Monday, 20 October 2014

Not to be missed? Mmm... why?

OAE, 2014-2015 season (images taken from the OAE Facebook page)

It has become very common when promoting a cultural event to mention what – when - where and then to add the magic phrase “Not to be missed!”. At times, a couple of lines are added to this information, basically to let us know that artist x is the best in his/her field or world known. Judging by the information sent to us by a number of cultural institutions, there´s nothing we can miss and there are a number of artists that are the best in their field and world known. The first statement is not true and the second is not precise.

Considering the growing offer of cultural events and activities, people have a lot where to choose from. For some, given their experience and knowledge, the choice is easier as they don´t need other people to tell them what they should see, what they can´t miss. For others, less knowledgeable regarding a number of artists and their work, there is some need for orientation. Some extra information that might help them understand what´s important and relevant for them, what they wouldn´t really like to miss.

Unfortunately, the statement “Not to be missed” - unless it comes from a friend, someone whose judgement we trust - doesn´t serve this purpose, it´s not enough. After all, everybody says the same. Likewise, to mention that the artist is the best is not convincing enough for those who don´t know him/her and doesn´t necessarily provoke an urge to get to know his/her work better. The truth is there are a number of artists who are very good in what they’re doing. Is there really a “best”?

Thus, the question in many people´s mind is “Why?”. Why can´t I miss the concert, the play, the exhibition? What´s so important, so special, so different, so groundbreaking, so touching, so appealing, so beautiful, so provoking, so relevant that it will be worth investing my time and money to see it instead of seeing or doing something else?

OAE, 2014-2015 season (images taken from the OAE Facebook page)
This poses a great challenge for those people working in communication. There is a need to move beyond the usual, beyond the obvious and easy information on what – when – where, and to search for the kind of information – as well as its visual representation - that might clarify, surprise, intrigue and appeal to the people cultural institutions wish to communicate with. There is also a need to choose the appropriate channels for making this kind of information available and easily shareable.

It is with great pleasure that I have been following the launch of the 2014-2015 season campaign of the Orchestra of the Age of the Enlightenment (OAE). Some essential background information before getting into this:

The OAE was created in the 1980s with the aim to start from scratch, to re-think the whole institution called “orchestra”: its rules, its codes, its restrictions (read their short biography) . In an early mission statement, one reads that the OAE is to “Avoid the dangers implicit in playing as a matter of routine; pursuing exclusively commercial creative options; under-rehearsal; undue emphasis as imposed by a single musical director; recording objectives being more important than creative objectives.”  [Wallace, Helen (2006). Spirit of the Orchestra]. Today, one reads on the website, “It still pushes for change and still stands for excellence, diversity and exploration. And over two decades on, there´s still no orchestra in the world quite like it.”

OAE, 2014-2015 season (images taken from the OAE Facebook page)

This whole philosophy is also applied on the relationship the OAE fosters with people, and especially younger people. At a time where a number of orchestras are struggling to renovate their audiences and stay alive and relevant  - not really knowing how to do it -, the OAE has long invested in this relationship. Among its various initiatives, I would highlight “The Night Shift”, a series of informal and relaxed late night concerts which break a number of traditions we tend to associate to the enjoyment of classical music. Over 80% of the people attending these concerts are under 35 years old and approximately 20% are attending a classical concert for the first time. Listen to what they have to say:

There is an easy, relaxed, accessible tone in the way the OAE communicates with people. It becomes obvious that they are clear about their mission and purpose, they are sincere, they enjoy sharing what they love most with all those who might be interested (including those who don´t know they might be interested). Their clear vision reflects on their language (both verbal and visual), as well as the platforms they use to communicate (for instance, a rich Vimeo channel and a very live and engaging Facebook page).

OAE, 2014-2015 season (images taken from the OAE Facebook page)

This season´s campaign has a clear and strong activistic visual. The musicians are part of the campaign, they´re the protagonists. The posters in the streets present a contemporary visual, beautifully integrated in the urban environment. The short messages on the posters are complemented with statements by the musicians and other members of staff who talk about their favourite piece in the season. The OAE’s horn player, Martin Lawrence, says: “I’m looking forward to this concert [the New World Symphony], mainly for the manic energy and spontaneity of conductor Adam Fischer. I am fascinated to know what his approach will be to these war-horse pieces – it won’t be normal… I am expecting huge drama, monstrous pianissimos and being on the edge of my seat.” Do you know of another classical music orchestra that communicates like this?

The OAE wants to be and to remain relevant. They don´t assume people will know, they´re there to make everything more clear, more understandable, more enjoyable. They are accessible, passionate, human. They have a good sense of humour and they´re not afraid to show it. They don´t tell people “You can´t miss us” or “We´re the best”. Their very suggestive motto is “Not all orchestras are the same”... And ooh... they´re certainly making it clear for me how sorry I should feel to be missing them!

