Monday 28 January 2013

Guest post: "A small step for a man, a giant leap for a museum", by Ania Danilewicz (Poland)

I met Ania Danilewicz last October. She was in Portugal for a few months and she wanted to know more about museums and in particular about GAM – Group for Access to Museums. Two more meetings followed after that, long conversations, and in both of them Ania striked me with her energy, her eagerness to learn, her critical spirit, her wish to intervene and to do more. In this post she shares, with great sense of humour, her thoughts and feelings about going back to her country, full of ideas that would seem to be of no use in an environment quite resistant to change, only to realize that good things do happen everywhere, even at her own museum, even if at a smaller scale. It´s not impossible, but it´s one step at a time. The lucky ones meet three old ladies in the way... mv

Adam Malysz, Polish olympic champion in ski jumping (Photo: Associated Press/East News)
Some time ago, three really old ladies were visiting our exhibition. This is a quite modern presentation (interactive too), but they preferred the old-fashioned style of touring: just looking, not touching, going around in silence, keeping a distance from all exhibits. However, they were satisfied, because the exhibition was showing the town at the time of their youth. Close to the exit one of the guides approached them:

“-Have you already tried our new listening station?”
“-For God’s sake, no! It’s not for us… let’s give space to the youngsters…”
“-But you can find original songs there, from the time of your youth!”, insisted the guide. “You see, this is an original phone from the 30s. If you choose the odd numbers, you can listen to all these hits!”

And the three old ladies did it. They picked up the phone, which is a listening station, and they all moved closer to the handset. Closer, but still carefully. Some time later they started... to sing softly, giggling like little girls. They tried also even numbers, which contain the same songs, but in a contemporary remix. And they enjoyed it so much!

Why am I writing about this story? Because it saved me from the post-Portuguese slump! Here are some of the symptomes of my recent sickness (if you recognise any of them, look for three old ladies as soon as possible!).

I returned recently from a longer visit to Portugal, where one of my permanent occupations was visiting museums and meeting with people from the sector. During my stay, I discovered, with pleasure and amazement, great museum attractions, such as a special touring route in the Tile Museum (Museu do Azulejo) composed of the replicas of azulejos panels  especially made for the blind – to be touched and to recognize a structure, shape, surface and colours -, but received with interest by other visitors too. I was enormously delighted with my visit to the Batalha Community Museum (Museu da Communidade Concelha da Batalha), admiring all amenities that make this small institution so special for the local community and so important for the  worldwide network of museum professionals. And I’ve appreciated a lot all my conversations with Maria Vlachou in the context of accessibility and the GAM - Group for Access to Museums (Grupo para a Accessibilidade nos Museos).

I have also realized, of course, that marvellous examples are the exceptions that confirm the rule. And the rule is the same like everywhere – that the majority of museums are not so modern, open and ready for new trends. But anyway, I found enough good examples to feel inspired and motivated for new projects in my museum.

I work for The Army Museum in Bialystok, a mid-sized institution, without any special distinction. It’s modern enough (the entire permanent exhibition was changed in the last three years, the first time in… 38 years) to offer visitors nice tours and programmes. But it’s also quite underfunded and old-fashioned, in need of further development. So my return meant two things: the confrontation of the inspiring ideas I was bringing with me with the museum reality; and the obligation to write this post for Maria about the museum sector in my city and country.

And this was the genesis of my sickness. I was searching like crazy for something good and impressive enough to be worth showing on this international blog. “What can possibly stand next to the Louvre or National Museums in Liverpool!?”, I though to myself.  A friend of mine asked the simplest question: “Why not your museum?”. At first, I burst out laughing, but soon after I met the three ladies I mentioned and that experience convinced me, in fact, of how easy and simple the use and implementation of ideas like accessibility, openness, participation could be, even if results are not so spectacular as in some other cases (Liverpool, Portugal, Louvre).

