Monday, 14 July 2014

Curiosity killed the visitor

Art Museum of Estonia. One reads on the label: "Villu Jaanisoo, 1963 / Chair I - II, 2001. Motor tyres. Art Museum of Estonia". (Photo: Maria Vlachou)

Last Saturday I attended a small conference entitled “The audiences of MNAC” (National Museum of Contemporary Art – Museum of Chiado), on the occasion of the 20th anniversary of the reopening of the museum after the fire in Chiado (Lisbon). During the almost three hours of presentations and debate, in which little was said about the audiences, I sat next to a label that was related to the work of art exhibited on the wall. One could read:

“Mockba, 2004
Oil on canvas, oil on acrylliv sheet
VPV Collection”

I looked at it a number of times as I was listening about the history of the museum in the last 20 years told by its directors (very interesting details I was not aware of), its collection, the name it should have, its purpose, the building that should house it, etc. I looked at the label thinking that the work exhibited did not mean something to me either aesthetically or conceptually, but, curious in undestanding if there was something more to it, something I could not grasp, I would have liked to have something more (and more interesting) than those three lines. After all, the option to exhibit that work of art had a reason behind it and I would have liked to understand better.

It happens to me many times in museums. I am that kind of visitor who has got a number of diplomas, but does not pretend to know and to understand all languages and to be able to unveil every mystery. I am also that kind of visitor who feels self-confident, who doesn´t feel embarrassed (or stupid) in admitting that he doesn´t understand, that he would like to know more, to have more interesting and relevant information, in an undestandable language. I tend to think that the person who opted to put that label on the wall doesn´t understand (and perhaps is not interested in understanding) who I am and what I am looking for. Thus, I am that kind of minority visitor. Many others feel stupid and blame themselves for it. They don´t come back, they lose their interest, they retract, they don´t “dare” again, they never take their children.   

I was faced with this issue a number of times in the last weeks. When visiting Vhils´ exhibition at the Electricity Museum, I found in one of the rooms a label repeating six times “Laser-carved old wooden doors”, followed by the dimensions of the doors. What is the purpose of such a label? Why and who was it made for?

Another recent visit was at the Municipal Museum of Aljustrel, which tells the story of the mines in that area of Portugal. A story told in this way:

The translation is mine. Apologies for any gross mistakes.

Another exhibition that caught my attention was that of Helen Mirra at Culturgest. It´s an exhibition of strips made of fabric and painted in single colours. At first glance, they don´t mean much to me and this was the reason why I was very interested in getting more information. When I fould it in the brochure, it became clear to me that my curiosity was not going to be satisfied and that this exhibition was not for me.

Extract taken from the brochure.

In the various training courses I gave in the last two months, we discussed in length communication and language. At times the trainees, although they would recognize that the language used was not efficient and the story told was not that interesting, they would express incomprehension as to how this communication could take another form, one that would fulfill the museum´s or the exhibition´s objectives and at the same time meet the visitors´ needs, the majority being non-specialists.

The example of two Portuguese convents comes to mind: the Convent of Tomar and the Monastery of Alcobaça. They both aim to tell visitors the story of the building they find themselves in, nevertheless, the approach, the option of the story to be told is clealy distinct. Which serves the needs of the museum AND the visitors better?

Texts from panels at the Convent of Tomar.
Texts from panels at the Monastery of Alcobaça.

It´s not impossible to communicate differently, to say interesting things in a simple way. By simple, I don´t mean to say infantilising, turning banal, compromising the scientific quality of the information that is being shared. What is truly impossible is to continue listening to politically correct statements on how museums are for everyone, how they need to be relevant, welcoming, to create a feeling of belonging in people, while at the same time in practice we continue to despise and depreciate the needs of those same people, we continue to offend their intelligence. I believe it is perfectly legitimate to do an exhibition for experts, one of the many target audiences a museum or an exhinition is called to serve. But one must admit this, so that the rest of the audience may consider to be “warned”. To continue writing in order to communicate with specialists, while saying that the exhibition is for all increasingly indicates, in my point of view, a certain lack of honesty on behalf of those responsible. The theory is good, it is clear, we all know it. What does it take to put it into practice? And more, do we wish to put it in practice?

Still on this blog

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