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.

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