Monday 17 February 2014

On 'multi' mode before the debate

Thought #1: On May 5, 2013 the Arab American National Museum was the first among various American museums to wish its orthodox friends Happy Easter Sunday on Facebook. I remember smiling and thinking that I’ve been living in Portugal for 18 years, but no museum ever acknowldged my being in this country also as an orthodox, celebrating special days together with dozens of other Greeks and probably thousands of Russians, Ukrainians, Romanians or Serbs; permanent residents in Portugal whose visit the museums would be very happy to receive, I am sure, but whose culture is not reflected in the museums’ collecting, programming or communicating policies. What kind of a relationship could/should be developed between the parts?

Thought #2: In Canada, immigrants acquiring Canadian citizenship give their oath as “new Canadian citizens” in a ceremony taking place in museums: the Canadian Museum of Immigration in Halifax, for instance, or the Canadian Museum of History (formerly known as Canadian Museum of Civilization - more readings at the end of this post) in Quebec. I have no idea what the content of the oath is, but when I first heard about this, I was touched by the symbolic choice of place, museums being (ideally) places that may be representative of our identity (or rather, our multiple identities) and those of others, allowing us to learn about each other, be with each other. I imagined these people’s stories, the stories of the new Canadian citizens, becoming part of the history of Canada. Could this be one way of forging a relationship?

Image taken from the website of the Canadian Museum of Immigration.
Thought #3: A couple of years ago, in a conference entitled “Programming for Diversity” which took place in Portugal, I was convening a panel that included an Iranian refugee. I remember him saying how much he felt at home when visiting the Gulbenkian Museum, where he could see objects coming from his country. I liked that idea of feeling at home, but I was left thinking if this is the only way of getting people interested and involved, by showing them what’s known to them. Can there be a relationship when one only looks for what is familiar to them? Is it a lack of curiosity regarding one’s “new home”? Or maybe the fact that the new home doesn’t feel like “home”? And why doesn´t it?

These loose thoughts and many more questions are coming up as I am preparing to moderate a debate this week regarding the relationship of Portuguese cultural institutions with the communities of immigrants and those of refugees now living in the country. Living in a society that is becoming increasingly diverse, I am often asking myself if there is actually a relationship, if there is an interest, to start with, on either side to come together, to be part of each other´s lives and if yes, what´s the best way of developing and maintaining this relationship. I am saying this because it seems to me that most iniatiatives (at least among the ones I am aware of) are one-off projects, assigned to a specific period of time that eventually comes to an end. The “festival-kind” of project, where ones come to perform and the others to watch the exotic and never meet again until... next time; if there is a next time. Is this worthwhile? Does it have any kind of impact? Should we aim for something else, something that might last more? Why? Who’s interested? And whose initiative should this be?

Museu d' Història de Catalunya, Barcelona. Catalonia in the 21st century, part of the permanent exhibition. (Photo: Maria Vlachou)
Looking abroad, we see big institutions operating within large multicultural societies (the Victoria and Albert Museum in London or the Kennedy Center in Washington, to name just two) dedicating big exhibitions and special programmes to specific communities and their cultures. The aim is to present a people’s culture and arts to anyone who might be interested, to promote learning and hopefully also some understanding about them. The aim is also to make that specific community feel included, and the truth is that this kind of exhibitions and festivals do attract large numbers of representatives of the celebrated culture. The question that remains is: then what? What happens to those people who came to learn and enjoy? What stays with them? Are there any changes in the way they perceive the culture they just learned about? And do people from the communities involved come back for something else? I gave the example of big institutions abroad, but the same could apply to smaller institutions within our borders. Are we developing projects and policies that might answer the question “Then what”?

Are immigrants and refugees a special group, different from others? Maybe not. They might be interested in what cultural institutions have to offer or not; they might have a habit of visiting / attending or not; they might feel represented or not; they might feel that this is for them or not; they might feel welcome or not; they might come or not; they might have the money or not. Just like anybody else. Unlike certain other groups of (underepresented) people, though, some cultural institutions – or projects - feel the need, from time to time, to ‘deal’ with immigrants or refugees. Maybe out of genuine interest, maybe because it is politically correct. My concern is that, most times, it seems to be a one-off thing, a “special event” or a “special project”, something that eventually makes the people involved also stand out as a “special group”, instead of promoting their being acknowledged as an integral part of our society, with whom the relationship should be of a more permanent nature. What once was “special” might not be anymore, things change. Are we following the change?

Ideally for me, cultural institutions are the place where a newcomer (like I was 18 years ago) can get to know what existed before his/her arrival, what is being produced at the moment and how he/she can leave his/her mark as well. They are places of constant negotiation and update. In order for this not to be something “special”, the work must be continuous so that the inclusion may come naturally.

Can it be? Is it possible? Is it happening? What does it take? These are questions for which I hope to be able to get some clues in Thursday’s debate.

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