question (more readings at the end of this post). Cultural institutions do not (shoud not) stand somewhere above all common citizens, pretending to operate in a comfortable and protective vacuum, free of social responsibilities.

The other thing that stood out for me in this controversy was to find out that architect Zaha Hadid – who designed one of the stadiums in Qatar – feels that  “it’s not my duty as an architect to look at it [“it” being the deaths of hundreds of immigrant workers at the construction site]... I cannot do anything about it because I have no power to do anything about it.” (read here)

My mind flew to Ukraine. My friend and colleague Ihor Poshyvailo was writing on this blog last December: “ (...) ICOM Ukraine and a number of Ukrainian museums were issuing public statements condemning unexpected crackdown on peaceful protesters and the pulling out of an association pact with the EU. The Directors Council of Lviv Museums coordinated protest statements of a number of Lviv museums. One of the oldest ethnographic museums in East-Central Europe – the Museum of Ethnography and Crafts in Lviv – displayed a banner on its balcony saying "We support the demands of Euromaidan". In Kyiv a dozen museums made their public statements, including the Museum of Kyiv History which is run by the City Hall and depends upon the Mayor of Kyiv, whose headquarters were taken by the protesters. Pavlo Tychyna Memorial Museum (located closely to Maidan) opened its doors to protesters and proposed them tea, rest and cultural programs. (...)”.

We’ll probably never know the names of the people who took these decisions and acted in those moments. People who are not “just a musician” or “just an architect”, people who are not “just public servants”, but who first and above all are citizens. They were citizens of an authoritarian state, risking their jobs, their personal safety, maybe their lives, maybe public funding if things went the other way - but probably not Hadid’s fees. They were “anonymous” citizens who felt they had the power and the responsibility to do something. And they did it. They did what they could.

Dudamel somehow seemed to be contradicting himself when he stated to the LA Times "(...) we are creating in Sistema not only musicians but better citizens”. If that’s what El Sistema does, then those young citizens should probably be shown by their elders that, when the moment comes, they should not hide behind “I am just a musician” statements.

More on this blog

More readings:

Sistema in the crossfire, by Jonathan Andrew Govias