Monday 25 November 2013

Gone with the wind?

On 15 November I participated in the seminar “Museums and Monuments: communicate, innovate, sustain”, organized by the Directorate General of Cultural Heritage at the Convent of Christ in Tomar. There were four panels: Mass media: mediating or turning median?; Strategies of communication; Marketing and branding; Funding sources, management models. For me, it was a very interesting seminar, especially because of the inclusion in the panels of people who don’t work in museums and monuments and who can bring to the debate points of view which are very relevant for all of us. That is… if we are interested in listening, in being confronted with our practices, in acting in order to change for better.

I would like to discuss two moments of that seminar. The first, was journalist Paula Moura Pinheiro´s speech in the first panel, “Mass media: mediating or turning median?”. Paula referred to the journalist’s work and his/her role in the communication with and for a large audience. For her, the journalist has got the role of the translator. It’s someone with a good general culture, but aware that he/she doesn’t know everything and who, thus, looks for the specialists and various other sources, in order to collect information. This information is then analyzed and ‘translated’, in order to be presented to the larger audience of non-specialists. “My programmes are not for the specialists”, said Paula Moura Pinheiro, “and the specialists don’t need my programmes. My programmes are for those who don’t know.” She inevitably reminded me of the British naturalist Edward Forbes who wrote in 1853: “Curators may be prodigies of learning and yet unfit for their posts if they don´t know anything about pedagogy, if they are not equipped to teach people who know nothing.” She also reminded me something I had read a few years ago in The Manual of Museum Management by Barry Lord & Gail Dexter Lord: that an exhibition is like a TV programme, it may raise awareness, but it doesn’t turn anyone into an specialist.

Another presentation in the first panel of the afternoon, “Marketing and branding”, came to test the comprehension and relevance of Paula Moura Pinheiro’s words. Advertiser Pedro Bidarra, who ran for years the advertising agency BBDO, talked to us about “The wall of words”. He showed us extracts from texts he had encountered in exhibitions and which transmitted nothing to him, because… he didn’t understand them. His examples caused much laughing in the audience, but Pedro insisted: “How come you want me to see your exhibitions if you create yourselves such barriers to communication? It’s no a lack of interest on my part, I would really like to visit, but I feel that your offer is not for me, it was not produced with me in mind.”

Pedro Bidarra’s texts were very well chosen; which doesn’t mean they are hard to find. The discourse of the majority of our museums is a conversation among specialists. A enormous effort is being made in order to gain our peers’ approval and applause. Where does this leave the audience, the people, and our relationship with them?

A couple of weeks ago I wrote about the way the euro-barometer results were received by many in our sector and I was asking if these results are ever going to make us question our practices or if we will continue blaming people for lack of culture, ignorance and lack of interest.

I think of the seminar in Tomar and the impact those two presentations, Paula Moura Pinheiro’s and Pedro Bidarra’s, may have had (or not) on the way museum professionals, especially those being directors, think about their daily practice. What was the meaning of all that laughing in the audience when Pedro was showing us his examples? Because in that audience there were certainly some people who had been the authors of similar texts to the ones shown on the screen. As the Portuguese Sandra Fisher Martins, founder of the Plain Portuguese campaign, was saying in her TEDx talk “The right to understand”: “These documents (she was referring to public documents) don’t fall from the sky, they are written by someone”.

In order for change to happen, there is a need for courage to face the criticism; openness to admit that there are things which are not right; determination to offer a better service. There is also a need for some sense of humour, a need to know how to laugh at our own mistakes, as long as laughing helps relieve the – probably inevitable – sour taste of the negative criticism and strengthen the will to do things in a different, better, way. If the laugh is nothing more than just a laugh, I feel there’s a Rhett Butler behind it thinking: “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn.”

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