Monday, 15 December 2014

The educational dimension

Last October, during the intermission of a performance of Brahms' “Requiem” by the Saint Louis Symphony, twenty three protesters sitting in various parts of the auditorium stood up and sang “Requiem for Mike Brown” (the black unarmed youth that was shot by a policeman in Ferguson). Some members of the audience were shocked, others applauded, the same happened with the musicians on stage. Noone interrupted the protesters, noone called the police. Maybe because what happened made sense, at that place, at that time, in that specific context. Music being an integral part of protest in Ferguson, this, acoording to one of the organizers, was an attempt to “speak to a segment of the population that has the luxury of being comfortable. You have to make a choice for just staying in your comfort zones or will you speak out for something that’s important? It’s not all right to just ignore it”. (read full article)

The recent killings of black people by police in different US cities have provoked an intense soul searching among cultural institutions in that country. In a recent joint statement from museum bloggers and other culture professionals regarding Ferguson and related events, one reads:

“The recent series of events, from Ferguson to Cleveland and New York, have created a watershed moment. Things must change. New laws and policies will help, but any movement toward greater cultural and racial understanding and communication must be supported by our country’s cultural and educational infrastructure. Museums are a part of this educational and cultural network. What should be our role(s)? (...) Where do museums fit in? Some might say that only museums with specific African American collections have a role, or perhaps only museums situated in the communities where these events have occurred. As mediators of culture, all museums should commit to identifying how they can connect to relevant contemporary issues irrespective of collection, focus, or mission. (...) As of now, only the Association of African American Museums has issued a formal statement about the larger issues related to Ferguson, Cleveland and Staten Island. We believe that the silence of other museum organizations sends a message that these issues are the concern only of African Americans and African American Museums. We know that this is not the case.”

Last August, serious controversy involved the decision of Tricycle Theatre not to host the UK Jewish Film Festival, for the first time in eight years. The reason was that the festival received support from the Israeli Embassy in London and, given the ongoing assault on Gaza at the time, the Board felt it was inappropriate to accept financial support from any government agency involved”. They offered to provide alternative funding, but the Festival did not accept (read full article). The conflict in Gaza was also the reason why participating artists in this year’s São Paulo Bienal (later supported by the bienal curators) called on the organizers to return funding from the Israeli Conusulate. Negotiations resulted in the removal of the conusulate logo from the general sponsors and its association only to the Israeli artists that had received that specific financial support (read full report).

We may agree or disagree with the decisions taken by these organizations. But the questioning of the role of cultural institutions in today’s society, especially their educational role, must be permanent, constant. Just like Rebecca Herz, I believe that they shouldn´t act irrespective of their mission (as it is suggested in the above mentioned statement of the US museum bloggers), but any museum collection or theatre /orchestra / festival programme can have a connection to contemporary life and help shape the kind of society we need or dream of. As the work of many contemporary artists is a response to contemporary life issues, it is not unusual to find this kind of connections, and the fertile thinking associated to them, in the programming of theatres, companies or galleries (the Maria Matos Theatre, the Gulbenkian Programme Next Future or the alkantara festival are the first to come to mind, among the organizations whose programming I follow in Portugal, but there are others). Museums or orchestras presenting works that are not contempoarary are not used to linking their collections or concerts to contemporary life though or, if they do, it does not become obvious to me. Quite often I find myself thinking “What is the point of this exhibition or concert?”, “Why is this relevant?”, “How does this connect to contemporary portuguese society and its diversity?” (the inspiring work of the Orchestra of the Age of the Enlightenment comes to mind once again...)

This brings me once again to a recurring issue on this blog: accountability and responsibility. I don´t see cultural institutions as islands, cut off from what is happening around them. I believe they should make it clear for people how what they have to say or show can be relevant to them and a way of finding meaning; they should share their vision and objectives publicly and take responsibility for fulfilling them; they should be a public forum, where people can find comfort, but also the necessary discomfort. They clearly have an educational role (in the sense of providing what the Ancient Greeks called “paideia”), one that I wouldn´t necessarily make depend on what happens (or doesn’t happen) at school or at home and one that doesn’t firstly depend on an education department, but on the director him/herself.

Two museums directors and a curator will be with us next Tuesday, 16 December, at the Gulbenkian Foundation conference “What places for education? The educational dimension of cultural institutions” (more information). Charles Esche (Director of Van Abbemuseum and one of the curators of this year’s São Paulo Bienal), David Fleming (Director of National Musems Liverpool and President of the International Federation of Human Rights Museums) and Delfim Sardo (Curator, University Professor and Essayist) will challenge us to think on our responsibilities and practices in the current social and political context.

