Monday, 26 May 2014

Is it sad when a museum closes? Why?

Toy Museum, Sintra, Portugal
About a year and a half ago, my Australian colleague Rebecca Lamoin wrote in this blog about the Queensland Performing Arts Centre´s effort to understand what was the institution´s public value. Crucial questions were asked: What is the most important thing we deliver to our community? Why does our community love us? What people in our city would miss if we weren’t here anymore?

There are a number of cultural institutions around the world collecting data (more than quantitative data) that may help them define and prove their importance in people´s lives. Why? Because it might not be obvious to everyone, especially tax payers and political decision makers. It would make sense, though, even if it was just an internal mental exercise to undertake such an assessment. It´s worth taking a moment from time to time and evaluating the success factors of our projects and the relevance of our offer for the people we aim and are supposed to serve.

These thoughts came back once the news broke of a possible closure of the Toy Museum in Sintra (greater Lisbon Area). It seems that the museum is no longer sustainable, due to cuts in State funding and a sharp decrease in school and family visits. Culture professionals were quick to react. “It´s a shame”; “It´s sad”; “A tragedy”; “A misery”; “My favourite museum”. And every time I was reading a statement like that, I was asking myself: “Why?”. Why is it a shame? Why is it sad? Why is it a tragedy? Why is this someone´s favourite museum? What lies behind this kind of statements? What is their substance? Who knows? Does the museum and the foundation running it know?

But these were not the only questions in my mind. I would be also interested to know what normal visitors – not just culture professionals – think of the possible closure. How many times have they visited this particular museum? Why do they value it? What will they miss if it does eventually close? And beyond museum visitors, what does the population of Sintra think and feel regarding the closure of a museum in the town centre? Are they worried? Are they upset? Are they ready to fight for it and demand support from the municipality and the State?

Questions are also raised regarding the museum´s management. How long has this been going on? Did the Foundation take into consideration the changing - and rather hostile - political and economic context in which it is operating? What kind of measures has it taken so far? What is their plan B?

I haven´t found answers to these questions so far in public forums. I only know of a public petition on an online platform which, at the time I am writing these lines, has got approximately 2600 signatures. The text focuses on the collection and quotes only the collector, for whom, naturally, the objects are of great importance. It´s really a statement in the first person singular. The photo illustrating the petition shows an empty museum with series of objects behind glass, reaching almost the ceiling. I was left wondering how someone could have thought that this - quoting exclusively the collector and showing an empty museum - is the right approach at such a difficult moment. An approach that might convince those who know and, especially, those who don´t know the museum of its value and importance.

The Toy Museum is not an isolated case, unfortunately, in a country whose government does not consider culture to be a priority. A couple of years ago, the case of the Cork Museum in Silves (South Portugal) was handled in much the same way. A museum that once won the Micheletti Award of the European Museum Forum (an award for innovative museums in the world of industry, science and technics), ended up closing and I have no information regarding the destiny of its collection. Other projects, also in the performing arts field, are struggling or even disappearing. I suppose my ultimate question is “What are culture managers in this country doing about this?”. There must be more than “Such a shame” and “Such a pity” statements, there must be more than petitions. This is simply not enough, our organizations deserve more from us. People in this country deserve more from us.

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