The three ladies showed me that creating an accessible and friendly environment could simply mean giving appropriate information and being ready to adapt existing conditions to the needs of different visitors. If we had proposed the ladies to listen to modern remixes of old sings, they would have refused for sure, like they did when I proposed to them to try the ‘listening station’. ‘Remix’ and ‘listening station’ are not words from their world. But an invitation to answer the phone, that plays the role of the listening station, seams to be a good way to convince them to interact with the display, as well as introduce them to modern music. Ipso facto, they jumped from the level of “individual consumes content” to “individual interaction” (presented by Nina Simon in her blog, one of diagrams about social participation) without any special action or programme from us. If it is so easy, why don’t we try that more often? Creating that display, we had also planned an audio description for blind people and an audio guide for all visitors. Not having enough money to buy two sets of mobile devices, we decided to record one narration, attractive to any visitor, regardless of disabilities or abilities. And just then we realized that this is an example of universal thinking and designing, which is one of the most important challenges for museums now. Wow, we can do that too!

I could also mention another example from my first days in the museum. It was March 2011 and the best Polish ski jumper, a national hero for all Poles, Adam Małysz was ending his professional career. Many people took part in the spontaneous action “The whole of Poland wears a moustache” (Adam Małysz has a very characteristic moustache...), where everyone put on a fake moustache (some even grew it especially for the occasion!). And we did it too! At a time when the museum was mostly seen as an old-style, conservative place, we glued colourful paper moustaches to all our soldiers in the exhibition. And that was it! That simple action changed our image radically, showing us and other people that we could take a step back and look at ourselves with a sense of humour and, despite the so serious historical plots in our displays, we could also be funny, people-oriented. It was just one day, but it gave the team an incredible power to start thinking about actions from a totally different perspective, overcoming set templates.

Photo: The Army Museum in Bialystok
Maybe these examples are not big, significant or impressive enough to be presented between notes about National Museums Liverpool ot the Louvre. But they do show that big change often begins with small steps. It is easy to say that we cannot change anything, due to lack of money or people. It is much more challenging and important to start with the question: what can I change or improve in my surrounding right now? These small steps may sometimes have a wider influence than a big action. They prepare us to transform and adapt because of a need, not just due to special, sporadic occasions.

I am almost recovering from my post-Portugal depression. Almost, because deep inside I still have that strong need to implement and develop all possible new elements in our programme. But now I know how to do that – step by step.

Anna Danilewicz is a cultural animator and manager, Head of the Department of Education and Organization of Exhibitions in the Army Museum in Bialystok. She previously worked for the Drama Theatre in Białystok and was a juornalist for the biggest newspaper in Podlasie region, Gazeta Wspolczesna. She has cooperated with many associations and some independent projects, such as Street Culture Enthusiasts Association ENGRAM, Borderland Summer School, Foundation of the University of Białystok, Marcel Hicter Foundation in Brussels. She got the European Diploma for Cultural Projects Management in 2012 and attended the International Seminar for Cultural Operators, organized by the National Centre for Culture and the Foundation Marcel Hicter. She graduated from Bialystok University in 2005.

Monday 21 January 2013

Don´t shush me!

Photo taken from Culture 24 (© Courtesy Wallace Collection)
Back in 2003, the Royal Academy hosted an exhibition on the Aztecs. River, a two-year-old child, exclaimed “Monster! Monster!” when he saw the statue of the Eagle Man. The guard immediately asked the family to leave, considering that the child was misbehaving.  The mother, Dea Birkett, was a journalist and a few days later she was writing in the Guardian an article entitled Travelling with kids, questioning: “If we curtail their unfiltered attraction to art as a toddler, how can we demand they appreciate it aged 20? I hope my children don't misbehave. But shrieking with joy at a statue doesn't seem, to me, something to frown upon. I would have been much more disturbed if he'd shown no response at all. But perhaps you were at the Aztecs, too, and glad when that loud child left. Perhaps I've spent too long surrounded by shouting kids to appreciate how irritating they can be? What do you think? Should River stay or should he go...?”. The incident was widely discussed at the time and Dea Birkett founded Kids in Museums, a charity dedicated to making museums more child and family frienldy. Kids in Museums has just celebrated its 10th anniversary at... the Royal Academy! The museum´s Head of Learning, Beth Schneider, siezed the opportunity and wrote a long article for the Guardian describing all the steps taken in the last ten years to make the museum more welcoming for families and especially for younger visitors.

