Monday, 11 April 2011

Words, images, feelings, perceptions: everything counts

Halicarnassus Mausoleum (Image from Ten Books on Architecture by Vitruvius)
Augusto M. Seabra writes in Arte Capital on The work of art in the era of its digital reproducibility (text available only in portuguese). This is a very interesting text, that presents and reflects on a series of antitheses in the way various authors see the relationship between the works of art and museums and the relationship between the public and the works of art through the means of museums and, nowadays, through the means of their online presence.

The considerations of the above mentioned authors (Valéry, Proust, Malraux, Benjamin) and the issues raised by Augusto M. Seabra made me reflect both as a museum professional and as a visitor. Nevertheless, the text makes me want to comment mainly on issues of terminology and perceptions.

Seabra tells us that Theodor Adorno, in the introduction of his book Prisms, enunciates: “The german word ‘museal’ has got unpleasant overtones. It refers to objects to which the observer no longer has a vital relationship anymore and which are in a death process, owing their preservation to the historic respect rather than the need of the present. Museums and mausoleums are connected by more than phonetic association. Museums are like the family sepulchres of works of art”.

Adorno´s text dates from 1967. Twenty four years later, in 1991, Nick Merriman published Beyond the Glass Case: The past, the heritage and the public. Merriman did a public survey, aiming to better understand the perception people had of museums. One of the questions was: “Which of these things do museums remind you of most?”. The majority of the people surveyed (35%) answered “library” (44% of frequent visitors and 24% of non-visitors) and 34% answered “monument to the dead” (the big majority of non-visitors and rare visitors, but also 17% of frequent and 28% of regular visitors).

Twenty more years have passed and various studies indicate a change in the relationship of people with museums. Although not of all people and not with all museums… The perception of a silent, dead, irrelevant, intellectually inaccessible space persists. What makes the difference? Definitely, the stance chosen by museums themselves. The relation and perceptions change when museums aim to fulfil their mission by embracing all of their five functions (collect, preserve, research, exhibit and interpret) as equally important; when they do not only look inwards and do not aim to impose agendas and interests; when they are interested in getting to know better the communities in which they are inserted and which they should serve; when they are working in order to be relevant to them; when they know how make people comfortable, physically, psychologically and intellectually; when thy recognize, and do not undervalue, the social context of the visit; when they aim to be spaces of discovery, challenge, fruition; when they give up on monologue and promote dialogue; when they know how to adapt their language according to the person they are speaking to, in other words, when they are committed to communicating (I´ve previously discussed some of these issues in the posts Invitation to the partyAnd after all what´s my visionTalking about new audiencesMuseums: new churches and Free to visit an art museum).

Adorno´s reference to the word ‘museum’, and to what it represents, made me think about all these things and in particular about the terminology used by Portuguese museum professionals today. ICOM´s definition of museum covers various types of institutions and spaces that share the same mission and carry out the same functions as museums. Thus, the following institutions and sites are considered museums: natural, archaeological, ethnographic and historical sites and monuments; botanical gardens and zoos, aquariums and hatcheries; science centres and planetariums; art galleries and exhibition galleries attached to libraries and archives; natural reserves; institutions or organizations that develop activities of conservation, research, education, training, documentation and others related to museums and museology; cultural centres and other institutions that promote the preservation, continuity and management of tangible and intangible heritage resources.

With such a comprehensive definition, I wonder why in Portugal we feel the need to use expressions such as ‘musealized spaces’ and ‘musealized objects’. To me, they´ve always sounded like ‘dead and silent spaces’ and ‘embalmed objects’. I know it´s probably not the same for everyone, but this is what they´ve always sounded like to me. I´ve never used these expressions. I´ve never needed them in order to be able to express myself with precision. I never liked them. I think they only serve to complicate (why not call things by their names?) and to reinforce the negative perceptions some, many, people have of museums. The words ‘musealize’ and ‘musealized’ point, in my opinion, to a certain process. That of ‘dignifying’ a space or removing an object from its natural context and giving it a ‘treatment’ that would make it worthy of being part of a collection, of becoming a ‘museum object’. I believe that this terminology, the feeling – very subjective, yes – it provokes in me, doesn´t do justice to the efforts of many museum professionals who are committed, precisely, into creating or preserving contexts, telling stories, creating comfortable conditions, making a visit a stimulating, surprising, funny experience, allowing people to gain a feeling of ownership of the space. Since we are all aware of the negative perceptions of the public, it seems preferable to me avoid the use of a language that may reinforce them. It seems preferable to me to care for the word ‘museum’ and to continue working so that it may acquire positive overtones for more and more people.

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