Note: For those who cannot be in Lisbon, the session will be livestreamed from 10am Lisbon time. The link for the livestream as well as a number of papers, posts, interviews in english may be found on the conference webpage (in “Oradores” and in "+Info")

More readings :

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Monday, 1 December 2014

An apology of criticism

Critical thinking is a mental and emotional function in which someone - based on his/her knowledge and information available – decides what to think or do in relation to a specific situation. The result is a substantiated opinion. It is subjective. It may be positive or negative. It must be intellectually honest.

There is a tendency to associate solely negative aspects to the word ‘criticism’ and to see it as an attack. That´s why many times a critique provokes reactions such as “criticising is easy…”; or a hasty clarification by the ‘attacker’, such as “please, don´t take this as a criticism”; or even the need to declare that the ‘attacker’ has nothing personal against his/her ‘target’.

A couple of weeks ago, I reacted – critically - to the interview of a national museum director and, specifically, to a statement regarding an issue that is of extreme importance to me in our profession. This means that, based on my knowledge and the information available, I decided what to think of that statement and I shared that thought. Other people reacted to my criticism, agreeing or disagreeing or adding other aspects to the process of critical thinking. At a certain point, though, a colleague intervened to say: “One shouldn´t speak ill of colleagues on Facebook”. This intervention has kept my mind busy since.

I see a distinct difference between speaking ill and criticising. Speaking ill can only be negative and there is something too personal in it, something too sentimental, something that ends up neutralizing the strength of arguments and severely affects the credibility of the critic. Speaking ill is not constructive, it might be temporarily ‘therapeutic’ for the speaker, but it is ineffective.

Criticism is something different. Criticism is the wish to be aware, to put one’s knowledge in good use, to contribute for something better (through positive or negative appreciations) and also to assume responsibility. Thus, criticism is not easy.

Very little critical thinking is shared in public, with the exception, perhaps, of whatever relates to the governement and politicians in general – which makes me think that maybe we don´t feel as responsible for this country´s political life, thus, criticising (or speaking ill) becomes easy... In what concerns everything else, and considering specifically the cultural sector, public criticism and debate regarding decisions, positions, projects is rather limited. The professionals of the field might be feeling that all this is beyond their control and this feeling of impotence makes any intervention seem hopeless. Others might not like the exposure public criticism brings along, wary about personal/professional relationships that tend to get mixed up on these occasions. Others still might not like to take the responsibility of criticising publicly. Thus, as criticism is actually seen as something negative, as an attack, it is better kept behind closed doors, ‘in the family’, or, better still, untold. For some people, it shouldn´t be happening on social media. (I can´t help thinking that, when a couple of years ago I wrote positevely about an interview of the same national museum director, nobody told me I shouldn´t be doing it on Facebook; I suppose it was not considered criticism).

I envy cultural bloggers in (mainly) the US and the UK, who contribute to the open debate and criticism of all important matters, keeping the dialogue alive, their voice heard and the interested public informed. They are too intelligent to fall into the trap of ill speaking. This is an act of responsibility. This should be an expected act in a democracy. All important, major, things must be discussed openly, positive and negative things must be largely debated, responsibility must be assumed. The direction of all public cultural institutions concerns us all, starting from the professionals of the field.

Which brings me to another point: criticism is associated to accountability. When Nina Simon completed her first year as director of the Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History, she wrote the post Year one as a museum director... Survived!. Both accountability and criticism stem from a deep sense of responsibility and Nina´s text is the perfect example of what I would like to see happening here.  But it´s not happening. In a country where those holding public positions are not expected to be accountable – that is, to openly define their objectives and to regularly explain what it is that they do, how, why and how successful they are in it - criticism might actually make less sense and we enter a vicious circle. A circle where few substantiated opinions are heard publicly, having no impact whatsoever, and where things happen anyway, no matter what, and success is declared... no matter what. We even consider normal that someone with a public position might be defending the indefensible, might not be giving an honest opinion, out of duty to his/her superiors. A vicious circle, a game, where we sacrifice our intellectual honesty. What´s the gain? And at what cost?

