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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