Sunday, 13 December 2015

Can culture make it?

Paper submitted to the Annual Conference on Cultural Diplomacy, which ends today in Berlin. A compilation of older posts and some new thoughts. Read 

Monday, 30 November 2015

The museum is a person: some post-NEMO thoughts

How do we get more involved? How do we take a stand? Aren’t we going to alienate some people if they classify the museum as ‘leftist’ or ‘rightist’, like newspapers? How far can we go? What are the limits? These are some of the questions I had the opportunity to discuss with colleagues attending NEMO’s annual reference, following my talk Are we failing? 

Friday, 6 November 2015

Monday, 19 October 2015

The traps

National Coach Museum, Lisbon (image taken from Boas Notícias)

Last month, it was reported by several newspapers that in the first four months of the new National Coach Museum in Lisbon there were a number of accidents due to deficiencies in the architectural design. By 'deficiencies' I mean solutions adopted (or, if you prefer, architectural elements created) which become traps for the users of the space (yes, they exist).

Sunday, 20 September 2015

Intellectual access and not an easy way out

All too often, the promotion of intellectual access by some in the cultural sector is discarded as ‘dumbing down’. Recently, I read the following in Rob Riemen’s “The eternal return of fascism”:

“In the culture of this society [the mass-society; our contemporary society] there is an ongoing trend towards the lesser, the lowest level, because this is where one finds most things people can share. This is exactly why university education indicators are levelled down, so that ‘everyone’ can study and obtain a degree. And the same will apply to the arts, because they will have to be accessible to all, not only in what concerns tuition fees, but also at the level of comprehension. After all, the fiercest indignation is directed towards what is difficult. Because what is not understood immediately by everyone is difficult, that is ‘elitist’ and therefore undemocratic.” (my translation from Greek)

Sunday, 6 September 2015

The Italian slap

Eike Schmidt, new director of the Uffizzi (image taken from The Art Newspaper, Photo: Zuma Press/Alamy)

“A slap on the face of Italian archaeologists and art historians.” According to an article by Margarita Pournara in the Greek newspaper I Kathimerini, this was the statement of Vittorio Sgarbi, former Italian Minister of Culture, regarding the appointment of seven foreign professionals as directors of Italian museums.

Since the appointment was announced on 18 August, the issue was widely discussed in the media. 

Wednesday, 29 July 2015

Practicing, non-catholic

Photo taken from the website of the newspaper Expresso.

A cultured person for me is not someone with a deep knowledge on a number of subjects, someone who reads books, who goes to museums and to the theatre, who travels and knows the world. A cultured person for me is someone who does all this and more and tries to put his knowledge and experience into practice in order to help reconstruct the world, a better world. Being a cultured person is not something that comes naturally to us humans. It is a daily mental and practical exercise against our inner barbarity, against our ignorance.

Tuesday, 14 July 2015

Who are you?

I hold strong impressions from the walls of the underground in London (and other cities), a fundamental platform for one to keep up-to-date with the city’s cultural offer. Now, imagine what would happen if all those cultural organizations, competing among themselves and with other entities for people’s attention, did not consider carefully their visual identity so that they would stand out immediately and make a connection both with interested and especially distracted individuals.

Friday, 26 June 2015

The message, the language, the options

Paula Sá Nogueira on the TV programme "Inferno".
The discussion that was generated after the announcement of the allocation of subsidies from the Directorate General for the Arts (DgArtes) made me think once again about the way this sector communicates with the public, citizens and taxpayers. There is a larger issue, of course, that of the subsidy itself: the system of application, the evaluation of the proposals, the monitoring of the entities, the purpose and duration of the subsidy. But today, here, my reflection focuses on communication.

Thursday, 4 June 2015

Something is happening in Evora

The banner hanging on the façade of the Forum Eugénio de Almeida (FEA) in Évora made me smile ... "What museum do you dream of?" is a kind of promise or invitation to reflect and to dialogue.

It looks like that's just what the FEA and curator Filipa Oliveira seek: "(...) the beginning of a new path and the first moment of a new relationship between the FEA, the city of Évora and Portugal; (...) a programmatic reflection around the dilemma of how to articulate the singularity and specificity of its local context with the challenges posed by international contemporary artistic creation and the currents of thought associated to it."