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Monday, 17 November 2014

That´s advertising

What is usually understood as “advertising” among cultural institutions is an ad in a newspaper or a magazine based on an exhibition or performance poster and informing on what – where -  when. Sometimes, this concept is transported into a TV spot, where the poster gets to have some kind of “animation”, using the image and letters of the poster, and where the information on what – where – when is also transmitted orally. In other words, facts.

Last year, I saw on You Tube the advertising spot of an exhibition at the Czech National Museum in Prague and it got me thinking. It related to the 2008 exhibition of the original document of the “Munich agreement”, which had been signed 70 years earlier, in 1938. This was an agreement between Britain, Germany, Italy and France which allowed for Czechoslovakia’s German-speaking territories to be sliced off and handed to Hitler.  

This was definitely not the usual what - where – when tv spot. This was a museum transmitting a message and addressing an invitation with a clear knowledge of the social-political-cultural context in which it operates and with a sense of humour. Short, intriguing and rather bold, considering what museums in general have got us used to. It speaks to the citizens of the Czech Republic and to the rest of us, although no words are needed.

More recently, I was very pleasantly surprised with a “Made in Portugal” ad. The 3rd edition of the Montemor-o-Novo Theatre Festival was organized by the Municipality of Montemor-o-Novo together with a number of local theatre groups, in spite of the financial difficulties felt in the cultural sector, presented all over the town and with the objective – among others - to involve the local population, independent of age, education, previous knowledge or habits of attending theatre performances.

The sense of humour in this spot won my heart once again. The second thing that came to mind was how true it felt, considering the festival´s mission and objective, especially the concern to involve the local community, which becomes the protagonist.

The third example I would like to discuss is also “Made in Portugal” and it´s more than an ad, it´s what one may call a campaign. “Maria & Luiz” is the joint effort of Lisbon´s two municipal theatres (Maria Matos and São Luiz) to work together in forging a relationship with people, through the creation of a card that costs €10 to purchase and offers 50% discount for a year. The campaign is made of seven short films (with english subtitles).

Seven short films, seven stories of romance, vanguarde, drama, music, expression, charm, phantasy. The ingredients of the the everyday life of very diverse people reflected back to us once we find ourselves in a theatre room.

The objective of advertising is to build messages that may influence attitudes towards a product or an idea. Now that I put the three examples together, I realize that one thing they have in common, apart from a sense of humour, is that they are centred on the people they wish to communicate with. Not facts, people. The story is not just the document or the festival or the discount card; the story is not told by the curator, the artist or the manager. Common people become the protagonists and narrators. Common people is what cultural institutions are about. This is the idea I see behind the concept, this is the message. Being part of a sector that is used to communicating with “its own” – with those who are already part, with those who “understand” – I am happy to see that some of us have chosen a different way, a different relationship.

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Monday, 3 November 2014

Is Giselle a curator?

Giselle Ciulla, Clark Art Institute (image taken from the website)
Is everyone who feels dazzled by medicine, follows the news, marvels at the advances registered and shares them with other people, a “doctor”?

Is every person who is fascinated with the stars, reads about them, has a telescope and does observations, an “astronomer”?

Is every person who likes art, has some favourite pieces and wishes to share and discuss the feelings and ideas these works provoke a “curator”?

What distinguishes an amateur from a professional and an interested person from an amateur? This is not exactly an original question, but the context in which museums operate today puts it once again on the table.

When I first read about the project uCurate of the Clark Art Institute in Williamstown, USA, I was thrilled with the idea. I wrote at the time that this is also the role of museums in society, a role that allows for involvement, active participation, which recognizes that there are more than one versions of the ‘truth’ and creates a place for them to be shared. There was one thing, though, that I felt very critical about: the fact that Giselle Ciulla, an 11-year-old whose proposal won the 2012 competition, was mentioned on the institute´s website as the “curator”.

Is Giselle a curator? Does the fact that she is a young person with interests, ideas, needs, opinions, who chose a number of works from the Institute´s collection and put them together into an exhibition make her a curator? Or rather a curator is somenone who – together with the ideas, needs, and feelings – has got the technical knowledge that can help shape ideas and needs into interesting, relevant, inspiring exhibitions, open to discuss more than one truths, nowadays with the help of the people who wish to be involved? The Wikipedia is an impressive collaborative project, where people may contribute and share their knowledge. Behind the entries, though, there are “curators” who make sure the information shared is accurate, otherwise the project would lose its credibility. What kind of analogies to the world of museums and their crowdsourced projects can we find here?

