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).

Post scriptum

In the beginning of 2015, one of David Fleming’s first tweets was: “Hope museums find their voice in 2015 in alerting the public to the impacts of austerity on what we are able to do compared with before.” It was an alert that stayed with me, even more so, because David is the Director of National Museums Liverpool and one must admit that we are not very used to national museum directors, in England or other countries, being so outspoken publicly and clearly showing that his loyalty lies first of all with his museum and the responsibilities it has with the citizens and not with the governement of any given time.

More recently, Rebecca Atkinson-Lord, a British Theatre Director and Producer,suggested in the Guardian that arts organisations need a code of practice during austerity, must start talking publicly about cuts and let the damage show.
“Almost every organisation is downsizing its activities, streamlining, re-evaluating business models and searching down the back of the sofa for loose change. Right now, even the most robustly funded organisations are propped up by the hours of unpaid work their staff put in to serve and support the art they love. Politicians are fond of calling out employers who exploit unpaid workers, but it’s time for them to realise that the biggest exploitation of our sector’s goodwill is the government itself. The British arts and culture sector, a world leader and significant source of revenue from leisure and tourism spending, is built on an exploitative foundation of unpaid labour – that we all willingly collude in rather than sacrifice the arts ecology we love.” 

This is a powerful statement and one that doesn’t relate solely to the British cultural sector. It brought two things to my mind:

During the conference The Role of Cultureorganized last April by the Secretary of State for Culture, more than one colleague from the performing arts field - a field largely chatacterized by intermittent work - confessed that, given the actual working conditions, they feel utterly exausted and they keep asking themselves if it is worth carrying on or if they should simply give up and stop. How and why should one carry on, when all too often it is suggested to them that they offer their work for free or get paid only from ticket sales revenue; when one, in order to put up a play, must do absolutely everything: production, promotion, stagehand work, cleaning, selling the tickets, as well as rehearsing and interpreting....

No similar stories were shared by those working in the museum sector... And yet, we all know that if most museums are carrying on at this moment, it is because, the more the government cuts, the more museum staff invest: they invest their time, their expertise, they do extra hours for which they are not paid for and they even buy material needed by the museum with their own money or bake cakes and prepare coffee at home when the museum cannot spend money on coffee breaks for conferences or seminars.

So one wonders: what does it take for one to say “Enough!”? What does it take to acknowledge and let society know that this sector is sustained (barely sustained) thanks to the sacrifice, personal investment and exploitation of those working in it? Has Portuguese society felt the brutal effects of cuts in the cultural sector? Will the government (this one or the next) ever take responsibility and give this sector the conditions to function adequately, if things are still happening and if everything goes on as if nothing changed?

One last note: it is an illusion to think that things do actually go on... No matter how much effort one puts, many of the activities and events proposed end up being a repetition of what has happened a number of times before, lacking originality, excitment or relevance. Planning and tasks that need expert involvement are carried out by people who do a bit of everything and the best they can. Sadly, this is not good enough. It’s not good enough for the professionals in the field and it is not good enough for the society this sector aims to serve. We all deserve better. In order to get what we deserve, though, it is urgent to stop collaborating in our own exploitation and the downgrading of the services offered by this sector to the society. We cannot be co-responsible for the current state of things neither for their perpetuation and worsening.

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