Monday 14 October 2013

The Louvre, my son and I

Photo: Thomas Struth
My son was 7 the first time I took him to Paris. The deal was that we would only visit one museum per day (memories of my 5-year-old brother constantly whining and complaining that he was tired or hungry, until he declared to our parents “No more museums!”, made of me a more ‘calculating’ mother...). When the time came to go to the Louvre, the deal became even more specific: we would stay for one hour and we would see three Greek things I had chosen for him and the Mona Lisa, his choice, as they had talked about her at school.

I was talking about this in a class last week, when we were discussing if it's a good or bad thing that people might just wish to take a walk in a museum. And are all people who seemingly take a walk actually doing just that? If anyone had observed us in the Louvre, they would have seen a mother rushing her son from one room to the other, paying no attention to the wealth and beauty that was surrounding them. The truth is that we had a plan, a very personal and specific plan. And when we eventually got out of the museum, we were happy to have done what we had planned to do.

This is a recurrent issue in this blog: the quality of the museum visit, as wished by curators and by the people themselves. When John Holden defined the three types of guardians in his essay Culture and Class, he wrote about the cultural snobs, the neo-mandarins and the neo-cosmopolitans. He defined the neo-mandarins as those culture professionals who advocate for access, but they want to be the ones to decide what is worth having access to. I believe this is the category most of us fall into. We wish the best for visitors, but we are not ready to admit that visitors also know what´s best for them. We wish to impose an agenda, when visitors come with their own, one we don´t always accept as valid and significant, unless it somehow fits our own standards.

Wishing the best for visitors and doing our best to deliver it is what we are really here for. But there are two different ways of doing and expressing it. There is the neo-mandarin version and the neo-cosmopolitan one. It was during the course of the above mentioned class that two very concrete examples came to my mind.

In the beginning of this year, soon after he took the post of deputy director at the Reina Sofia Museum in Madrid, João Fernandes was interviewed by the spanish newspaper ABC. There was a statement that particularly drew my attention: “We want the spectator to be more lucid, demanding and critical when he is confronted with the work of art, [we want himt to] think and [we want] this not only to serve the purpose of saying that he was there.”

I understood, of course, what he meant to say, I just didn´t like the way he said it. I didn´t like the use of the expressions “we want” and “spectator”, I felt that ever so present wish of the neo-mandarin to dictate, to impose.

A couple of months later, I was reading Elaine Heumann Gurian´s Civilizing the Museum. And I came across this: “We are no longer preachers to the great unwashed; we are united as partners with our publics and their families. We must help our audience, which touchingly believes and trusts us, to become more skeptical and demanding.”

So, it seems to me that the wish is the same expressed by João Fernandes. The words, and eventually the ways of doing it, are quite different. Heumann Gurian speaks of a partnership; she takes the role of the helper and casts away that of the preacher; she feels the responsibility deriving from the trust placed on museum professionals by the public.

In what concerns the relationship between museums and people, it isn´t like there is a checklist and visitors have to do or learn a number of things before their visit may be validated as worthwhile by some higher authority. Even when curators aim to do that, they don´t actually succeed, they just keep many people away because they don´t feel comfortable and welcome. The museum is a place where people go to learn, be inspired, get surprised, be moved, have a good time. Museum staff is there to make sure they do their best to create the conditions for this to happen. It may all happen at once or partly or not at all and not necessarily the way museum staff had planned it. I believe though that the final evaluation should consider the needs and expectations of the visitors themselves and not just those of the curator. The museum is a shared territory.

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