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.


Rita Caré said...

Thank you for sharing your thoughts!

Maria said...

Thank you for reading, Rita.