In an article entitled What is photography when everyone’s a photographer?, Joan Fontcberta is quoted saying Taking a picture today is easy and little attention is given to craft. This means that the art quality no longer resides in the fabrication but in the prescription of meaning”. Who´s responsible for prescribing a “meaning” in museums and helping fullfil the intentions? Ed Rodley states in his post ’Outsourcing’ the curatorial impulse: “If I had to characterize the essence of present-day curation, it would be ‘sense-making’”.

Far from defending the “omniscient and all-powerful curator” and being very supportive of all attempts to involve all people interested in museum work (so that what´s presented in them may be the result of extensive involvement and contributions from a number of people, thus more relevant), I wouldn´t get to the point of not distinguishing or confusing the roles of those involved.

In a recent article entitled Everybody´s an Art Curator, Elen Gamerman points out some of the main issues in the current debate: “The trend is sparking a growing debate among artists, curators and other art-world professionals about everything from where to draw the line between amateurs and experts to what even constitutes a crowdsourced show. How far can museums go in delegating choices to the public? How tightly should they control the voting on exhibit content? And at what point does a museum start looking too much like a community center?”.

Community activities at the Santa Cruz Art and History Museum (image taken from Nina Simon´s blog Museum 2.0)

Good question... A person attending the course I am currently giving on museum communications asked me after watching Nina Simon´s TED talk Opening up the museum: “Does the museum [Santa Cruz Art and History Museum, where Nina Simon is the director] keep in the collection works made by people who attend their workshops?”. And I would take this questions further: “If they do, do they keep all of them, some, on what criteria?”. I am a great admirer of Nina Simon and her vision regarding participatory museums, but we should not limit our evaluation of what she is trying to achieve to financial gains and attendance. There´s much more to it and Nina is doing what many more museum directors should be doing: risking, experimenting, evaluating.

The context in which museums operate today is specific, but the whole situation is not exactly new. It occurs every time there is a significant change in the environment (social, political, technological). There is a need to rethink things, to plan differently, to adapt. I believe that the current environment asks for museums to be as much about the present as they are about the past. It asks for curators to be prepared to cater not only for their peers, but also for the “normal” people who wish to enjoy the museum and see it as part of their lives and communities. 

Yes, this means paying attention and being sensitive to the changes taking place. Yes, this means sharing authority and creating space for different views of the world. Yes, this means experimenting and taking risks. Yes, this means developing new programmes and skills. 

No, it doesn't mean that museums must become something else, something they are not (from community centres to health centres to youth corrective services and so on). No, it doesn't mean that everyone's a curator. No, it doesn't mean mistaking crowdsourced projects for give-people-what-they-are-asking-for projects.

So, how to go about this? I believe museums and the professionals working in them should focus on their competitive position. They should focus on what makes them special, different from other institutions. They should capitalize on their strong points and develop the necessary skills to face and work with new realities. The ultimate objective is to remain alive and relevant. And that takes some courage. It takes some attitude too.

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Monday, 20 October 2014

Not to be missed? Mmm... why?

OAE, 2014-2015 season (images taken from the OAE Facebook page)

It has become very common when promoting a cultural event to mention what – when - where and then to add the magic phrase “Not to be missed!”. At times, a couple of lines are added to this information, basically to let us know that artist x is the best in his/her field or world known. Judging by the information sent to us by a number of cultural institutions, there´s nothing we can miss and there are a number of artists that are the best in their field and world known. The first statement is not true and the second is not precise.

Monday, 6 October 2014

Preserving for what?

Imperial War Museum

On my second year in London, back in 1994, I could see the cupola of the Imperial War Museum (IWM) from my kitchen window. It was a beautiful view of a beautiful museum. To the surprise of many people, this is my favourite museum in London.

On my way to the first Congress of Military Museology, I was thinking that I never considered the IWM, which was going to make a presentation on that day, a military museum. To me, the IWM is a people´s museum (shouldn´t they all be?). A museum of the military and the civilians, of men and women, of grown ups and children, of human beings and animals (I am thinking of some of the exhibitions I saw there). It´s much more than dates, battles, tactics, types of weapons, treaties. It´s a museum that tells the stories of people whose lives were affected by war.

