Monday, 30 March 2015

What's in a title?

Choosing the title of an exhibition, activity or event is not something easy. Not when one wants it to convey something about the content and to be curious or funny enough in order to attract people’s attention – and also, to be efficient when applied on promotional materials. What one usually finds when opening a cultural agenda are titles that either claim the obvious (for instance, the name of an artist we might or might not know) or attempt to describe the content in a rather dry, dull, repetitive way – words like “place”, “memory”, “look”, “treasures” are words museums are very fond of. Another case we should consider is that of contemporary plays and performances, whose titles may be 2-3-lines-long, only to be abbreviated  for “everyday use” by the artistic team itself and by the audience, leading to what should have probably been the title in the first place....

I tried to remember titles that worked well for me, and two came immediately to mind:

Wien Museum (Photo: Maria Vlachou)
“Unter 10 – Wertvolles en Miniature” (Under 10 – Treasures in miniature), at the Vienna Museum, was a 2013 exhibition that presented objects from the museum’s collection based on the strict rule that no item could be more than 10cm in width, height, depth or diametre. From objects that aimed to simply respond to the challenge of miniaturisation to baby utensils, smelling bottles or illegal political leaflets, this exhibition made us look (also with the help of magnifying glasses..), and look better, differently, into the collection. The museum was not on my visit list, but I couldn’t resist the title.

Entrance of the exhibition "Disobedient Objects", V&A (Photo: Maria Vlachou)
More recently, “Disobedient Objects” was another exhibition title that caught my attention. It first came up in my news feed last summer, among dozens of different news titles. I stopped scrolling down and opened the piece. Quoting from the Victoria & Albert Museum website, “From Suffragette teapots to protest robots, this exhibition was the first to examine the powerful role of objects in movements for social change. It demonstrated how political activism drives a wealth of design ingenuity and collective creativity that defy standard definitions of art and design.” I was able to visit the exhibition last November and it lived up to my expectations. The object that touched me the most was a defaced lybian banknote (the scribbled face being Gaddafi). It reminded me of a Lybian man being interviewed right after seeing Gaddafi’s corpse and saying: “We had always thought he was a big man. He is small, he is so small.”

Defaced lybian banknote from the exhibition "Disobedient Objects", V&A (Photo: Maria Vlachou)
It is also worth talking about some refreshing examples that have recently come up in Portugal.

“Vivinha a saltar!” (Alive and jumping!) is an exhibition at the Bordalo Pinheiro Museum about two symbols of the city of Lisbon: the “varinas”, the women selling fish in the streets, a  popular figure in the work of Rafael Bordalo Pinheiro; and the sardine, which has developed into an icon of the city and a source of inspiration for contemporary artists. The name of the exhibition, “Vivinha a saltar!”, was one of the varinas’s most famous cries when promoting their merchandise and had been the title of a chronicle about portuguese politics and society published by the newspaper “A Paródia”, founded by Bordalo Pinheiro.

Last week, the Municipal Museum of Penafiel, in the north of Portugal, celebrated World Poetry Day on 21 March with “Dois garfos de conversa” (the literal translation being “Two forks of talking”), a conference about the town’s poets, followed by a dinner at the museum. The museum director explianed to me that both title and poster were created by the museum team.

On that same day, the youth collective Faz 15-25 celebrated its first year of existence at the Arpad Szenes – Vieira da Silva Museum with films, poetry, talks, workshops and food, inspired by the museum’s temporary exhibition “Sonnabend | Paris – New York” and addressed to youth audiences. The title of the initiative: “Faz-Tá POP!”.

Finally, the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation surprised us last December with an invitation “P’ra Rir” (To Laugh), a cinema series (now in its second edition) which gives people the opportunity to watch cinema in a big room, the Foundation’s recently renovated Grand Auditorium. According the João Mário Grilo, responsible for the programming, the laugh seemed to be an appropriate inaugural gesture. “And it would be wrong to think that this is a (yet another) “comedy series”, because in cinema, as in life, one laughs in different ways, even with dramas.”

In both big and small cultural institutions, the process of choosing a title may involve different people and departments: curators, directors, publicists, education and communications staff. Recently, the Gulbenkian Foundation decided to involve the public in the choice of the title of a 2016 exhibition at the Gulbenkian Museum. As mentioned in the beginning of the post, the objective when choosing a title it to come up with something that is able to convey the content, to attract people’s attention, to be efficient when applied on promotional material (in this case, good graphic design is a definite plus). One last piece of advice, from our colleagues from the Australian Museum: “Make sure staff at reception/front-of-house are comfortable saying the name aloud as they'll often be the ones selling the exhibition to visitors.” They’re right!