Sunday, 24 May 2015

Post scriptum

In the week of 11 May, my inbox was full of invitations for the celebration of the European Museum Night and International Day of Museums. On Facebook, it was no less tense, with museums and their governing bodies reminding us that all roads would lead to a museum. A great party atmosphere, an enormous offer all over the country, which was also translated into numbers. The media reported that there were 140 activities on the occasion of the European Museum Night (16 May) and 430 activities on International Museum Day (18 May) across 70 different Portuguese museums. The truth is that few of the activities proposed responded to ICOM challenge to reflect on “Museums for a sustainable society”. This left me thinking how museums actually perceive this yearly challenge and if it has any impact whatsoever on their practices – on Museum Day and in the rest of the year. Having said this, the richness and intensity of the programme, as well as the celebratory mood, could make one believe that the museum sector in Portugal shows clear signs of prosperity. Thus, news on 18 May of some museum staff going on strike, contesting the reduction in the payment of overtime, as well as the fact that they were obliged to work on a Monday (the day intended for weekly rest), were something of a marginal note  (watch the TV report).

Saturday, 16 May 2015

"Ganesh versus the Third Reich" and the question that was left for next time

Photo: Jeff Busby
It’s rare these days a play that stays with us. A play that occupies our thoughts for hours and days after leaving the theatre. A play we wish to discuss with others. A play we wish to see again, looking for more, looking for everything we know we missed the first time. “Ganesh versus the Third Reich”, by the Australian Back to Back Theatre (presented at Culturgest on 14 and 15 May), is a play that did this for me.

Monday, 11 May 2015

One good idea, two responses and some lessons

It’s 125 years since Vincent Van Gogh’s death. Starting May 3 and for 125 days, the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam will be answering 125 questions regarding the painter, his life and his work. The museum invites anyone interested to ask a question to send it through their website and a page especifically created to present the results of this Q&A (watch the promotional video and visit the webpage).

Monday, 27 April 2015

Museum Next starts here

Christian Lachel, BRC Imagination Arts (Photo: Maria Vlachou)
It seems to me that the three words that were mostly heard at the 2015 MuseumNext conference were: emotion, stories, engagement. Words that clearly mark the change that has been taking place in museum attitude, aiming to establish, with the help of their collections, a better, more relevant and meaningful relationship with people - more people, different people, common people.

A presentation that was wholly dedicated to this subject was “Emotionalizing the Museum”, by Christian Lachel of BRC Imagination Arts. “Does the experience transform your guests and compel them to share it with others?”, Christian asked. And this is probably the right question to ask. Although the transformation we all so much desire to make happen might take time to be consciously acknowledged by individuals (if it is acknowledged at all), the compelling wish to share with others is a more immediate indicator of the occurance of a meaningful encounter. And the starting point is people’s heart, acoording to Christian. The process of creating an engaging experience is one from the inside to the outside and not vice-versa. One that aims to involve people through a meaningful story, looking then for the right tools and creating the appropriate physical environment for the encounter.

Christian Lachel, BRC Imagination Arts (Photo: Maria Vlachou)
Another issue that repeatedly came up was that of digital vs physical. At the same time that museums are racing to embrace the new digital tools and platforms in order to create more engaging and meaningful experiences, they often seem to take a step back, re-evaluating the advantages and strengths of the physical encounter.

An inspiring project of the Brooklyn Museum, the Ask Mobile App, has gone through these stages of thinking and evaluating (which are openly shared on the museum’s blog – a great example of professionalism, generosity, transparency and accountability that more museums should have the courage to implement). As Shelley Bernstein explained to us, at a time when the Brooklyn Museum is re-evaluating a number of points of contact with its visitors (its austere foyer, its confusing reception area, the lack of seating), it also wishes to improve their experience allowing them to ask on-site and in real time any question they might have regarding the objects or the exhibitions in general. The project is still being tested in its details and will be launched in June. 

Shelley Bernstein, Brooklyn Museum (Photo: Maria Vlachou)
At an earlier stage, the museum had members of its staff on floor and discovered that visitors loved engaging in conversation with them. Such a large museum would need a lot of people, though, to be able to cover all areas. In order to optimize the idea of the direct and in-real-time contact with a member of staff, they decided to turn to technology. A team of six people will be available to answer visitor questions sent through their mobiles using the Ask Mobile App. Evaluation so far has shown that people still consider this contact to be personal and the museum is confident that this will be one more way of fulfilling their mission of being “a dynamic and responsive museum that fosters dialogue and sparks conversations”. For one thing, the museum has discovered that people seem to take more time looking at the objects... looking for questions to ask!