Promotional postcard of the First World War Galleries at the Imperial War Museum

The IWM presentation was included in a panel that would discuss the Military Museums and the the Great War Centenary. The first speaker was Maria Fernanda Rollo, a university professor and coordinator of the project Portugal 1914. This is a web portal, with very rich contents gathered with the collaboration of various institutions and professionals with different backgrounds, as well as the general public. The aim is to promote active citizenship, committed to the protection, preservation and safeguarding of a collective heritage, as well as to raise awareness of the importance of remembrance and the preservation of historical knowledge. “This is a virtual museum, that tells stories, where one learns with affection. It´s a museum that is alive”, said Maria Fernanda Rollo.

Promotional postcard of the First World War Galleries at the Imperial War Museum
I smiled when I heard this statement. Because, implicitely, Maria Fernanda Rollo was revealing to us her perception of museums: a dead space, a space where stories are not told, a space where affection doesn´t have a place. A perception which is widely shared by many people in our society at various levels (do you remember why painter Paula Rego wished for the museum of her paintings in Cascais to be called “House of Stories” and not “museum”?).  But I also smiled while listening to my good friend Gina Koutsika making her lively and stimulating presentation on the initiatives of the IWM for the commemoration of the centenary. Gina showed us how alive a museum can (and should) be, how full of stories and feelings, how close to the communities it serves. This is not a museum in the virtual world, it´s a real one, it exists.

Promotional postcard of the First World War Galleries at the Imperial War Museum

Once the debate started, my mind travelled to another museum visit, some ten years ago, at the In Flanders Fields Museum (Ypres, Belgium). Another remarkable museum in the town that stood in the way of the German army and was totally destroyed during the war. A museum full of human stories, where the visitor may take up the identity of one of the town’s inhabitants and follow his/her story during the war. The one thing that marked me the most, and that I never encountered in another museum since, was the most simple way of showing that one object could be many stories. By exhibiting a pile of white handkerchiefs, the museum told the story of the multiple uses of that one object: it could be a sign of surrender; or a way to protect oneself from lethal gases covering one´s nose; or something to cover one´s eyes when facing the death squad.

In Flanders Fields Museum

From Ypres, my mind crossed the boarder and went to France, to the Musée de la Grande Guerre du Pays de Meaux and its amazing project “Léon Vivien”. Good museums can find imaginative ways of putting their collections in good use, bringing them to life and connecting them with people. Léon Vivien is a fictitious character, a soldier, whose story is told on a special Facebook page through a number of objects, followed and commented by thousands of people. Good museums can do well both in the real and virtual word.

Eventually, the issue of remembrance came up in the debate. Lieutenant-General Mário de Oliveira Cardoso was another speaker on that panel and he quoted philosopher, essayist and writer George Santayana: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it”. Remember the past, preserve historical knowledge. Yes, that´s the aim of a number of insitutions, including museums. But why? What’s the purpose? Is it being achieved? Are the stories preserved and remembered just for their own sake or rather because they can be a link to the present, to current human stories, not only our own but those of others too? Can the stories preserved and remembered help me connect to the Other, make his/her story my own?

Europe is full of military, history, first and second world war, holocaust museums. They all aim to preserve the historical past and show the importance of rememberance. “Never again” is the motto we encounter in many of them. Are these museums aware that recently, following the atrocities that took place in Gaza, the cry “Death to Jews” was heard once again in some European cities? Have they reacted? Have they taken the opportunity to put their collections in good use and to show what is the purpose of preserving the historical past and remembering? Isn´t it precisely in a moment like this that museums should intervene publicly and contribute towards clarifying and shaping public opinion? Otherwise, preserving for what?

Other texts

Los jóvenes tienen que conocer esto para saber en que país están viviendo
Interview with Ricardo Brodsky, director of Museo de la Memoria (Santiago de Chile)

Le MuCEM ne doit pas devenir un musée pour touristes
Interview with Jean-François Chougnet, director of Musée des Civilisations de l´Europe et de la Méditerranée (Marseille)

Who funds the arts and why we should care
Interview with Charles Esche, curator of São Paulo Biennial

Monday, 22 September 2014

Gay, black, disabled... can we stop talking about it?

Gay Jazz Festival, Philadelphia (Photo: Bruno Bollaert, taken from The Examiner)

Last May, Philly magazine announced that history was about to be made with the organization of the first Gay Jazz Festival in the US. The announcement intrigued me. It rather seemed to me like history was going backwards. I visited the website of the William Way LGBT (Lesbian-Gay-Bisexual-Transgender) Community Center that would host the  - I quote: “groundbreaking” - event looking for more. One read: “Philadelphia has enjoyed a legacy of being a great music city. We’re also a city that affirms the lives of LGBT people. Hosting the first LGBT jazz festival in North America provides an opportunity to showcase the rich and vibrant culture of our city. (...) The festival will serve as the finale for the William Way LGBT Community Center’s annual music series and highlight the intersection between sexual orientation and gender identity within the jazz community.”