With thanks to: Elisabete Caramelo, Isabel Aguilar, Maria José Santos, Rui Belo, Sara Pais

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Monday, 23 March 2015

Philippe de Montebello revealed

I´ll say it right in the beginning to get it over with: yes, I got upset reading Philippe de Montebello's two statements regarding the issue of restitution in the book “Rendez-vous with art” (p. 54 and p. 208). Having said that, the rest of the book is absolutely charming! A beautiful, inspiring, surprising series of conversations between Montebello and art critic Martin Gayford, revealing the man behind the art historian and long-time director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Following these conversations, we feel an urge to look and to look better, even if it is only a photo in a book – hoping, of course, to be in front of the original one day... As Montebello himself puts it: “(...) nothing can replace the experience, the very physical sensation of being surrounded and engulfed in the actual space.” (p. 51)

Probably one of the most touching moments comes right in the beginning of the book, where Montebello answers Gayford’s question about that single moment, that single experience that may have led him to a life in the arts. Montebello shares with us that very special moment, when he was 15, and his father took home André Malraux’s “Les Voix du Silence”. And suddenly, there was Uta...

“She was Marchioness Uta in Naumburg Cathedral and I loved her as a woman (...) with her wonderful high collar and her puffed eyelids, as though after a night of lovemaking” (p.10; image taken from Wikipedia)

I was left thinking: would he have ever put this on a museum label? How many people would have looked, looked better, looked more, should they had read something like this about a statue?

Montebello goes on to admit something we rarely hear from curators, but which is true about most museum visitors: “I have found that when I have forced myself – often with the help of curators – to look at things about which I was indifferent or that even repelled me, I discovered that, with a little knoweldge, what had been hidden from me became manifest.” (p. 59)

What kind of knowledge is needed for this ‘epiphany’ to occur, one might ask. Not facts about the artist’s life, not a detailed and dry description of stylistic elements; not in the first place, not for the non-specialist visitor (the majority, that is, of museum visitors). One seems to find all the answers in Freeman Tilden’s “Interpreting our Heritage”: “What lies behind what the eye sees is far greater than that which is visible” (p.20); (...) “the  purpose of interpretation is to stimulate the reader or hearer toward a desire to widen his horizon of interests 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. Nor yet by sermonizing; nor yet by lecturing; not by instruction, but by provocation” (p.67).

Another couple of examples from Montebello’s book might illustrate these points:

“(...) it’s utterly delighftul. The shoe flying off into the air, heading for the statue of Cupid at the side, that enchanting tree so frothy and unlike a real tree: it’s all like a décor de théâtre, a theatre set. This is a gorgeous painting about having a good time and about which one doesn’t have to think very hard, just abandon onself to the sheer pleasure it provides: a picture I’d have no trouble at all living with.” (p. 81, Jean-Honoré Fragonard, The Swing, 1767; image taken from

“(...) I then focused on the deep burn marks at the bottom of the frame, obviously made by votive candles, confirming that this was indeed a devotional picture. Just a few additional details resuted from close examination, not the least of which was that the picture was in impeccable condition, a rare thing when it comes to Trecento gold-ground pictures, as most works have suffered greatly over time, mostly I’m afraid at the hands of restorers.” (p.65, Duccio di Buoninsegna, Madonna and Child, c.1290-1300; image taken from

“But I am happy just to enjoy the expression on Adam’s face, so sweet, and the way he is holding the apple branch – it is not a fig leaf – with two fingers, as well as the foliage required to cover his nakedness. Dürer has so engagingly endowed his classically inspired figures with tender sensuality; and I love Eve, Venus-like with her pretty Nürnberg fräulein’s face. You see: no art history, just my own very personal response.” (p124, Albrecht Dürer, Adam and Eve, 1507; image taken from

I don’t believe most people visit museums looking for an art history lesson on their panels and labels – or physics or music or any other discipline for that matter (some do, of course, and their needs are equally legitimate, but museums usually cater for them with various other means). People do not visit museums looking for someone to tell them what they should feel or think either, as defended by Alain de Botton in Art is Therapy (Rijksmuseum), where one finds labels such as this: "You suffer from fragility, guilt, a split personality, self disgust. You are probably a bit like this picture" (regarding Jan Steen's painting The Feast of Saint Nicholas). I think that most of us are first of all looking for something that can be meaningful to us, something that may delight us, surprise us, make us feel good or richer or more conscious of ourselves and of the world. Many of us are looking for stories, stories of other people, human beings we can connect to - either those depicted or those wishing to share their knowledge with us.

