Sunday, 29 May 2016

First in our hearts

Image courtesy of the National Museum Soares dos Reis
How could we define the 'first' museum? Is it the one that best fulfills its mission? Or the one thar comes first to mind when you hear the word 'museum' (every marketeer’s dream)? Is it the one that has the biggest collection or the one that has the best collection? Is it the one that makes more exhibitions? Is the 'first' museum the one that produces a lot of news for the media, but continues to work for the same elite? Or is it the one that rarely makes the news, but works to diversify its 'elites'? Which one deserves to be considered 'first'? And who assigns the 'primacy', the museum to itself or the audiences, actual and potential, that benefit from its action?

As I reflect on these and other issues and publish my thoughts on this blog, I increasingly have a feeling that I contribute for a certain injustice. The subject of my criticism, positive or negative, is what I get to know through the newspapers, specialized magazines, blogs, conference presentations. However, what becomes known is not all that is happening and the truth is that my reflection sometimes ignores other realities. And it is ignorance, but an involuntary ignorance, since I can’t do anything about the things that do not become public, that are not shared. From this point of view, I am very sorry that not all cultural institutions have the capacity and the means to, in addition to ‘doing’, also record and report what they do, share it with the whole sector and society.

Returning to the main issue, the 'primacy', I think it should be evaluated based on multiple factors and this evaluation will naturally reveal several ‘firsts’.

In her essay The Excellence Barrier, Diane Ragsdale presents her 7 points for a slow arts movement (inspired by the slow food movement), and the 6th point says: "Focus on impact and not on growth." As growth is usually measured with numbers, I would also like to reflect more on the impact as a way of identifying the ‘firsts’.

In the first place, it occurs to me the work of the National Museum Soares dos Reis (NMSR), which undertakes a constant but discreet, I would say, activity, which for many of us goes almost unnoticed. I do not know whether this is a conscious decision or rather lack of sensitivity regarding the importance of communication or nothing more or nothing less than the usual lack of means. Whatever the reason, it is a fact that the NMSR has proven to be aware of what is happening around it and has sought to get involved. For example, in 2010 it held the exhibition "Portugal China Encounters", aware of the growth of this community in the city of Porto and the need to include it. At the time, the hope of the president of the Chinese League in Portugal was that this exhibition "would [help] towards the integration and credibility of the Chinese community", allowing the public the learn more about the "development of the community in Porto and the relationship between Portugal and China" (read the article)

Image courtesy of the National Museum Soares dos Reis

Later, in 2013, the first meeting of the homeless was organized at the NMSR, allowing to raise pressing social issues, having new editions in 2014 and 2015. At the time, the MNSR appeared in the news as 'just' the venue. But it was no accident that the homeless chose this venue. Their relationship with the museum, which opened its doors to them, had come a long way. What would the 'first' museum be for the Chinese community and the homeless in Porto?

Image taken from the newspaper Público.

Similarly, it occurs to me the project "I at theMuseum", at the National Museum Machado de Castro in Coimbra, which seeks to involve people with Alzheimer's, their families and friends. The motto of the project is "Because more important than the museum objects is what you do with them."

Image taken from the website of teh project "I at the museum"
There is also the project "Mobile Museum", of the Carlos Machado Museum in Ponta Delgada (Azores), that takes the museum to remote and disadvantaged communities, because it belongs to them as much as it belongs to the people of Ponta Delgada. Both these projects were chosen by the Jury of the Access Culture Award in 2015. What would the 'first' museum be for Alzheimer's patients and their carers in Coimbra; or for remote communities on the island of São Miguel?

Image taken from the website of the Carlos Machado Museum.
Another experience that touched me deeply and made me think about the impact was attending the performance "O Baile", by AldaraBizarro, in the neighborhood of Pasteleira in Porto. The show was part of the programme "Culture in Expansion", conceived by Paulo Cunha e Silva. And it touched me not only because it was a beautiful performance, but also because I recognized among the interpreters the faces of residents whom I already knew, from the performances of the association PELE. Who would be the 'first' for the residents of Pasteleira?

Typically, results are measured in numbers: how many people attended, how many pieces of news were made, how many "likes" and "shares" on Facebook? I don’t undervalue the numbers, but I think that numbers alone do not indicate anything significant. They must be accompanied by other qualitative data, which can bring more content, more substance to the evaluation we wish to make.

Who touches us in a special way? Who’s interested in relating to us? Who wishes to share what they have and gives room also for us to share what we have? Who helps us to grow, to become better? Who brings meaning to our lives? Isn’t this the way we decide who is the 'first' in our hearts? Or the ‘firsts’, since our heart is big and many good things fit in it...

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