I believe that an important principle when dealing with other people, other cultures, is to first listen to the people themselves, to try and get to know and understand them better; their thoughts, their life experiences, their sensibilities, their needs and convictions. Thus, I am sure the Centre must have had a clear view on the necessity of a gay jazz festival, but still, even after consulting its website, it was not clear for why this initiative might be considered “visionary”. Why would gay jazz musicians need a gay jazz festival to present their work? Would this help raise awareness regarding gay people´s rights? Could it be because they don´t usually have a place in the jazz festivals being organized in the US and abroad? Why should a music festival aim to highlight “the intersection between sexual orientation and gender identity within the jazz community” (and how would it do it?) and not simply the artists and their music?

I am frequently asking myself more or less the same questions when it comes to disabled artists. People working with them and the associations representing them claim that they don't usually get to see their work presented in the usual festivals and the programming of cultural venues in general. It is considered of lesser quality and many times, once a venue programmes a show or an exhibition, they feel that they have filfilled their obligations towards disabled artists and no more is needed in a season. This is a reality indeed. Are we moving forward, though, and are we somehow solving the problem by organizing “special” disabled artists festivals, exhibitions, etc.?

Michelle Ryan, "Intimacy", Unlimited 2014 (photo taken from the Unlimited website)

Between 2 and 7 September another edition of the festival Unlimited took place in London, a big event, with works especially commissioned for it, which “celebrates the artistic vision and originality of disabled artists”. In a country like the UK, which, compared to others, has already taken a number of necessary steps towards respecting disabled people´s rights, what is the role of a festival like Unlimited today?

Between 13 September and 15 October the Musée de Grenoble is organizing Le Mois de l´Accessibilité. One reads on the website that the museum invites people with disabilities to discover their exhibitions and activities during the whole year, giving all necessary assistance. So, what is the purpose of this “special” month?

Considering these and other initiatives, I keep questioning myself who attends these festivals, exhibitions, activities and what happens after? Do they attract the already “converted” or they appeal to a wider audience? Do gay or disabled or black artists become more acknowledged by the sector and the public? Are they seen as the professionals they are? Are we moving towards an inclusive representation, where they are seen first and above all as artists, or rather curators and audiences still go to see something “special”, confined in a specific space and time, its “own” space and time? Do these festivals help us move towards caring more and more about the art and less and less about “the rest”?

I´ve written in the past about promoting shows which involved disabled people without giving a “warning” to the public that this would be the case. People bought their tickets, watched the show, they might or not have felt a certain discomfort and some left very pleasantly surprised with the quality of what they had seen. Wasn´t this a step towards learning that the “rest” didn´t actually make a difference? Shouldn´t our goal – the artists´, the curators´, the education and communications professionals´, the disabled people´s associations´ - be to work towards turning the difference mainstream?

When reading “Museums and Migration” (ed. Laurence Gouriévidis) this summer, I was pleased to see that this was the principle followed in some museum exhibitions in countries like Canada, Australia or the UK, countries with high levels of immigation that have seen at certain times government strategies that aimed to deal with “the tension between the recognition of a culturally diverse society and the need to articulate a national identity that projects a culturally cohesive nation” (Mary Hutchison and Andrea Witcomb, p.228). These museums moved beyond the ethnic festival, the Week of China – India – Pakistan – Nigeria – Bolivia, etc. (usually concentrating on music and food), and looked for ways to turn the migrant communities´ stories part of the main national story and to “promote positive feelings about people feeling at home across cultures and the idea that people in many parts of the world live within cultures that are already transnational, cosmopolitan and characterized by cultural hybridity” (Kylie Message, p. 60).

I believe that this is the way forward; it´s to stop drawing attention to the difference and making it part of the story. I quoted once before Morgan Freeman who considered Black History Month to be ridiculous, refusing to see his history resumed in a month, and, when asked “So, how are we gonna get rid of racism?”, he simply answered: “Stop talking about it!”. Do we still need gay, black, disabled, ethnic months-festivals-fairs-shows? Maybe we still do, I don´t deny it. But do we also have a plan for moving things forward?

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The beginning and the ending of a b&w week in Vienna

Other texts

Monday, 8 September 2014

What lies beyond?