Is there anything more personal and physical, though (and funny and inspiring), than being taken to a museum tour tailored to your needs and interests by Museum Hack? “I hate museums!”, this is how Nick Gray started his presentation. And he did hate them... once. Now all he wants is to share his passion for them with people who still hate them, people who feel that museums are not for them. A colleague from the Museum of Architecture and Design in Oslo called Museum Hack “our natural allies”. And aren’t they indeed! Nick’s favourite object at the Metropolitan Museum is the fragment of an Egyptian queen’s face. This is what he had to say about it (quoting from memory): “If these are the lips, can you imagine the rest? How beautiful she must have been? And although we don’t know who she is and which tools were used to make her, we know she’s made of yellow jasper. Yellow jasper was so-so expensive, that the only other object at the Met made of it is this tiny. In a scale of hardness from 1 to 10, where diamond is 10 and marble is 3, jasper is a solid 6. It makes marble feel like rubber...”. Aren’t museums f***ing awesome?!

Nick Grey, Museum Hack (Photos: Maria Vlachou)
My visit to the recently renovated International Red Cross and Red Crescent Museum somehow put all these thoughts and ideas to the test. It’s a museum that greatly combines the physical and the digital, using technology in order to enhance the meaning of the objects, to share powerful stories and to engage the visitor – both emotionally and intellectually – in the discussion of quite sensitive universal questions. The three main chapters of the story are “Defending Human Dignity”, “Restoring Family Links” and “Reducing Natural Risks” and each space/chapter was created by a different architect, proposing quite distinct environments. One of the most touching moments for me was in the room that exhibits the gifts offered by prisoners of different conflicts to the Red Cross delegate in charge of their case. It made me think of the beauty, sensitivity, creativity and humanity that can still emanate after the horror of barbarity, brief glimpses of a renewed hope. I must say, though, that the most powerful moment was touching the extended hand of a witness on a screen, a gesture that would trigger their testimony. A brilliant conception, linking the physical to the digital and creating a profoundly emotional and memorable experience.

I must say that in almost every museum visit, presentation and discussion during the conference, there was an underlying issue for me: can museums fulfill their social and educational role, can they be relevant and engaging, if they don’t also clearly assume their political role? Right on the first day, Gail Dexter Lord introduced the concept of soft power as “the ability to influence behaviour through persuasion, attraction or agenda setting”. How can museums exercise this power? "We cannot take sides", colleagues often exclaim. Oh, but we do... Sometimes with our silence or by pretending to be neutral; more often with the objects we choose to show or not to show, the stories we choose to tell or not to tell.

More than taking sides, though, assuming our political role is to assume that there is actually more than one side to every story and to allow for space for these views to become known, to be discussed, so that citizens may get better informed, see their own views being challenged, meet and listen to the ‘other’, develop empathy and understanding, take a stand. Museums are not islands and, as Tony Butler (Derby Museums / The Happy Museum Project) said, “What’s happening out there is as important as what’s happening inside”. Isn’t it urgent, and doesn’t it make sense, that museums in the 21st assume their role in promoting democracy?

Gail Dexter Lord (Photo: Maria Vlachou)

Monday, 13 April 2015

Shall we re-brand?

Recently, due to some articles and posts I read, the question of how museums are perceived by people re-emerged in my mind. I felt there is an urgent need to take branding seriously, as a sector.

To those not very familiar with the concept of branding, I suggest viewing Peter Economides’ brilliant speech Rebranding Greece, where he explains things very clearly:

- A brand is a set of impressions that lives in people’s heads.
- Branding is the process of managing these impressions.
- Strong brands create strong and consistent impressions.

Museums have definitely created strong and consistent impressions. The very popular expression “it’s a museum piece” – meaning something old, dead, dusty, not useful, something from the past – is the proof of what these impressions actually are.... Our need to promote museums saying they are “live spaces” also indicates that we know perfectly well what people think about us.

