Monday 26 April 2010

NMAA in the news

The National Museum of Ancient Art (NMAA) made news three times last week. First, it was the interview with its new director, António Filipe Pimentel, to the newspaper Público (read here in portuguese only). Two days later, it was the news about the costs of the exhibition Encompassing the Globe (read here in portuguese only), complemented the next day with a new article (read here in portuguese only).

Starting by the news regarding the exhibition, they were commented by many readers of Público online. Some of those defending the investment for the presentation of the exhibition in Portugal made the ‘inevitable’ comparison to the money invested on football (really, I think we should give up on this argument that doesn´t serve any purpose; in any way, football, apart from being profitable, mobilizes, excites and entertains thousands of people, not just some “illiterate who have never visited a museum”). Other comments in favour referred to the benefit for the country from the fact that the exhibition was presented at the NMAA, to the fact that it attracted more than 70000 visitors, to the works undertaken that benefited the museum and are there to stay, to the opportunity for the museum staff to get in touch with international museums and for the museum to open up to international museography.

It´s all a question of options, priorities, objectives. So there are many ways of evaluating the impact of the exhibition. My comments are the following:

I didn´t like it. Because I have stopped enjoying exhibitions that simply present beautiful objects, but they don´t help us appreciate them, they don´t tell a story. Encompassing the Globe was a traditional exhibition in terms of museology and thus didn´t make any sense to many of the people who visited it. I confess, I was one of them. I guess, because I haven´t got any concrete data, that if it managed to attract so many visitors it was because it was heavily advertised and presented as an exhibition that could not be missed. Because the subject was Portugal and the Portuguese, which interests both the national population and foreign tourists. Because “Smithsonian” is an important name that was used, as it should, in the promotion. These are my empirical explanations. I would be interested to know, though, if the large number of visitors was also the result of word-of-mouth, a sign that people who visited had liked the exhibition and recommended it to family and friends. I didn´t recommend it to anyone and noone recommended it to me.

In relation to the investment, I would say that, although we lack experience and also tradition in what concerns cultural sponsorship, we should at least know that, if six months before the exhibition opening we haven´t got the necessary funding (according to a statement by the then Minister of Culture José António Pinto Ribeiro), we are not likely to get it. This kind of business takes place well in advance. It´s also difficult to undestand why organizations that had sponsored the exhibition in Washington were not contacted regarding the presentation at the NMAA. And if the works in the museum or staff contact with international museography are so valued, as they should be, then we should admit their importance and invest directly on them, instead of through the pretext of a very expensive and, really, not so distinguishing exhibition.

In the meantime, I ask myself once again why it´s never part of the plan a summative evaluation of the impact of such expensive initiatives and a visitor survey, instead of each one of us giving a hint about it. On the other hand, I feel very disappointed when, in moments like this, those responsible for the decisions taken claim the right to be unavailable for comments, instead of considering it an obligation towards the citizens to answer the questions they are being asked.

Moving on to the first piece of news, I liked the interview with NMAA´s new director, António Filipe Pimentel. Because he claims to believe in the “middle way”. The one that does not give preference to any of the museum´s five fundamental functions (to collect, preserve, study, exhibit and interpret), setting them as opponents, but aims to establish a balance between them (see also his opinion article in the ICOM.PT bulletin available here in portuguese only
). And I quote: “There is a need to bring into harmony the two sides: to have a strategic and instrumental view of preservation and study, but not limiting it to just that. It must be put to the service of the community, which, nevertheless, can never sacrifice it, cannot jeopardize its security and safety.” Bringing harmony is not easy and depends a lot on the resources available, human and financial, the lack of which makes it many times compulsory to make options and establish priorities. But is seems to me that it is also a question of mentality. António Filipe Pimentel also refers to the museum as a stage, “the space for mobilizing a community making use of the objects exhibited, behind which there are always stories”. And he goes on: “A museum is not the National Archive. In an archive we have a treasure of information which is kept, preserved and consulted. Ours must be exhibited and permanently shown in stories and narratives”. I was very pleased to read these words. I see behind them what I consider to be the right mentality. I hope NMAA´s new director and the museum staff can put them into practice, can manage to transform them into concrete actions. We are attentive and full of expectations.

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