Monday 2 February 2015

What we know and what we don't do about it

In the last few weeks, I had the chance to talk to a couple of colleagues regarding some accessibility issues in their exhibitions. Things like poorly illuminated labels, bad contrast between letters and background, labels placed too low, objects exhibited at a high level and without inclination, long and complicated texts. I believe that these are issues that can easily be solved, without any further investment in money, just with some forward planning and the concern not to exclude. Actually, when exhibitions are designed to be inclusive, not only do they not cost more, but they can actually bring more money in, as more people will be able to access them.

I felt a bit puzzled when the people I approached told me that they knew all about those problems. Why did things happen that way, then? Is it possible that we are consciouly creating barriers to our exhibitions’ content? What do we do them for, then, if not for people to enjoy them?

I feel the same kind of puzzlement in conferences or training courses, when we discuss issues of management, communications, marketing, visitor services, education, etc. Quite often, some colleagues approach me and say: “We’ve been telling our superiors what you’ve just said to for years and years.”

Thus, it seems that there’s no lack museum professionals (including museum guards) who are aware of a number of small and big management or communications problems.  We have also got feedack from visitors themselves, through visitor books, comment cards, visitor studies, etc. Finally, there is also the contribution of academics, thinkers, bloggers, such as Maria Isabel Roque - who recently reminded us of some of the things that are still to happen, in her insightful post Acerca do que (ainda) falta ao património - or Luís Raposo - one of the few museum professionals in Portugal who regularly share their views publicly, his latest opinion article concerning the opening of the new Coaches Museum and future plans for museums in Lisbon’s Belem area.

So, we can’t complain that we haven’t already got truly valuable feedback – both from insiders and outsiders - which can help build strategies, correct mistakes, make decisions, register trends, understand changes and developments. Why don´t decision makers and those directly responsible for museum management act on it? What´s stopping us, what kind of barriers are we dealing with? Why are we going after more studies, new studies, if we haven’t done anything yet about the things we already know? Why existing knowledge seems to have no impact whatsoever on museum management and practices?

Here’s my attempt to identify some reasons:

It might be because, despite politically correct statements that museums are at the service of society, they are rather at the service of those who manage them. People – those who come and those who don’t come – and their interests and needs are actually not our principal concern. Objects are and it’s enough that they look beautiful for those who know how to appreciate them.

It might be because in this field we work with very short-term plans, which follow the electoral circles and which may easily be abandoned, with no further explanation or responsibilities taken. Thus, big and small issues remain and their discussion is perpetuated without brining any concrete developments.

Finally, it might be because we tend to settle for what’s “good enough”. We know what the problems are, but there comes a moment when we cannot insist anymore: either because we can’t get our arguments across or because we feel that we cannot expect or demand more from other people. Only that “good enough” is not good enough and the argument of “one step at a time” doesn’t always take us as far as we should go. In fact, it often keeps us just where we are.

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