One reads: "Is your company a museum? It isn't, is it? Change now your museum piece."
Some years ago, I did my first interview for the ICOM Portugal bulletin with the Director of Marketing of Xerox. The main subject of our short conversation was the company’s campaign for the exchange of old printer parts with new. The gentleman tried to be kind to museums when I questioned him about the association they made: “(...) Many of our customers are very reluctant to replace old equipment while it still works. This is a common attitude towards some of our ‘pet items’, we like to keep them regardless of the actual cost of maintaining or knowing that technological developments have already put them ‘out of fashion’. In a company, the ‘out of fashion’ element can make the difference between success or survival. A museum is typically a place where we can see valuable pieces of another time. The campaign aims to communicate that, despite the equipment working and being valuable, its antiquity does not allow it to have the functions and characteristics of the current technological era. That is, it is behind the times and its place is in Museums, where we can see how our ancestors lived and worked.” It was a thoughtful attempt, but we can all read between the lines, can’t we?

The title of the article is: "The green world will be at your disposal... in a museum"

More recently, I read two articles (here and here) about Korean artist Daesung Lee’s project “Futuristic Archaeology”. The photographer explained that human action on the environment was one of his concerns and suggested that green landscapes will become scarse and we shall recall them in a space where they will be presented dead, untouchable and unattainable: a natural history museum. We can all read between the lines, can’t we?

The third case I would like to discuss is that of a museum campaign: the Holocaust Museum of Buenos Aires. Tha campaign dates from 2011, but it came to my attention now, through a post on Comunicacion Patrimonio. The museum slogan is “Un museo, nada de arte”, trying to place emphasis on people and their story. Each photo of the campaign presents a Holocaust survivor and says: “He/Her and millions of other people did nothing to be in a museum”. I do get the point.... And still, I don’t... The museum approved a campaign (a beautiful campaign, I must say) which reinforces a series of stereotypes: that when we talk museums we talk art museums; that people needn’t be afraid, they won’t find art in this museum; that museums are about the great (great artists?) and not about common people. As I said, I think this is a beautiful campaign, one that puts people in the forefront. But I can´t help disagreeing with the fact that, in order to put their message across,  they used a number of stereotypes that help reinforce people’s negative impressions of museums. And they are one...

Do people’s impressions coincide with what museums are today? I won’t deny that some museums, in almost every country, are still very much worthy of what people think of them. But many are not. Museums have largely changed their attitudes, ways of working, image, and this is why they need to seriously think of ways to change those perceptions in people’s heads.

One of my favourite books is “Designing Brand Identity” by Alina Wheeler. I went back to reading the chapter “When is it needed?” (meaning, when is ‘branding’ needed), and she identifies six reasons when one needs to look for a brand identity expert: 1. new company, new product; 2. name change; 3. revitalize a brand; 4. revitalize a brand identity; 5. create an integrated system; 6. companies merge. The case of museums falls clearly under the 3th reason, considering that they need to reposition and renew their corporate brand; they’re no longer doing the same thing they did when they were founded; they need to communicate more clearly about who they are; too many people don’t know who they are; they wish to appeal to a new market.

Impressions in people’s heads are powerful. Stereotypes take a long time to dissolve. No wonder many still keep away (also helped by the way museums communicate their offer in general, unable to appeal, many of them, to the common person, the non-specialist visitor). Museums need to take an active role in changing these perceptions and they need to do it carefully, knowingly, urgently and... united.

Monday, 30 March 2015

What's in a title?

Choosing the title of an exhibition, activity or event is not something easy. Not when one wants it to convey something about the content and to be curious or funny enough in order to attract people’s attention – and also, to be efficient when applied on promotional materials. What one usually finds when opening a cultural agenda are titles that either claim the obvious (for instance, the name of an artist we might or might not know) or attempt to describe the content in a rather dry, dull, repetitive way – words like “place”, “memory”, “look”, “treasures” are words museums are very fond of. Another case we should consider is that of contemporary plays and performances, whose titles may be 2-3-lines-long, only to be abbreviated  for “everyday use” by the artistic team itself and by the audience, leading to what should have probably been the title in the first place....