Tate Modern came under fire for not putting an end to the BP sponsorship after the environmental disaster in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010 (read here and here). Initiatives like Liberate Tate, Art not Oil and Platform have not let the matter die out, not only in relation to the Tate, but to all british cultural institutions accepting sponsorship from the oil company, including the National Portrait Gallery, the Royal Opera House and the British Museum. Last year, these institutions renewed their sponsorship agreements, considering that the support of BP to culture and the arts has been consistent and substantial and there´s no reason to renounce it because of one major incident. Nevertheless, the British Museum demonstrated total openess to criticism and gave it space on its own premises. Last November a theatre flashmob, organized by the Reclaim Shakespeare Company, took place in the museum´s Great Court, protesting against BP sponsorship of the Shakespeare exhibition, showing at the museum. A museum press officer reaffirmed the institution´s gratitude for BP´s continuous commitment and, at the same time, recognized Reclaim Shakespeare Company´s right to protest, claiming that there were no ill feelings (read here).

When Woolly Mammoth theatre announced an encore run of Mike Daisey´s The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs, it was heavily criticised by many. The monologue dealt with and denounced the corporate practices of Apple and Foxconn, Apple's supplier in China, but some time after it premiered, Mike Daisey was accused of fabricating some facts. He admitted it, publicly apologised and removed all contested material. Woolly Mammoth Theater remained firm in its decision for a take 2 of the performance and its long-standing collaboration with Mike Daisey. Instead of avoiding the controversy, it actually used it to promote the show, announcing it as “the most notorious and controversial play of the decade”. It promoted a very healthy dialogue with both supporters and critics on its facebook page, and actually posted negative reviews, feeding the conversation. On the last day of the show, Apple co-founder Steve Wozniac, who hadn´t escaped Mike Daisey´s criticism in the play, was at the theathe for an after-show talk with the playwright and the audience.

Mike Daisey in The Agony and Ecstasy of Steve Jobs (Photo: Sara Krulwich/The New York Times)

What´s the common thread in these three stories? That the cultural institutions involved didn´t bury their heads in the ground, didn´t pretend they didn´t notice, didn´t ignore people´s voices. People were heard. Not in the sense “the client is always right”. Actually, in two of the three cases here presented there was no change in the decision. But there was an understanding that there is another side, people with convictions, expectations and needs. They are not there to unconditionally adore us – ‘us’, cultural institutions. They´re there to question, to criticise, to demand, and also to guide us. Because they care. And because we care too, we don´t hide away. We engage in the dialogue, we promote it, we feed it. We invite them to get involved in what we are doing. We become part of their lives. And we get their support.

Suggested reading:

Monday 14 January 2013

Guest post: "The political museum", by David Fleming (UK)

David Fleming is a museum professional I greatly admire and respect and he has deeply influenced my thinking on the role of museums. Some years ago, Josie Appleton criticised his option of coming into museums because this was his way of trying to change the world by saying “An admirable aim, of course, but maybe Fleming should have become a politician or a social worker rather than a museum director.” [in Watson, E. (ed), Museums and their Communities, p116]. I, personally, am glad David came into museums and actually became a museum director. And it is with great pleasure that we publish in this blog a shortened version of his speech The Political Museum, given at the INTERCOM Conference in Sydney last November. The complete version may be found at the end of this text.  mv 

Photo taken from the website of National Museums Liverpool

1.   Introduction – the myth of neutrality

It is a tradition in museums that we are, or should be, apolitical, by which I mean that museums should not involve ourselves in the power relationships that characterise society. It’s not our job to get embroiled in the world of real people, real events, controversy and opinion. What we ought to do is use our knowledge and expertise to assemble and care for our collections, and to present them in a neutral fashion for public benefit, floating on a cloud of scholarly virtue, hovering well above the mundane realities of human life. In fact, to keep doing what many museums have attempted to do for most of the time since they were set up.

It is, of course, the height of hypocrisy, and, indeed, is utterly vacuous, to claim that museums have ever been ‘neutral’ about anything. All the basic tasks that we undertake - researching, collecting, presenting, interpreting – are loaded with meaning and bias, and always have been; these tasks are the museum’s methods of serving up to the public what the people running the museum wish the public to see. Museums are social constructs, and politics is a cornerstone of social activity – you can’t have one without the other. No matter what type of museum, no matter what it contains, decisions have been made by someone about what to research, what to preserve, what to collect, what to present, how to interpret; and decisions have been made about what not to do, what not to research, what not to preserve, what not to collect, what not to present, what not to interpret.

