Monday, 19 January 2015

On loyalty

I was recently told of the Head of a Regional Service of Antiquities in Greece, whose work had been positevely appreciated by many of her colleagues and members of the public, but who was threatened with disciplinary actions and was later also transferred, what was considered to be a kind of discreet ‘punishment’. Why did she become “persona non grata”? Maybe because she repeatedly informed her superiors of the inadequate guarding of one of the most important archaeological sites in her region, which has actually become a pasture for goat and sheep herds, and, having received no answer at all, she informed the general public of the situation and made available photos of the site. Maybe because she had also repeatedly informed her superiors of the lack of guards in a specific museum, warning of the possibility of closure as from a certain date if no solution was found. Her reports having been met with silence, she went ahead and closed the museum, apologizing to the public and making the reasons of the closure known.

I happen to believe that this is exactly the kind of attitude we should expect from a person who has the responsibility of running a public (and in this case, cultural) institution: to strive for adequate management; to take appropriate, responsible, action, in order to safeguard what is a common, public, good; to keep one’s superiors informed of any issues that might joepardize the proper running of the institution and stop it from fulfilling its mission; and, when necessary, to share that responsibility by informing all stakeholders, including the general public, the citizens.

I was not surprised, though, to hear of the threats of disciplinary action against that person. What is, in fact, expected of those people – and this is not only the case in Greece – is to be loyal to their superiors, local authority or government. What is understood by ‘loyal’, though, is to embrace each and every decision and practice coming from above, and, in case of disagreement, not to question them in public or to keep the discussion in the ‘family’, where it can be easily ignored. Sharing the discussion more broadly, with the society, is rarely tolerated and the punishment is seen by all of us, even if not in agreement, as expected, inevitable, natural to occur. We don´t support our colleagues, we don’t openly question the punishment, we don’t join them, so that, together, we may become stronger. Thus, we are all witnesses of the management of public cultural institutions in a way that is little transparent, where plans and actions are not being discussed, where public dialogue is not encouraged and where the professionals of the sector themselves keep silent or express their criticism very carefully and discreetly. In this context, of fear and self-censorship, it’s not easy to be critical, much less when acting alone. It’s not easy and it’s not very efficient either.

When living in a democratic society, though, we should expect a public manager’s loyalty to lie first and most of all with their service and the citizens. They have the obligation to challenge or oppose any decision or omission that jeopardizes that service. When required, they have the obligation to share the information and to help shape the public opinion regarding issues that are of public interest. In the UK, there’s such a thing as the National Museum Directors’ Council, which represents the leaders of the country’s national collections and major regional museums. The Council acts as an advocate, it represents its members to Government and other bodies, it is proactive in setting and leading the museums’ policy agenda and it is the forum where its members can discuss issues of common concern. Although the members are national museums – thus, funded by the government -, the Council is an independent organization. How do they do it? Have we got something to learn from them?

Recently, David Fleming, Director of National Museums Liveprool expressed a wish on Twitter that museums may “find their voice in 2015 in alerting the public to the impacts of austerity on what we are able to do compared with before”. I was left thinking: What does the Greek or Portuguese society really know about the actual conditions of a number of public cultural institutions? About the lack of money for the execution of basic and essential tasks, the multitasking, the extra (unpaid) hours, weekends at work, so that the boat may keep going? And are they interested in knowing? Do they consider these institutions to be theirs? Would it make any difference to them if they closed tomorrow?

What is our role, as professionals, in this context? Can we expect to have critical and demanding citizens, though, if the professionals of the sector themselves are not being openly critical and demanding? How do we help form informed and responsible citizens? Is there democracy without critical thinking and public dialogue? How do we defend transparency, meritocracy and intellectual honesty? Where is our public forum? Where does our loyalty lie and why?

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Monday, 5 January 2015

To take 'no' for an answer

The Acropolis Museum (Photo: Maria Vlachou)
When I was last at the Acropolis Museum and while taking some photos in the sculptures gallery, I was approached by a guard who kindly informed me that I couldn´t take photos in that room and also quickly informed me of the  areas where I could take photos. No explanation was given to me as to why that distinction was made. When a bit later I took a photo of a label (not an exhibit, a label), another guard saw me and made sure to inform her colleagues that I should be watched. She also followed my every step...

All this being very uncomfortable for me – and, I am sure, for the guards too -, I took the opportunity of questioning an archaeologist who was in the room in order to answer visitors’ questions. She explained to me that some of the statues preserve their original colours, that flash could be harmful, and that, as it’s not possible for the guards to control the use of flash, the museum thought better to totally prohibit photography. I thought that I took her by surprise when I asked why the museum doesn’t actually assume its educational role and explain to visitors why flash mustn’t be used, instead of totally prohibiting photography in certain rooms (most digital cameras don’t need flash) and creating such an ambiguous policy regarding photography in the museum.

It was not something I invented at that moment. It occurred to me that, a couple of years ago, in the Workt by Hand exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum – composed of extremely fragile quilts, made in the last two centuries - the museum had chosen not to show the objects behind glass or surrounded by rope and at a distance. So, when entering the room, the visitor was asked to 

Brooklyn Museum (Photo: Maria Vlachou)
Some people might be thinking that this is a different culture, a more respectful one, but it is not the case. The Brooklyn Museum opens its doors to all sorts of visitors, with and without the habit of visiting museums, with and without specific knowledge regarding the objects and their preservation. It assumes its educational role, though, and doesn´t simply expect visitors to take ‘no’ for an answer, just because the museum said so, without further explanation.

Little after my visit to the Acropolis Museum, I read an article in the Guardian about the fundamental role of ushers in theatres, especially regarding disruptive audiences. In the article, we are given the example of Stratford East Theatre, where ushers and front-of-house staff are trained to deal with such situations. And more: at a theatre which has “a particularly high number of first-time theatregoers, who sometimes need to be helped to understand what effect their behaviour is having, not just on other audience members but also on ushers and cast members”, the management chooses to invite them back “for backstage and front-of-house tours and maybe even to meet staff and casts, so that they can understand more about how a theatre works and how their behaviour impacts others”.

I believe it is part of the educational role of cultural institutions to help people better understand the details of the work that is being undertaken, but also their own role – the spectators’ and visitors’ role – so that it may be carried out in appropriate conditions for everyone involved. I believe it can be much more effective than simply saying ‘no’ to a certain behaviour or asking people to leave and it can also make them feel co-owners of and co-responsible for that work.

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