I tried to remember titles that worked well for me, and two came immediately to mind:

Wien Museum (Photo: Maria Vlachou)
“Unter 10 – Wertvolles en Miniature” (Under 10 – Treasures in miniature), at the Vienna Museum, was a 2013 exhibition that presented objects from the museum’s collection based on the strict rule that no item could be more than 10cm in width, height, depth or diametre. From objects that aimed to simply respond to the challenge of miniaturisation to baby utensils, smelling bottles or illegal political leaflets, this exhibition made us look (also with the help of magnifying glasses..), and look better, differently, into the collection. The museum was not on my visit list, but I couldn’t resist the title.

Entrance of the exhibition "Disobedient Objects", V&A (Photo: Maria Vlachou)
More recently, “Disobedient Objects” was another exhibition title that caught my attention. It first came up in my news feed last summer, among dozens of different news titles. I stopped scrolling down and opened the piece. Quoting from the Victoria & Albert Museum website, “From Suffragette teapots to protest robots, this exhibition was the first to examine the powerful role of objects in movements for social change. It demonstrated how political activism drives a wealth of design ingenuity and collective creativity that defy standard definitions of art and design.” I was able to visit the exhibition last November and it lived up to my expectations. The object that touched me the most was a defaced lybian banknote (the scribbled face being Gaddafi). It reminded me of a Lybian man being interviewed right after seeing Gaddafi’s corpse and saying: “We had always thought he was a big man. He is small, he is so small.”

Defaced lybian banknote from the exhibition "Disobedient Objects", V&A (Photo: Maria Vlachou)
It is also worth talking about some refreshing examples that have recently come up in Portugal.

“Vivinha a saltar!” (Alive and jumping!) is an exhibition at the Bordalo Pinheiro Museum about two symbols of the city of Lisbon: the “varinas”, the women selling fish in the streets, a  popular figure in the work of Rafael Bordalo Pinheiro; and the sardine, which has developed into an icon of the city and a source of inspiration for contemporary artists. The name of the exhibition, “Vivinha a saltar!”, was one of the varinas’s most famous cries when promoting their merchandise and had been the title of a chronicle about portuguese politics and society published by the newspaper “A Paródia”, founded by Bordalo Pinheiro.

Last week, the Municipal Museum of Penafiel, in the north of Portugal, celebrated World Poetry Day on 21 March with “Dois garfos de conversa” (the literal translation being “Two forks of talking”), a conference about the town’s poets, followed by a dinner at the museum. The museum director explianed to me that both title and poster were created by the museum team.

On that same day, the youth collective Faz 15-25 celebrated its first year of existence at the Arpad Szenes – Vieira da Silva Museum with films, poetry, talks, workshops and food, inspired by the museum’s temporary exhibition “Sonnabend | Paris – New York” and addressed to youth audiences. The title of the initiative: “Faz-Tá POP!”.

Finally, the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation surprised us last December with an invitation “P’ra Rir” (To Laugh), a cinema series (now in its second edition) which gives people the opportunity to watch cinema in a big room, the Foundation’s recently renovated Grand Auditorium. According the João Mário Grilo, responsible for the programming, the laugh seemed to be an appropriate inaugural gesture. “And it would be wrong to think that this is a (yet another) “comedy series”, because in cinema, as in life, one laughs in different ways, even with dramas.”

In both big and small cultural institutions, the process of choosing a title may involve different people and departments: curators, directors, publicists, education and communications staff. Recently, the Gulbenkian Foundation decided to involve the public in the choice of the title of a 2016 exhibition at the Gulbenkian Museum. As mentioned in the beginning of the post, the objective when choosing a title it to come up with something that is able to convey the content, to attract people’s attention, to be efficient when applied on promotional material (in this case, good graphic design is a definite plus). One last piece of advice, from our colleagues from the Australian Museum: “Make sure staff at reception/front-of-house are comfortable saying the name aloud as they'll often be the ones selling the exhibition to visitors.” They’re right!

