Monday, 28 April 2014

Show me the people

I often think that panels and labels in art or history museums fail to convey passion, marvel, joy, pride, sadness, despair, enthusiasm; to talk to people about other people; to create empathy, the need to read more, to find out more. The language is usually dry, academic, factual, incomprehensible – I am sure – to a number (perhaps the majority?) of museum visitors.

These thoughts came back to me while visiting the Benfica Museum in Lisbon. It’s the city´s newest museum, it opened its doors in July 2013 and has had almost 43.000 visitors so far (entry is not free, adults have to pay €10,00). Its aim is to tell the story of the club and its different sports - football being, of course, the one overshadowing every other.

There are lots of things to say about the museum, but I would like to concentrate on the message and feeling it conveys through written communication and the connections it creates to people.

This is clearly a museum for and about people. A museum about passions. It aims to tell a story in a way people, all kinds of people, will understand it and feel related to it and involved in it. With art or history museums in mind, I would say that the option here is not to simply narrate facts or to explain techniques. The option is to reinforce the club’s identity – by presentings its values, objectives, achievements, contribution to the country as a whole and to individual lives.

(joining of two photos)
When it comes to people, one finds in this museum both the ‘artists’ (football players, other athletes, coaches) and those who enjoy the ‘art’ (famous people and anonymous members and fans). Everyone´s thoughts and feelings have a place on the museum’s walls, nobody is more important than someone else. Thus, we find an installation with the faces of club members, as well as a special setting quoting writers, singers, actors and other public figures who support the club.

(joining of two photos)

“It’s different, it’s football”, you might say. “They’ve got money, it makes a whole lot of a difference”, you might say.

Starting from the latter, it´s not about money. It´s about attitude. Money may allow a museum like the Benfica Museum to use a number of audiovisuals and other expensive tricks that enhance the experience. But all museums, no matter how much money they’ve got, have panels and labels (and leaflets and websites). The language they use, the story they choose to tell, the people they address are options that have got nothing to do with money.

Does football appeal to more people than art or history or archaeology? At a first glance, maybe, yes. But if we give it a second thought, maybe art and history and archaeolgy have a big appeal too, but not when presented in museums... Maybe when a friend tells us a story and raises our curiosity; when we watch a report or documentary on television; when we read a piece of news on the Internet or Facebook. In other words, when we find ourselves in a comfortable context where someone is talking to us in a language we understand , shares his/her knowledge and enthusiasm about a subject wishing to communicate with us,  puts feeling into the narrative, makes it a normal conversation among people.

Can´t museums talk and write about art and history and archaeology and many other subjects conveying passion, marvel, joy, pride, sadness, despair, enthusiasm? Can’t they talk and write to people about other people? Can´t they create empathy, the need to read more, to find out more? I believe they do, some do, but many others choose not to. The need to impress and get the approval of our peers becomes in many cases the priority when making this kind of decisions. We say “We are here for everyone, museums are for people”, but the practice does not confirm the rhetoric.

The difference between the Benfica Museum and many other museums I´ve visited is that it stays true to its mission. It´s a museum for and about people and this is not just rhetoric, it’s something one may confirm in every option (more or less successful; more or less necessary) of telling the story. In the Benfica Museum I felt the people, I felt their passions, their pride, their anguish, their sadness, their joy. And that ended up keeping me in the museum much longer than I had initially expected.

More on this blog

Monday, 14 April 2014

The Attack

I read Yasmina Khandra´s The Attack a few year ago. It´s the story of an Arab doctor, Amin Jaafari, living and working in Tel Aviv. After a suicide attack rocks the city, Jaafari is called to identify his wife Sihem’s body, one of the victims of the attack. Little later, he’s confronted with the information that Sihem herself was the suicide bomber.

Khandra takes us with his beautiful, sensitive, incisive writing through the different stages in Jaafari’s emotional state and to his journey in search of answers: from the pain of losing his wife, to the incredulity when faced with the information that the woman he loved had committed such a crime, to the confusion and anger when realizing, little by little, that he was unaware of a number of his wife’s actions, thoughts and feelings, to the determination to find an explanation that could help him make sense and the return to a reality he had long left behind.

I loved Yasmina Khandra´s book because it shows that friendship, tolerance, understanding and coexistance are possible, they are one reality. And with this reality as a starting point, he slowly  takes us, following Jaafari’s quest, into that other reality, which exists right next to the first one, compromising it, questioning it, every single day: that of millions of Palestinians in the occupied territories or in exile; that of daily humiliation, dispair, hopelessness, pain, abuse, death, revolt; that of an arbitrary rule that bears terrorist suicide bombers, who are venerated as heroes and martyrs.

Khandra makes us question the first reality. Is it the product of convenient silences; of ignorance? Is it fake; fragile; unable to survive if the silence is broken? Or rather the result of strength and determination, of the informed and thus conscious wish for peace?

The director of The Attack, Ziad Doueri.
The film The Attack, by Ziad Doueri, opened this year´s Judaica – Festival of Cinema and Culture in Lisbon. I went to see it knowing that rarely or never are films as good as the books. The rule was more than confirmed.

What stroke me the most was how superficially Doueri dealt with the story. He was not able to give any depth to the characters, their feelings and views, and more than once I was left thinking that I was watching a soap opera. Furthermore, he decided to ignore Yasmina Khandra´s narrative when describing Jaafari’s quest into the territories and basically presented the Palestinian´s as nothing more than a big mafia. I got up as soon as the film ended, also puzzled about the ending that was totally different from that of the book. Just before I left the room, I was able to hear the film director explaining to the audience that the ending of the book was not convenient to him, so he chose a different one. Why didn´t he write the story he wanted instead of ruining Khandra’s?

A scene from the film The Attack.
Some days later I watched an interview with Doueri and I realized that there is probably more to it. Talking about his growing up in Beirut, about his liberal parents, about the Arabs’ taboos with regards to Israel, about how stupid ramadan is, I realized that Doueri, wishing to be progressive and open-minded and liberal, built his own version of The Attack with the intention to challenge the Arab point of view. To challenge by ignoring it, turning it into a caricature. Once again, why didn´t he write his own story instead of taking advantage of Khandra´s best-seller?

Coexistance, reconcilliation, the building of a common future is no easy thing. This is what Khandra tells us. This is what I feel when I have to talk to my son about the Greek-Turkish past and present. This was what tortured my mind when reading Jean Hatzfeld’s The Antelope's Strategy, Living in Rwanda after the Genocide. It might require some silences, but as a result of knowledge and understanding and not of ignorance. It requires strength, the ability to forgive without forgetting. It requires open-mindedness, the capacity to listen and weigh the arguments of the other side. It’s not easy; it’s very difficult and it’s complex. One needs to start by recognizing precisely that; and respecting it.