I’m not altogether certain why some museum people, and others, have seen such value in portraying ourselves as disinterestedly pursuing knowledge, as though by doing so we avoid the risk of becoming political. The issue isn’t “is it right or wrong for museums to be political?” but “all museums are political, why do some pretend that they’re not?”.

2. The political museum in action

a) Old Model

After their conquest of Greece in the 2nd century BC, the Romans used triumphal display of objects to show the superiority of Roman to Greek culture. This was a technique continued throughout the ages, by the Christian Church, by Charlemagne, by the Venetian Republic, by Napoleon, by the Nazis, and by many others – in all these instances any aesthetic appreciation of the objects displayed was probably subservient to the political power message. Some of the great museums of Western Europe are particularly good examples of the Old Model Political Museum, with their displays of imperial plunder and their casual assumption of European superiority over other peoples. The political nature of such museums has been revealed in the justifications for the existence of “universal” museums, a concept which came to renewed prominence in 2003 with the Declaration on the Importance and Value of Universal Museums by the directors of a self-selected group of big European and US museums. The Old Model Political Museum is best characterised by its stealth. It is political, but it pretends it isn’t – it pretends that it is merely orthodox and truthful. It is a museum that would thrive in George Orwell’s Oceania.

b) New Model

Photo taken from the website of Tuol Sleng Memorial Museum.
Today, the New Model Political Museum is overt and campaigning, in particular in the fields of human rights and national identity: The National Museum of Australia (Canberra), The Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongawera (Wellington, New Zealand), District Six Museum (Cape Town, South Africa), Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum (Phnom Penh, Cambodia), Museum of Genocide Victims (Vilnius, Lithuania), Museum of the Occupation of Latvi (Riga, Latvia), The Museum of the Romanian Peasant (Bucharest, Romania), The Vietnam War Remnants Museum (Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam), DDR Museum (Berlin, Germany), to mention a few. There are lots more museums of the type that seeks actively to redress a situation where power politics have left some people disadvantaged at best, oppressed and victimised at worst.

A couple of weeks ago I received this email from the Director of the Memorial Resistance Museum in Santo Domingo: “I just created a new petition and I hope you can sign. It's called: We are fighting for the right to the truth and justice for the victims of the dictatorship of Trujillo.”

I went to the website and found the following: “We ask the General Attorney of the Dominican Republic, Mr. Francisco Dominguez Brito, to enforce the laws and the international treaties on human rights, defend the rights of young people and Dominican children to truth, defend the right to justice for the more than 50 thousand victims of the dictatorship of Trujillo, the survivors and the relatives of the victims. We demand the fulfilment of the decision of the Dominican courts, that protect us from the vindication of the regime and the figure of the dictator, and for a Commission of Truth.”

This is the political museum in full flow.

In conclusion, there is a gap between the active, campaigning museums that we have been looking at, and those that go about their political business more discreetly, but the gap is superficial. I would argue that most museums are political, and it is naïve or dishonest to pretend otherwise. We shouldn’t regret this, as though there is a better, neutral state somewhere to which we should aspire – it is human nature to be political, and thank goodness it is.

David Fleming´s full keynote speech may be found here. The Museum of Liverpool, one of the museums under David´s direction, was awarded last month the Council of Europe Museum Prize for 2013 by the Committee on Culture, Science, Education and Media of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE). PACE said “The Museum of Liverpool provides an exemplary recognition of human rights in museum practice." (read here)

Further readings
Places of encounter, by Maria Vlachou
Silent and apolitical?, by Maria Vlachou

Check also:

David Fleming became Director of National Museums Liverpool in 2001. He has overseen a radical change management process that has resulted in Liverpool audiences rising from around 700,000 per year to 3.5 million, at the same time increasing markedly in diversity. He has advised a number of governments, museums and municipal authorities, both nationally and internationally, on national museum strategy, project management, exhibition design and museum governance. He has published extensively on museums and lectured on museum management and leadership, social inclusion, city history museums and human rights museums in more than 30 countries. He is Founding President of the Federation of International Human Rights Museums (FIHRM), Vice-Chair of the European Museum Forum, and Chairman of ICOM’s Finance and Resources Committee. He is a past President of the UK Museums Association and has served on several UK Government committees and task forces.