More on this blog:

Monday, 6 October 2014

Preserving for what?

Imperial War Museum

On my second year in London, back in 1994, I could see the cupola of the Imperial War Museum (IWM) from my kitchen window. It was a beautiful view of a beautiful museum. To the surprise of many people, this is my favourite museum in London.

On my way to the first Congress of Military Museology, I was thinking that I never considered the IWM, which was going to make a presentation on that day, a military museum. To me, the IWM is a people´s museum (shouldn´t they all be?). A museum of the military and the civilians, of men and women, of grown ups and children, of human beings and animals (I am thinking of some of the exhibitions I saw there). It´s much more than dates, battles, tactics, types of weapons, treaties. It´s a museum that tells the stories of people whose lives were affected by war.

Promotional postcard of the First World War Galleries at the Imperial War Museum

The IWM presentation was included in a panel that would discuss the Military Museums and the the Great War Centenary. The first speaker was Maria Fernanda Rollo, a university professor and coordinator of the project Portugal 1914. This is a web portal, with very rich contents gathered with the collaboration of various institutions and professionals with different backgrounds, as well as the general public. The aim is to promote active citizenship, committed to the protection, preservation and safeguarding of a collective heritage, as well as to raise awareness of the importance of remembrance and the preservation of historical knowledge. “This is a virtual museum, that tells stories, where one learns with affection. It´s a museum that is alive”, said Maria Fernanda Rollo.

Promotional postcard of the First World War Galleries at the Imperial War Museum
I smiled when I heard this statement. Because, implicitely, Maria Fernanda Rollo was revealing to us her perception of museums: a dead space, a space where stories are not told, a space where affection doesn´t have a place. A perception which is widely shared by many people in our society at various levels (do you remember why painter Paula Rego wished for the museum of her paintings in Cascais to be called “House of Stories” and not “museum”?).  But I also smiled while listening to my good friend Gina Koutsika making her lively and stimulating presentation on the initiatives of the IWM for the commemoration of the centenary. Gina showed us how alive a museum can (and should) be, how full of stories and feelings, how close to the communities it serves. This is not a museum in the virtual world, it´s a real one, it exists.

Promotional postcard of the First World War Galleries at the Imperial War Museum

Once the debate started, my mind travelled to another museum visit, some ten years ago, at the In Flanders Fields Museum (Ypres, Belgium). Another remarkable museum in the town that stood in the way of the German army and was totally destroyed during the war. A museum full of human stories, where the visitor may take up the identity of one of the town’s inhabitants and follow his/her story during the war. The one thing that marked me the most, and that I never encountered in another museum since, was the most simple way of showing that one object could be many stories. By exhibiting a pile of white handkerchiefs, the museum told the story of the multiple uses of that one object: it could be a sign of surrender; or a way to protect oneself from lethal gases covering one´s nose; or something to cover one´s eyes when facing the death squad.

In Flanders Fields Museum

From Ypres, my mind crossed the boarder and went to France, to the Musée de la Grande Guerre du Pays de Meaux and its amazing project “Léon Vivien”. Good museums can find imaginative ways of putting their collections in good use, bringing them to life and connecting them with people. Léon Vivien is a fictitious character, a soldier, whose story is told on a special Facebook page through a number of objects, followed and commented by thousands of people. Good museums can do well both in the real and virtual word.

Eventually, the issue of remembrance came up in the debate. Lieutenant-General Mário de Oliveira Cardoso was another speaker on that panel and he quoted philosopher, essayist and writer George Santayana: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it”. Remember the past, preserve historical knowledge. Yes, that´s the aim of a number of insitutions, including museums. But why? What’s the purpose? Is it being achieved? Are the stories preserved and remembered just for their own sake or rather because they can be a link to the present, to current human stories, not only our own but those of others too? Can the stories preserved and remembered help me connect to the Other, make his/her story my own?

Europe is full of military, history, first and second world war, holocaust museums. They all aim to preserve the historical past and show the importance of rememberance. “Never again” is the motto we encounter in many of them. Are these museums aware that recently, following the atrocities that took place in Gaza, the cry “Death to Jews” was heard once again in some European cities? Have they reacted? Have they taken the opportunity to put their collections in good use and to show what is the purpose of preserving the historical past and remembering? Isn´t it precisely in a moment like this that museums should intervene publicly and contribute towards clarifying and shaping public opinion? Otherwise, preserving for what?

Other texts

Los jóvenes tienen que conocer esto para saber en que país están viviendo
Interview with Ricardo Brodsky, director of Museo de la Memoria (Santiago de Chile)

Le MuCEM ne doit pas devenir un musée pour touristes
Interview with Jean-François Chougnet, director of Musée des Civilisations de l´Europe et de la Méditerranée (Marseille)

Who funds the arts and why we should care
Interview with Charles Esche, curator of São Paulo Biennial