With thanks to: Elisabete Caramelo, Isabel Aguilar, Maria José Santos, Rui Belo, Sara Pais

More readings:

Monday, 23 March 2015

Philippe de Montebello revealed

I´ll say it right in the beginning to get it over with: yes, I got upset reading Philippe de Montebello's two statements regarding the issue of restitution in the book “Rendez-vous with art” (p. 54 and p. 208). Having said that, the rest of the book is absolutely charming! A beautiful, inspiring, surprising series of conversations between Montebello and art critic Martin Gayford, revealing the man behind the art historian and long-time director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Following these conversations, we feel an urge to look and to look better, even if it is only a photo in a book – hoping, of course, to be in front of the original one day... As Montebello himself puts it: “(...) nothing can replace the experience, the very physical sensation of being surrounded and engulfed in the actual space.” (p. 51)

Probably one of the most touching moments comes right in the beginning of the book, where Montebello answers Gayford’s question about that single moment, that single experience that may have led him to a life in the arts. Montebello shares with us that very special moment, when he was 15, and his father took home André Malraux’s “Les Voix du Silence”. And suddenly, there was Uta...

“She was Marchioness Uta in Naumburg Cathedral and I loved her as a woman (...) with her wonderful high collar and her puffed eyelids, as though after a night of lovemaking” (p.10; image taken from Wikipedia)

I was left thinking: would he have ever put this on a museum label? How many people would have looked, looked better, looked more, should they had read something like this about a statue?

Montebello goes on to admit something we rarely hear from curators, but which is true about most museum visitors: “I have found that when I have forced myself – often with the help of curators – to look at things about which I was indifferent or that even repelled me, I discovered that, with a little knoweldge, what had been hidden from me became manifest.” (p. 59)

What kind of knowledge is needed for this ‘epiphany’ to occur, one might ask. Not facts about the artist’s life, not a detailed and dry description of stylistic elements; not in the first place, not for the non-specialist visitor (the majority, that is, of museum visitors). One seems to find all the answers in Freeman Tilden’s “Interpreting our Heritage”: “What lies behind what the eye sees is far greater than that which is visible” (p.20); (...) “the  purpose of interpretation is to stimulate the reader or hearer toward a desire to widen his horizon of interests and knowledge and to gain an understanding of the greater truths that lie behind any statement of fact” (p. 59); (...) “Not with the names of things, but by exposing the soul of things – those truths that lie behind what you are showing your visitor. Nor yet by sermonizing; nor yet by lecturing; not by instruction, but by provocation” (p.67).

Another couple of examples from Montebello’s book might illustrate these points:

“(...) it’s utterly delighftul. The shoe flying off into the air, heading for the statue of Cupid at the side, that enchanting tree so frothy and unlike a real tree: it’s all like a décor de théâtre, a theatre set. This is a gorgeous painting about having a good time and about which one doesn’t have to think very hard, just abandon onself to the sheer pleasure it provides: a picture I’d have no trouble at all living with.” (p. 81, Jean-Honoré Fragonard, The Swing, 1767; image taken from

“(...) I then focused on the deep burn marks at the bottom of the frame, obviously made by votive candles, confirming that this was indeed a devotional picture. Just a few additional details resuted from close examination, not the least of which was that the picture was in impeccable condition, a rare thing when it comes to Trecento gold-ground pictures, as most works have suffered greatly over time, mostly I’m afraid at the hands of restorers.” (p.65, Duccio di Buoninsegna, Madonna and Child, c.1290-1300; image taken from

“But I am happy just to enjoy the expression on Adam’s face, so sweet, and the way he is holding the apple branch – it is not a fig leaf – with two fingers, as well as the foliage required to cover his nakedness. Dürer has so engagingly endowed his classically inspired figures with tender sensuality; and I love Eve, Venus-like with her pretty Nürnberg fräulein’s face. You see: no art history, just my own very personal response.” (p124, Albrecht Dürer, Adam and Eve, 1507; image taken from

I don’t believe most people visit museums looking for an art history lesson on their panels and labels – or physics or music or any other discipline for that matter (some do, of course, and their needs are equally legitimate, but museums usually cater for them with various other means). People do not visit museums looking for someone to tell them what they should feel or think either, as defended by Alain de Botton in Art is Therapy (Rijksmuseum), where one finds labels such as this: "You suffer from fragility, guilt, a split personality, self disgust. You are probably a bit like this picture" (regarding Jan Steen's painting The Feast of Saint Nicholas). I think that most of us are first of all looking for something that can be meaningful to us, something that may delight us, surprise us, make us feel good or richer or more conscious of ourselves and of the world. Many of us are looking for stories, stories of other people, human beings we can connect to - either those depicted or those wishing to share their knowledge with us.