Deciding which story to tell is not an easy choice for a museum; writing it in a clear and concise way is equally difficult. But it is not impossible, as Montebello shows us in his book, where he abandons his ‘institutional self’ and manages to share his enormous knowledge as an art historian in a simple and human way that is meaningful and relevant for many more people. It is not impossible, as Paula Moura Pinheiro shows us every week in her TV programme “Visita Guiada” (Guided Tour), where we discover that curators and art experts in Portugal are fascinating people, able to share with us much more than the facts usually presented on labels and make us wish to know more, to visit the museum, to be able to see the object - or to go back and see it again, after what has been revealed to us).

It is possible. It is a question of choice and skill. It doesn’t lack scientific content and it communicates.

“I’m not sure I would be thrilled because I am so focused, so absorbed and captivated by the perfection of what is there; that my pleasure – and it is intense pleasure – is marvelling at what my eye sees, not some abstraction that, in a more art historical mode, I might conjure up. It’s like a book that you love and you simply don’t want to see the movie. You’ve already imagined the hero or the heroine in a certain way. In truth, with the yellow jasper lips, I have never really tried to imagine the missing parts.” (p.8, Fragment of a Queen’s Face, New Kingdom Period, c. 1353-1336 BC, Egypt; image taken from the Metropolitan Museum website)

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Philippe de Montebello and Martin Gayford (2014), Rendez-vous with Art. Thames and Hudson

Monday, 16 March 2015

What have we got to do with this? (ii)

Field Museum, Chicago (photographer unknown)
Last December, there was an intense debate among museum professionals in the US regarding the role of museums in the aftermath of the death of black people in police hands in Ferguson, Cleveland and New York. Our American colleagues felt strongly that museums are part of the cultural and educational network that works towards greater cultural and racial understanding. Did they refer specifically to museums with African American collections? Or museums situated in the communities where the events took place? No, they didn’t. “As mediators of culture, all museums should commit to identifying how they can connect to relevant contemporary issues irrespective of collection, focus, or mission.” (read the full statement)

At the time, I agreed with the most cautious position adopted by Rebecca Herz. I find it risky to encourage museums (any institution, really) to act irrespective of their mission, but, as Rebecca put it: “I personally believe that museums should align all actions with their mission, which should relate to collection or focus. And I think that a connection can be found between any collection and contemporary life, but that these connections need to be carefully considered and developed.” (read the post)

As I was following this very interesting discussion taking place on the other side of the Atlantic, on 15 December, an Iranian refugee stormed a Sydney café taking hostages. Sixteen hours later, the police intervened, killing the attacker as well as two of the hostages. Fearing reprisals against members of the Muslim community wearing islamic dress, the people of Sydney offered to ride on public transport with their Muslim neighbours who felt unsafe. I found out about this early in the morning of 16 December, through the Facebook page of the Immigration Museum. The museum shared the article of the Guardian and joined the rest of the Australians, taking a stand against prejudice and violence.

Taking a stand is not something simple, especially for an institution (as opposed to an individual). It’s not a decision that can or should be taken hastily, a response to the moment. It must be a “natural” move, the result of a conscious, structured and sustained policy of civic / political intervention, in accordance to the institution’s mission. It is also a great responsibility.

Last month, three young Muslims were murdered in their home in North Carolina, USA. At a time where newspapers were reporting that the motives of the attacker were still not known, the Arab American National Museum shared its heartbreak on its Facebook page regarding the loss of the three young people, thus implying that this was a racial crime. I thought it was too soon, I thought they were jumping into assumptions and that this was neither responsible nor helpful. I asked the museum if it made a statement for every murder in the US. Other people (not the museum) answered that the victims were Arab Americans, so the museum was right to react. I rephrased and asked if the museum made a statement for every Arab American murdered, if it assumed that the murder of every Arab American was a racial crime. I think that museums shouldn’t be jumping neither into conclusions nor into statements.