Monday 7 January 2013

Liverpool-Lens-Metz-Foz Coa and back

Image taken from the Louvre-Lens Facebook page
When one thinks about the role of culture in urban regeneration the case of Liverpool comes immediately to mind, as well as the work of J. Pedro Lorente in analyzing this and other case studies of cities which attempted a revival, more or less successfully, through culture and the arts. In the introduction of the working paper The role of museums and the arts in the urban regeneration of Liverpool (1996), Lorente writes: “... any derelict area in the heart of a prosperous city is bound to be revitalized by urban developers anyway. However, the prospects of redevelopment are less likely when dereliction lays in the middle of a declining city facing economic recession, unemployment, depopulation, social/ethnic unrest and physical decay. (...) Liverpool is such a case: in the last decades, everything seems to have gone wrong there, except the arts (...)”.

In a way, Lens seems to be such a case too. It is a former mining town of 35.000 people in the north of France, proud of its football team and hit hardly by the crisis. Lens is also, since December 4, home to the new Louvre-Lens, presenting objects from the parisian museum´s collection, including highlights such as Delacroix´s Liberty leading the People. In his speech at the inauguration ceremony, French President François Hollande used words such as “regional development”, “cultural decentralization”, “cultural democracy” and seemed confident that visitors will be coming from the whole region, the whole of France, the whole of Europe and maybe the whole world (the annual target at this moment is 500.000 visitors; 100.000 visited the museum in less than three weeks after its opening). On the other hand, Louvre President Henri Loyrette explained in an interview for the newspaper El País: “[when deciding on the location] what interested me was that it could have a social character, not [to be] a city with culture. This is an industrial zone, very much affected by unemployment and which suffered in all wars. It is a kind of reparation.”

We are quite used to listening to politically correct statements, for which almost noone is ever held accountable for in the years that follow, but a museum that aims to compensate a region for its hardships is a new concept for me. I read numerous articles and reports regarding this new museum, some of which may be found at the end of this text, but I would like to highlight three of them, which, in my opinion, raised some important questions.

On the french blog Option Culture, Jean-Michel Tobelem analyses the three challenges the museum is asked to face – attendance, territorial impact and democratisation and argues: 1. although access is good and exhibitions are of high quality, the building will not be enough to attract the large number of visitors those wishing for a “Bilbao effect” are dreaming of; 2. even if visitors come in great numbers, he doubts there will be an opportunity for wealth creation if there is no infrastructure (hotels, restaurants, commerce, etc.) that would respond to those visitors´ needs and make them want to stay longer and spend more; 3. he also doubts that the chronological approach adopted in the Gallery of Time, the educational activities proposed and open storage would actually be able to attract what we generally call “new” visitors. Bernard Hasquenoph also criticised official references to cultural democracy and decentralisation by making a point in his article Louvre-Lens: la culture comme alibi that the region where Lens is situated could harldy be considered a “victim” in terms of cultural offer and quoted the Louvre´s President who actually said that Lens is a town in a “... region with a reputation for its exceptional cultural dynamism and the density of its museum network”. Finally, Jonathan Jones of The Guardian warns that The Louvre risks losing its magic with Lens move and calls the move “political correcteness gone mad”. He urges british museums not to make the same mistake and to continue forging links and promote loans between the capital and the regions.

These three texts resume my views on this subject. Lens is an hour away from Paris by train. Does it really make sense (in the name of “cultural decentralisation and democracy” or as a means of making amends...) to break up a world famous collection, visited by millions of people living in France and also coming from abroad, in order to take it closer to people that could easily have access to it? And if this is not the case for all (which probably isn´t), wouldn´t it make more sense to make transport to Paris more accessible to all those interested in visiting the museum? Furthermore, in a region that seems to have already got a rich cultural offer, wouldn´t it make more sense to support existing structures and their links to the capital? Or, if it was actually considered that it was the right time and place to create a new cultural venue, wouldn´t it be more appropriate, in competitive terms as well, to create something unique and distinctive of that region? Finally, if decisions were made in the name of regional development, is the museum expected to perform a miracle on its own, when basic, complementary infastructures are still not in place?