Freeman Tilden
When reading Elaine Heumann Gurian´s “Civilizing the Museum”, a bit more than a year ago, I remember having one thought and two feelings. I thought how it was possible to have come for the first time across her writings and visionary thinking about museums so late, after studying and working in the field for almost 20 years. I had a warm feeling of comfort, realizing that ideas and concerns constantly on my mind were not exactly new and that someone like Elaine had expressed them so beautifully and thoroughly before, influencing a number of people and institutions she worked for. But I also had a bitter feeling of frustration, realizing how slow really change is, since things Elaine has pointed out some time ago and worked for are still an issue today.

When I finished Freeman Tilden´s “Interpreting Our Heritage” last month, I smiled. I had the same one thought and two feelings. How is it possible to only read Tilden now?! How inspiring his writing, how clear everything becomes when one goes through his six principles of interpretation and numerous examples. And how disappointing to see that, more than half a century later, we´ve learnt little and practiced even less.

Tilden wrote the book in 1957, when he was 74 years old and after a long career as journalist, novelist and playwright. As Russell E. Dickenson points out in the forward of the fourth edition, “In his association with parks, Tilden developed an interest in how the national parks shaped American identity as well as individual identity, urging citizens to derive meaning and inspiration for and from precious natural and historical resources.”

This is what Tilden wished for citizens and this is where his expectations of interpretation and interpreters lied. “Interpreters decide what stories to tell, how to tell them and who to tell them to, a serious responsibility [p.2]; (...) The visitor´s chief interest is in whatever touches his personality, his experiences and his ideals [p.36]; (...) But the purpose of interpretation is to stimulate the reader or hearer toward a desire to widen his horizons of interest and knowledge and to gain an understanding of the greater truths that lie behind any statement of fact [p. 59]; (...) Not with the names of things, but by exposing the soul of things -  those truths that lie behind what you are showing your visitor. Not yet by sermonizing; nor yet by lecturing; not by instruction but by provocation [p. 67]; (...) to put your visitor in possession of at least one disturbing idea that may grow into a fruitful interest [p. 128]”.

His vision thus summarised, here are Tilden´s six principles of interpretation:

1. Any interpretation that does not somehow relate what is being displayed or described to something within the personality or experience of the visitor will be sterile.

2. Information, as such, is not Interpretation. Interpretation is revelation based upon information. But they are entirely different things. However all interpretation includes information.

3. Interpretation is an art, which combines many arts, whether the materials presented are scientific, historical or architectural. Any art is in some degree teachable.

4. The chief aim of interpretation is not instruction, but provocation.

5. Interpretation should aim to present a whole rather than a part, and must address itself to the whole man rather than any phase.

6. Interpretation addressed to children (say up to the age of twelve) should not be a dilution of the presentation to adults, but should follow a fundamentally different approach. To be at its best it will require a separate program.

When reading this, I did, of course, think of museums; of the richness that lies within them which is inaccessible to so many. In many cases, by choice: the choice of those who have the great responsibility of interpreting, of revealing, of provoking, of touching most peoples souls and not just the brains of a few, but, although having the power to decide, their main concern is to communicate with and be acknoweldged by their peers. This is one reason, in my opinion, the most important, the most determinant. Another reason is that, in this context, professionals who have technical preparation in this field struggle to be heard and, all too often, lose the battle. Another reason still is that many other people working in this field haven´t got technical preparation for what they are asked to do, and they are not given any either. I remember once at a training course, during a heated discussion regarding the resonsibilities of museum people working for themselves and their peers, one lady raised her hand and said: “Please, don´t say that we are only worried about ourselves and our peers. I just don´t know how to do things differently, and this is why I am here”....

It is the combination of these factors that makes Heumann Gurian, Tilden, Cotton Dana (to mention another favourite of mine) sound bitterly relevant and contemporary, more than 20 or 50 or 100 years later.

It happens that I finished Tilden´s book and started writing these lines in the middle of a national park, that of Tzoumerka in Greece. The beauty of the scenery was breathtaking. I kept thinking of his words: “Interpretation takes the visitor beyond the point of his aesthetic joy, toward a realization of the material forces that have joined to produce the beauty around him.” And this is what the people I met did for me. They took me - with simplicity, enthusiasm, and a profound knowledge of things - beyond, much beyond what was visible to me. They were not all professionals, but they were people with a love for that place, wishing to share it. And they made my whole experience even greater.