Deciding which story to tell is not an easy choice for a museum; writing it in a clear and concise way is equally difficult. But it is not impossible, as Montebello shows us in his book, where he abandons his ‘institutional self’ and manages to share his enormous knowledge as an art historian in a simple and human way that is meaningful and relevant for many more people. It is not impossible, as Paula Moura Pinheiro shows us every week in her TV programme “Visita Guiada” (Guided Tour), where we discover that curators and art experts in Portugal are fascinating people, able to share with us much more than the facts usually presented on labels and make us wish to know more, to visit the museum, to be able to see the object - or to go back and see it again, after what has been revealed to us).

It is possible. It is a question of choice and skill. It doesn’t lack scientific content and it communicates.

“I’m not sure I would be thrilled because I am so focused, so absorbed and captivated by the perfection of what is there; that my pleasure – and it is intense pleasure – is marvelling at what my eye sees, not some abstraction that, in a more art historical mode, I might conjure up. It’s like a book that you love and you simply don’t want to see the movie. You’ve already imagined the hero or the heroine in a certain way. In truth, with the yellow jasper lips, I have never really tried to imagine the missing parts.” (p.8, Fragment of a Queen’s Face, New Kingdom Period, c. 1353-1336 BC, Egypt; image taken from the Metropolitan Museum website)

More on this blog

More readings

Philippe de Montebello and Martin Gayford (2014), Rendez-vous with Art. Thames and Hudson

Monday, 16 March 2015

What have we got to do with this? (ii)

Field Museum, Chicago (photographer unknown)
Last December, there was an intense debate among museum professionals in the US regarding the role of museums in the aftermath of the death of black people in police hands in Ferguson, Cleveland and New York. Our American colleagues felt strongly that museums are part of the cultural and educational network that works towards greater cultural and racial understanding. Did they refer specifically to museums with African American collections? Or museums situated in the communities where the events took place? No, they didn’t. “As mediators of culture, all museums should commit to identifying how they can connect to relevant contemporary issues irrespective of collection, focus, or mission.” (read the full statement)

At the time, I agreed with the most cautious position adopted by Rebecca Herz. I find it risky to encourage museums (any institution, really) to act irrespective of their mission, but, as Rebecca put it: “I personally believe that museums should align all actions with their mission, which should relate to collection or focus. And I think that a connection can be found between any collection and contemporary life, but that these connections need to be carefully considered and developed.” (read the post)

As I was following this very interesting discussion taking place on the other side of the Atlantic, on 15 December, an Iranian refugee stormed a Sydney café taking hostages. Sixteen hours later, the police intervened, killing the attacker as well as two of the hostages. Fearing reprisals against members of the Muslim community wearing islamic dress, the people of Sydney offered to ride on public transport with their Muslim neighbours who felt unsafe. I found out about this early in the morning of 16 December, through the Facebook page of the Immigration Museum. The museum shared the article of the Guardian and joined the rest of the Australians, taking a stand against prejudice and violence.

Taking a stand is not something simple, especially for an institution (as opposed to an individual). It’s not a decision that can or should be taken hastily, a response to the moment. It must be a “natural” move, the result of a conscious, structured and sustained policy of civic / political intervention, in accordance to the institution’s mission. It is also a great responsibility.

Last month, three young Muslims were murdered in their home in North Carolina, USA. At a time where newspapers were reporting that the motives of the attacker were still not known, the Arab American National Museum shared its heartbreak on its Facebook page regarding the loss of the three young people, thus implying that this was a racial crime. I thought it was too soon, I thought they were jumping into assumptions and that this was neither responsible nor helpful. I asked the museum if it made a statement for every murder in the US. Other people (not the museum) answered that the victims were Arab Americans, so the museum was right to react. I rephrased and asked if the museum made a statement for every Arab American murdered, if it assumed that the murder of every Arab American was a racial crime. I think that museums shouldn’t be jumping neither into conclusions nor into statements.

More recently, in Portugal, the Museu Nacional de Arte Antiga published a statement regarding the destruction of archaeological treasures of the Mosul Museum by ISIS militants. It was a good surprise, as this museum, like most Portuguese museums, are not used to taking a stand publicly. One might argue that this was not exactly a political statement and that it was a rather “safe” matter for the museum; it might be. It also came at a time when specialists were still trying to figure out if the objects destroyed were the originals or copies; so it rather looked like a hasty reaction. I am more interested, though, in understanding if this was a one-time reaction or the first act in a concrete, long-term policy of acknowledging and assuming the museum’s civil-political-cultural responsibilities. It would be great if it was the latter, time will tell.

