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.

Monday 14 July 2014

Curiosity killed the visitor

Art Museum of Estonia. One reads on the label: "Villu Jaanisoo, 1963 / Chair I - II, 2001. Motor tyres. Art Museum of Estonia". (Photo: Maria Vlachou)

Last Saturday I attended a small conference entitled “The audiences of MNAC” (National Museum of Contemporary Art – Museum of Chiado), on the occasion of the 20th anniversary of the reopening of the museum after the fire in Chiado (Lisbon). During the almost three hours of presentations and debate, in which little was said about the audiences, I sat next to a label that was related to the work of art exhibited on the wall. One could read:

“Mockba, 2004
Oil on canvas, oil on acrylliv sheet
VPV Collection”

I looked at it a number of times as I was listening about the history of the museum in the last 20 years told by its directors (very interesting details I was not aware of), its collection, the name it should have, its purpose, the building that should house it, etc. I looked at the label thinking that the work exhibited did not mean something to me either aesthetically or conceptually, but, curious in undestanding if there was something more to it, something I could not grasp, I would have liked to have something more (and more interesting) than those three lines. After all, the option to exhibit that work of art had a reason behind it and I would have liked to understand better.

It happens to me many times in museums. I am that kind of visitor who has got a number of diplomas, but does not pretend to know and to understand all languages and to be able to unveil every mystery. I am also that kind of visitor who feels self-confident, who doesn´t feel embarrassed (or stupid) in admitting that he doesn´t understand, that he would like to know more, to have more interesting and relevant information, in an undestandable language. I tend to think that the person who opted to put that label on the wall doesn´t understand (and perhaps is not interested in understanding) who I am and what I am looking for. Thus, I am that kind of minority visitor. Many others feel stupid and blame themselves for it. They don´t come back, they lose their interest, they retract, they don´t “dare” again, they never take their children.   

I was faced with this issue a number of times in the last weeks. When visiting Vhils´ exhibition at the Electricity Museum, I found in one of the rooms a label repeating six times “Laser-carved old wooden doors”, followed by the dimensions of the doors. What is the purpose of such a label? Why and who was it made for?

Another recent visit was at the Municipal Museum of Aljustrel, which tells the story of the mines in that area of Portugal. A story told in this way:

The translation is mine. Apologies for any gross mistakes.

Another exhibition that caught my attention was that of Helen Mirra at Culturgest. It´s an exhibition of strips made of fabric and painted in single colours. At first glance, they don´t mean much to me and this was the reason why I was very interested in getting more information. When I fould it in the brochure, it became clear to me that my curiosity was not going to be satisfied and that this exhibition was not for me.

Extract taken from the brochure.

In the various training courses I gave in the last two months, we discussed in length communication and language. At times the trainees, although they would recognize that the language used was not efficient and the story told was not that interesting, they would express incomprehension as to how this communication could take another form, one that would fulfill the museum´s or the exhibition´s objectives and at the same time meet the visitors´ needs, the majority being non-specialists.

The example of two Portuguese convents comes to mind: the Convent of Tomar and the Monastery of Alcobaça. They both aim to tell visitors the story of the building they find themselves in, nevertheless, the approach, the option of the story to be told is clealy distinct. Which serves the needs of the museum AND the visitors better?

Texts from panels at the Convent of Tomar.
Texts from panels at the Monastery of Alcobaça.

It´s not impossible to communicate differently, to say interesting things in a simple way. By simple, I don´t mean to say infantilising, turning banal, compromising the scientific quality of the information that is being shared. What is truly impossible is to continue listening to politically correct statements on how museums are for everyone, how they need to be relevant, welcoming, to create a feeling of belonging in people, while at the same time in practice we continue to despise and depreciate the needs of those same people, we continue to offend their intelligence. I believe it is perfectly legitimate to do an exhibition for experts, one of the many target audiences a museum or an exhinition is called to serve. But one must admit this, so that the rest of the audience may consider to be “warned”. To continue writing in order to communicate with specialists, while saying that the exhibition is for all increasingly indicates, in my point of view, a certain lack of honesty on behalf of those responsible. The theory is good, it is clear, we all know it. What does it take to put it into practice? And more, do we wish to put it in practice?

Still on this blog