Still on this blog

Curiosity killed the visitor

Plaka Bridge, National Park of Tzoumerka, Greece

Monday, 28 July 2014

In circles

Nelly´s, Greek refugees from Asia Minor, 1925-27.

Two of my grandparents were born Ottoman subjects. My hometown, Ioannina, in the north west of Greece, had fallen to the Ottomans even before Constantinople, in 1430. Almost 500 years later, in 1913, it was liberated by the Greek Army and became part of the Greek State. Along the centuries, there had been a number of uprisings against Ottoman rule, but they were unsuccessful. They resulted in greater repression, which, in turn, fed the determination of the occupied.

My hometown had a strong multicultural background – Christian, Muslim and Jewish. I was born in 1970, too late to witness it, although its traces are found all around. My house today stands 200 metres away from either the muslim or jewish cemetary. Most muslims living on Greek territory had to abandon their homes and move to Turkey, a country they didn´t know, a place that meant nothing to them, following the Treaty of Lausanne in 1923. Orthodox Christians living in Turkey were forced to move to Greece. Friends and neighbours were separated for ever and I spent my childhood dreading the Turks. The last Muslim of Ioannina died in the 2000s, while the jewish community, almost totally annihilated during the Nazi occupation of Greece in World War II, numbers today about 50 people.

The first and last time I entered my town´s Synagogue - as it is almost always closed - was in 1993, for the commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the deportation of the Ioannina Jews to Auschwitz. The person who sat next to me that day quietly cried through the whole ceremony. It was at that moment, in my early 20s, that I realized that History is much more than facts and dates in my books, as usually taught at schools and even at universities. History is the people that made it and the people that live its consequences, both public figures and, especially, anonynous individuals.

Whenever I travel, I always visit the Jewish Museums or exhibitions on the Holocaust in various cities, when there is one. I´ve seen some really good ones (Imperial War Museum, London; the Dachau Concentration Camp Memorial Site, Munich; Jewish Historical Museum, Amsterdam; Jewish Museum, Vienna; The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, Washington), some not so good, in terms of museography, but nevertheless interesting because of the subject (Jewish Museum Berlin; Jewish Museum of Greece, Athens), while I really look forward to the opportunity of visiting some more, like the South African Jewish Museum in Cape Town. Through these visits I go back to the History of a People proud of their origins, who respect and preserve their traditions, no matter in which part of the world they live and, most of all, despite the persecutions they have suffered since... well, always.  I feel deep respect and admiration for them and I don´t seem to have enough of listening to the story again and again, both the good and bad parts.

Quiet often in these visits we are faced with the “Never again” lesson. This is, of course, one of the purposes of telling the story, the fact that History is repeated and that we need to learn from the past. The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum actually takes a step further from the “Never Again” statement. It actively invests in studying, denouncing and preventing genocide around the world. It´s that museum that helped me come to terms with my feeling small, powerless, insignificant and taught me that we can all do something to prevent genocide: learn more and share it with friends and family. It does not mention Palestine, though.

And this is an actually bigger lesson, the real lesson, for me. One that shows that the “Never Again” will happen - again and again and again - because once we are confronted with it, we start calculating. We calculate the pros and cons for us personally, who we should openly support, when we would better keep silent and neutral, when we should assume a reconciliatory position. This is exactly what many politicians and common citizens alike have been doing since the beginning of yet another Israeli assault on Gaza, one which has so far taken many – mainly civilian – lives, destroyed many homes, left terrrible marks on human beings. Like all previous assaults. When a carnage like this is taking place (even more, perpetuated by the regular army of a democratic state), the first thing we have to do (we, the West, defender of democracy and human rights) is not to discuss the origins of the conflict, the rights and wrongs of each side. The first thing to do is to clearly, inequivocally, loudly condemn the assault and demand an immediate end to the carnage. Then we may, and must, converse.

It hasn´t happened, though. Apparently, we don´t value human life equally, so all European countries in the United Nations Human Rights Council may abstain (all of them!) from the vote to open an enquiry regarding alleged violations of human rights in Gaza; apparently, some “never again” situations are justified, so our governments may continue supporting and selling arms to the Israeli government; apparently, each case is a case and everything depends, so there are some “never again” cases where we, common citizens, may reserve the right to be more “balanced” or neutral.

Apparently, we don´t learn from what History can teach us, basically, that occupying, humiliating, terrorizing a People has never kept the perpetrators in power for ever and, most of all, it has never brought peace.

Until September.