I often think that panels and labels in art or history museums fail to convey passion, marvel, joy, pride, sadness, despair, enthusiasm; to talk to people about other people; to create empathy, the need to read more, to find out more. The language is usually dry, academic, factual, incomprehensible – I am sure – to a number (perhaps the majority?) of museum visitors.
These thoughts came back to me while visiting the Benfica Museum in Lisbon. It’s the city´s newest museum, it opened its doors in July 2013 and has had almost 43.000 visitors so far (entry is not free, adults have to pay €10,00). Its aim is to tell the story of the club and its different sports - football being, of course, the one overshadowing every other.
There are lots of things to say about the museum, but I would like to concentrate on the message and feeling it conveys through written communication and the connections it creates to people.
This is clearly a museum for and about people. A museum about passions. It aims to tell a story in a way people, all kinds of people, will understand it and feel related to it and involved in it. With art or history museums in mind, I would say that the option here is not to simply narrate facts or to explain techniques. The option is to reinforce the club’s identity – by presentings its values, objectives, achievements, contribution to the country as a whole and to individual lives.
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When it comes to people, one finds in this museum both the ‘artists’ (football players, other athletes, coaches) and those who enjoy the ‘art’ (famous people and anonymous members and fans). Everyone´s thoughts and feelings have a place on the museum’s walls, nobody is more important than someone else. Thus, we find an installation with the faces of club members, as well as a special setting quoting writers, singers, actors and other public figures who support the club.
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“It’s different, it’s football”, you might say. “They’ve got money, it makes a whole lot of a difference”, you might say.
Starting from the latter, it´s not about money. It´s about attitude. Money may allow a museum like the Benfica Museum to use a number of audiovisuals and other expensive tricks that enhance the experience. But all museums, no matter how much money they’ve got, have panels and labels (and leaflets and websites). The language they use, the story they choose to tell, the people they address are options that have got nothing to do with money.
Does football appeal to more people than art or history or archaeology? At a first glance, maybe, yes. But if we give it a second thought, maybe art and history and archaeolgy have a big appeal too, but not when presented in museums... Maybe when a friend tells us a story and raises our curiosity; when we watch a report or documentary on television; when we read a piece of news on the Internet or Facebook. In other words, when we find ourselves in a comfortable context where someone is talking to us in a language we understand , shares his/her knowledge and enthusiasm about a subject wishing to communicate with us, puts feeling into the narrative, makes it a normal conversation among people.
Can´t museums talk and write about art and history and archaeology and many other subjects conveying passion, marvel, joy, pride, sadness, despair, enthusiasm? Can’t they talk and write to people about other people? Can´t they create empathy, the need to read more, to find out more? I believe they do, some do, but many others choose not to. The need to impress and get the approval of our peers becomes in many cases the priority when making this kind of decisions. We say “We are here for everyone, museums are for people”, but the practice does not confirm the rhetoric.
The difference between the Benfica Museum and many other museums I´ve visited is that it stays true to its mission. It´s a museum for and about people and this is not just rhetoric, it’s something one may confirm in every option (more or less successful; more or less necessary) of telling the story. In the Benfica Museum I felt the people, I felt their passions, their pride, their anguish, their sadness, their joy. And that ended up keeping me in the museum much longer than I had initially expected.