Image taken from the Pompidou-Metz  Facebook page.
The case of Pompidou-Metz, which opened in 2010 with quite similar objectives announced by the then French President Nicolas Sarkozy, also comes to mind: a town that didn´t form part of the usual touristic tracks, a bit more than an hour away from Paris by train; a town with a rich cultural offer; a museum that was set up in an area  previously given to industry, as part of a plan to boost tourism; a number of highways that opened in the meantime in order to facilitate access. Still, less than three years later, the museum failed to reach its objective of 600.000 visitors for 2012 (read here). Has something gone wrong? Is there an explanation for this? Is anyone evaluating this case at a time when a new museum opens apparently set to serve a similar vision?

And with all this, I feel compelled to ask: what about Foz Côa? This is one of my favourite places in Portugal. I visited the prehistoric engravings sites in 1999 and 2000. In 2011 I went back, this time to visit the museum too, which had opened the year before. Although the whole project was seen as a major factor in the region´s development (and it probably does attract more people to it), the truth is that the only novelty I encountered was the museum itself, where, on a Sunday afternoon of November, I was the only visitor. The museum café was closed and I had to go back to town and face the almost impossible task of finding something to eat at a place that looked deserted and which still hasn´t got e decent hotel (or restaurant, for that matter) that would make people consider spending the night there. Moreover, considering the touristic traffic in river Douro, the plans to create a connection to the boats have still not materialized, that is, there is still not a quay and a cable car that would allow those visitors to get to the museum and visit the prehistoric sites.

Photo: José Paulo Ruas (taken from the Museu do Côa Facebook page)
I am not an expert in urban regeneration, so I can only express an opinion based on some readings and on my experience as a visitor as well. And it seems to me that, just like a swallow does not make a spring, it takes more than a museum to guarantee the sustainable development of a town, a city, a region. There is a lot to learn from the cities that were able to manage this successfully. It took more than culture. And it took more than politically correct statements. There is a need, above all, for a strong political commitment and for the joining of public and private forces towards a clear common goal. Arts was not the only thing that didn´t go wrong in Liverpool...

More readings
Louvre-Lens: helping a mining town shed its image, by Oliver Wainwright (The Guardian, 5 December 2012)
The Louvre comes to town, by Edwin Heathcote (The Financial Times, 7 December 2012)
L´ouverture du Louvre-Lens, par Didier Rykner (La Tribune de l´Art, 4 Décembre 2012)
Louvre-Lens: lanaissance d´ un musée (Le Monde, 5 Décembre 2012)
Le Louvre-Lens ouvre ses portes au public (Le Figaro, 12 Décembre 2012)
Le Louve Lens, le succès en dépit des grincheux (Lunettes Rouges, 11 Janvier 2013) 
Les musées se remettent en scène, para Valérie Duponchelle (Le Figaro, 7 Décembre 2012)
What's the big idea behind the Pompidou-Metz?, Jonathan Glancey, (The Guardian, 6 April 2010)
Centre Pompidou: Metz gears up for its moment, Natasha Edwards (Telegraph, 8 May 2010)
Museu do Côa, por António Martinho Baptista (Informação ICOM.PT, Nº 16, Mar-Maio 2012)
Amigos do Parque e Museu do Côa, por José Manuel Costa Ribeiro (Côavisão – Cultura e Ciência, Nº 12, 2010)
We built way too many cultural institutions during the good years, by Emiy Badger (The Atlantic Cities, 5 July 2012)
Philharmonie de Paris: a grand design turned £300m 'bottomless pit', by Angelique Chrisafis (The Guardian, 30 December 2012)
Mais e novos museus, por Joana Sousa Monteiro (Mouseion, 7 Janeiro 2012)

Le Journal du Temps: Lens, le Havre et une seule cause (André Malraux inaugure le premier musée – Maison de la Culture en 1961)