More recently, in Portugal, the Museu Nacional de Arte Antiga published a statement regarding the destruction of archaeological treasures of the Mosul Museum by ISIS militants. It was a good surprise, as this museum, like most Portuguese museums, are not used to taking a stand publicly. One might argue that this was not exactly a political statement and that it was a rather “safe” matter for the museum; it might be. It also came at a time when specialists were still trying to figure out if the objects destroyed were the originals or copies; so it rather looked like a hasty reaction. I am more interested, though, in understanding if this was a one-time reaction or the first act in a concrete, long-term policy of acknowledging and assuming the museum’s civil-political-cultural responsibilities. It would be great if it was the latter, time will tell.

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Monday, 2 March 2015

What have we got to do with this?

In the last 2-3 years, it has been a pleasure seeing the way museums have been marking Saint Valentine’s Day on their Facebook pages. From objects in their collections, to architectural elements to flowers in their gardens, they’ve made me smile, laugh out loud, look better, learn something new. In a simple, imaginative, humorous way, and from a distance, some cultural institutions have marked on my calendar a day I otherwise find rather uninteresting.

Not all cultural institutions mark this day. Some might be thinking that this is not a serious thing to do, that it is something frivolous, commercial, it doesn’t relate directly to their exhibition or theatre play or concert programme. It does relate to something else, though: life.

When hurricane Sandy hit New York in 2012, MoMA PS1 director, posted this on the museum’s Facebook page:

How did this relate to his museum? To the temporary exhibition? It didn’t. It related to something else, though: life.

In 2014, the year of the Mundial in Brazil, some cultural institutions presented exhibitions, organized events, made all sorts of references to football. Some might have hoped to lure followers among football fans. Others might simply have thought: this is also life, let’s celebrate it!

The Charlie Hebdo attack made me once again think of the role cultural institutions have in society and the capacity they have to relate to it. And also to put their theory into practice. Theory says that culture helps us to be humans, to be tolerant towards the ‘Other’, to live together, to learn from each other, to share and defend values, to think critically. When the cultural sector comes under attack, we use these same arguments to defend it and to defend the importance of what we do for the society. But when that same society laughs, cries, falls in love, feels in despair, celebrates, mourns... then we take some time (too much time, even) to consider whether it is appropriate for us to acknowledge it, to relate to it. Quite often, we remain quiet.

So, the morning after the Charlie Hebdo attack, I expressed my dismay at the fact that no Greek or Portuguese cultural institution had acknowledged the tragedy. A tragedy that related directly to most things culture stands for. Seconds after I published my post, the Onassis Cultural Centre published theirs. Later on, the Benaki Museum. Relief.... After that, some colleagues let me know of similar attitudes on behalf of the Museu Nacional da Imprensa or the Bordalo Pinheiro Museum. Some more cultural institutions followed. On the 9th of January, the Carmo Archaeological Museum was inviting us for a debate with cartoonists and academics. Relief.... Still, I am not aware of any large / national portuguese cultural institution acknowledging the events.

A friend wrote to me at that time and asked: “But which cultural institutions do you expect to react? All of them? The ones that somehow relate to what happened? (that would be, for instance, the Museo de la memoria e de los Derechos Humanos in Chile or the Museu Nacional da Imprensa in Portugal, wouldn´t it?) The French cultural institutions? Well, I don’t want to sound naive, but I would have liked to see reacting all the cultural institutions which claim to want to have a role in forming a better society; which claim to embrace and promote certain values; which claim to want to be relevant for people; which claim to want to be part of society and to help form responsible and critical citizens.

Let me clarify here that by “reaction” I don’t mean a hasty response to an incident or a superficial association to a celebration, without consideration for what the institution stands for and with the intention of using it for cheap public relations or simply for not being “left out”. People know opportunism when they see it and they don’t appreciate it... By “reaction” I mean the thoughtful, responsible, honest and coherent response of a cultural institution that is clear about its mission and about the role it wishes to play in people’s lives. And this does not only involve programming or educational activities. It involves being constantly aware of what is going on around us and the way it affects people's lives, so that, as a result of a defined and coherent policy of intervention, the institution may promptly give its contribution towards the kind of world it aims to help build.

What is relevant and what is not relevant for a cultural institution? Well, that’s probably not the question. The question is rather: what makes a cultural institution relevant? I recently gave a course, where we discussed the place and role of cultural institutions in the contemporary society. In the last part of the session, we did a practical exercise:

Please consider:

- The Charlie Hebdo attack
- Saint Valentine’s Day
- The natural disaster in Madeira in 2010
- The big anti-austerity demonstration in Portugal on 15 September 2013.

Would your institution react?
If yes, how?
If not, why not?


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