Still on this blog

Monday, 2 March 2015

What have we got to do with this?

In the last 2-3 years, it has been a pleasure seeing the way museums have been marking Saint Valentine’s Day on their Facebook pages. From objects in their collections, to architectural elements to flowers in their gardens, they’ve made me smile, laugh out loud, look better, learn something new. In a simple, imaginative, humorous way, and from a distance, some cultural institutions have marked on my calendar a day I otherwise find rather uninteresting.

Not all cultural institutions mark this day. Some might be thinking that this is not a serious thing to do, that it is something frivolous, commercial, it doesn’t relate directly to their exhibition or theatre play or concert programme. It does relate to something else, though: life.

When hurricane Sandy hit New York in 2012, MoMA PS1 director, posted this on the museum’s Facebook page:

How did this relate to his museum? To the temporary exhibition? It didn’t. It related to something else, though: life.

In 2014, the year of the Mundial in Brazil, some cultural institutions presented exhibitions, organized events, made all sorts of references to football. Some might have hoped to lure followers among football fans. Others might simply have thought: this is also life, let’s celebrate it!

The Charlie Hebdo attack made me once again think of the role cultural institutions have in society and the capacity they have to relate to it. And also to put their theory into practice. Theory says that culture helps us to be humans, to be tolerant towards the ‘Other’, to live together, to learn from each other, to share and defend values, to think critically. When the cultural sector comes under attack, we use these same arguments to defend it and to defend the importance of what we do for the society. But when that same society laughs, cries, falls in love, feels in despair, celebrates, mourns... then we take some time (too much time, even) to consider whether it is appropriate for us to acknowledge it, to relate to it. Quite often, we remain quiet.

So, the morning after the Charlie Hebdo attack, I expressed my dismay at the fact that no Greek or Portuguese cultural institution had acknowledged the tragedy. A tragedy that related directly to most things culture stands for. Seconds after I published my post, the Onassis Cultural Centre published theirs. Later on, the Benaki Museum. Relief.... After that, some colleagues let me know of similar attitudes on behalf of the Museu Nacional da Imprensa or the Bordalo Pinheiro Museum. Some more cultural institutions followed. On the 9th of January, the Carmo Archaeological Museum was inviting us for a debate with cartoonists and academics. Relief.... Still, I am not aware of any large / national portuguese cultural institution acknowledging the events.

A friend wrote to me at that time and asked: “But which cultural institutions do you expect to react? All of them? The ones that somehow relate to what happened? (that would be, for instance, the Museo de la memoria e de los Derechos Humanos in Chile or the Museu Nacional da Imprensa in Portugal, wouldn´t it?) The French cultural institutions? Well, I don’t want to sound naive, but I would have liked to see reacting all the cultural institutions which claim to want to have a role in forming a better society; which claim to embrace and promote certain values; which claim to want to be relevant for people; which claim to want to be part of society and to help form responsible and critical citizens.

Let me clarify here that by “reaction” I don’t mean a hasty response to an incident or a superficial association to a celebration, without consideration for what the institution stands for and with the intention of using it for cheap public relations or simply for not being “left out”. People know opportunism when they see it and they don’t appreciate it... By “reaction” I mean the thoughtful, responsible, honest and coherent response of a cultural institution that is clear about its mission and about the role it wishes to play in people’s lives. And this does not only involve programming or educational activities. It involves being constantly aware of what is going on around us and the way it affects people's lives, so that, as a result of a defined and coherent policy of intervention, the institution may promptly give its contribution towards the kind of world it aims to help build.

What is relevant and what is not relevant for a cultural institution? Well, that’s probably not the question. The question is rather: what makes a cultural institution relevant? I recently gave a course, where we discussed the place and role of cultural institutions in the contemporary society. In the last part of the session, we did a practical exercise:

Please consider:

- The Charlie Hebdo attack
- Saint Valentine’s Day
- The natural disaster in Madeira in 2010
- The big anti-austerity demonstration in Portugal on 15 September 2013.

Would your institution react?
If yes, how?
If not, why not?


More readings: