Sunday, 24 July 2016

Managing museums: a portuguese case

"Panels of St. Vincent" at NMAA (image taken from the National Museum of Ancient Art Facebook page)

The claim of a new legal status, of a special status, by the National Museum of Ancient Art (NMAA) in Lisbon has resulted in a very healthy debate among museum professionals in Portugal, especially (and unfortunately) after the announcement of the Minister of Culture that this status will actually be given to the museum. Independent of our criticism, positive or negative, of this case and this process, there is no doubt that we owe this very necessary debate to the NMAA, its director, António Filipe Pimentel, and to the entire museum staff*.

In these last days, some colleagues shared their opinion publicly: Nuno Vassallo e Silva (NVS), Raquel Henriques da Silva (RHS)  and Luis Raposo (LR) through opinion articles in the newspaper Público; Maria Isabel Roque (MIR) and Nandia Foteini Vlachou (NFV) in their blogs and I Know Where I'm Going, respectively. In all these texts I found points with which I agreed, others with which I disagreed, others still that did not seem to me relevant for this discussion and, finally, points that I did not find and that seem important. I would, therefore, like to put them on the table so that they can be addressed, taking the opportunity to comment on some of the views expressed by my colleagues.

In these last three years, we have witnessed a strong presence of the NMAA in the media, the result of its equally intense activity: the opening of a series of temporary exhibitions (with many artworks or just one), the initiative "Coming Out", the campaign "Let's put Sequeira in the Right Place" and, more recently, the re-opening of the 3rd floor of the museum. In parallel with this activity and visibility, the claim, on behalf of the museum itself, of being Portugal’s "First" or "Great" museum, or one of the two great Iberian museums, began to emerge and intensify. And then, one would say "naturally", the claim a special status. I think this very brief summary of events presents the sequence of the development of the NMAA's strategy, the way I perceived it from the "outside".

With this case in mind, the points I would like to bring to the discussion are the following:

1. Firstly, if it is the management model we are debating and if we agree (it seems that we do) that the current model does not work - on the contrary, it makes national museums little or nothing autonomous, on several fronts, and it strangles their identity, activity and creativity -, then this reflection cannot be limited to this one case, it cannot focus on just one museum, implying, as stated by LR, that we are simply "succumbing to temporary media agendas." One cannot make management decisions or construct strategies, knowing that they relate to a whole, using a short sight. Management decisions are taken with a view to the future, having a long-term vision - thinking in the development and sustainability of the project - and they result in strategies with short and medium term objectives, as well as pre-defined performance indicators.

2. Looking, thus to the whole, I also think that such a process cannot be a priori, and apart from limited, divisive; one cannot imply that within the family there are first class and second class museums, and only the "first class" deserve to see their problems evaluated and solved. As RHS says, I do not advocate "all equally poor, like my primary school Salazar book taught me". But I cannot agree with her that the decision to award a special status just to one national museum may be taken because "It's this team that deserves, at this time, to see its challenge accepted", adding "Others will come forward". There is no doubt that the NMAA team has proven to be extremely active and engaged and that their work has had high visibility in the media. However, those who know the reality of the national museums (and others) in recent years, who know the conditions in which they develop their work, they also know that it is thanks to their teams – engaged, with love for what they do and with a great sense of responsibility, even when unmotivated - that museums continue to operate and to provide a service to society. The media may not know it, which might or not be the museums’ “fault”, but those working in the sector ought to know. These teams are the great patrons of culture in Portugal. These teams deserve to have good working conditions.

3. As NVS rightly points, "administrative constraints, not to say bureaucratic, a deficit in specialized personnel, the capacity to give a prompt response to different challenges are common problems throughout the State machine." So, rather than looking at individual cases, it is necessary, urgent even, to look at the national museums and to define a policy for them (a long term, "transgovernamental", policy), which should also reflect on the management model, and which can serve as a basis for museums to build their strategic plans.

4. There can be no strategic plan, however, neither can one evaluate claims, actions and results without having a clear mission, written, made public and specific for each one of these museums. Strategies are not designed ad hoc, though, nor can we discuss a museum’s good or bad performance leaving it to each one of us to define what is expected of it. Thus, NVS can consider that the mission of a museum like the NMAA is "to narrate the history of Portugal", while NFV may argue that through its collection the NMAA "has the responsibility to use cultural this legacy to criticize the country's imperial past, dialogue with other countries que attempt to do the same and work towards breaking down the traditional conceptual divisions between East and West." Should one wish to know how any of these orientations falls under the NMAA's mission and to what extent its performance has been positive in this sense, one will not be able to, because the NMAA, just like all national museums, does not have a defined mission or, if it has, it has not made it public.

5. In the same sense (the need for a clear mission, a strategic plan, specific objectives and performance indicators), we may also reflect, in my opinion, on the argument of the NMAA’s, or any another museum’s, "primacy". We should also add to the prerequisits the perception regarding the museums’ public value, that is the value that society assigns them based on the perception of their contribution. Yes, because museums do not exist in the first place for professionals and experts, there are for the whole society. A national museum (supported by the State, that is, by all taxpayers) has got responsibilities towards all citizens. So it is not enough for this reflection when NVS states that "The museum’s outmost importance, as well as that of its collection, is totally undisputable” [actually, LR disputes it "whatever the indicator used (range, uniqueness, study and conservation of the collection, audience development, especially at a national level, number of visitors, rate of earned revenue in relation to the expenses, etc.")]; or when MIR says that this "is our museum of reference (...) for all reasons, this is our great museum, as are, for example, the British Museum for England or the Louvre Museum for France." I would ask "Why?". I have not read anything more specific that would allow to substantiate these claims. And I, as a museologist, cannot identify the reasons.

On the contrary, something that marked my reflection in relation to the NMAA's strategy - and seems to have gone unnoticed or ignored or depreciated by the sector - was the "theft" of four paintings of the "Coming Out" campaign and the fact that they were transported and exhibited at the Miratejo area, on the south bank across Lisbon. In this civic initiative, which sought to expand the activity of a national museum and share it in other contexts, I saw a claim for access, a reminder that "we are also your audience, we are also taxpayers." Doesn’t it make sense for this discussion to question whether the NMAA, through all this activity, has managed to diversify its visitors’ profile, to reach people that do not relate to it? Doesn’t it make sense to try to understand the reasons for this ongoing non-relation between the majority of citizens and this and other museums?

One of teh four paintings of NMAA's initiative "Coming out", robbed and then exhibited in Miratejo (image taken from teh newspaper Observador).
So, the assignment of "primacy" should not only take into account the desire of the museum itself or just the assessment made by experts, which has been limited, so far, to the evaluation of the collection. A museum is more than its collection, it is what it makes with it. The opinion or perception of citizens must also be taken into account. From this point of view, we will probably find out that there are several "primacies".

6. Coming to the question of financial autonomy, it seems that it has already existed (there are references in RHS’s and LR’s texts), but I don’t know whether it existed in the form claimed by Dalila Rodrigues, who proposed that all earned income (box office, shop, sponsorship) should stay in the museum and not be “returned” to the then Institute of Museums and Conservation. I do not think what is being claimed at this point is to remove from the General Directorate for Cultural Heritage (in portuguese, DGPC) the funds that correspond to the NMAA’s running costs and hand them to the museum, as seen by NVS, as it would solve little or nothing. Nor do I consider that the solution may be to reinforce the DGPC’s role (the case of EGEAC - Municipal Enterprise for Culture in Lisbon brings important lessons in this regard). However, it also seems to me also that, based on what we’ve seen so far, there are no conditions, yet, for museums in Portugal to operate as their American, British, French, etc. counterparts, particularly in what concerns fundraising as an addition to State funds. This is a long learning process, but a necessary one, and it should be contemplated in this debate, coupled with the need to promote cultural sponsorship and individual giving in Portugal (another long and necessary process).

RHS says that she has been advocating "for many years that culture should be a laboratory for experimenting (and evaluating) new models of public management that are absolutely indispensable. And this is what is going to happen because the Museum [NMAA] has largely proved that it knows how to do it and has had the support of patrons, friends and interested citizens". Although I agree with the first part of the statement, I have got a number of questions in relation to the second part. The NMAA signed several private partnerships in recent years, many of which were presented to us as "success models", but an absolute silence was maintained when they were not continued, and there was no transparency regarding their evaluation (if there was any evaluation). At the same time, and from the point of view of communication and marketing, these partnerships undervalued the role and image of the museum, simply presenting it as an exhibition venue, and they did not properly recognise the its essential contribution in presenting those exhibitions.

Therefore, I would say that, as we reflect on the need for greater financial autonomy for museums, we must also reflect on the need to involve professionals in these matters. Foreign museums that serve as a reference to us have got strong teams in development departments (the American term for fundraising departments) and marketing departments. And we also know that these departments do not make miracles by themselves, if their action is not articulated with that of programming, education services, communication. All this in accordance with the museums’ mission.


In conclusion, I think that, since this is a management issue, we must reflect on it with management arguments and think in the long term. Claims by NVS that "The debate so far has been on what the museum seeks to be and not what the museum really is," or by LR that we are simply "succumbing to temporary media agendas" echo in my mind. Are we discussing the case of the NMAA simply because it has been more "present" publicly? Although it has been a very good work in terms of public relations (with respect to the media and certain circles of opinion makers), can we say, as professionals, that this is a good enough reason to consider the assignment of a special status to one national museum alone and to continue avoiding (or postponing) the necessary debate regarding this sector? Is this not a management error?

To be continued ... I hope?

*Considering that we owe this debate to the NMAA, I was disappointed to see that the museum only shared on its Facebook page the opinions that were favourable to its claim. It might not seem so, but this is also a question of management.

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Anonymous said...

Where can I learn more about the "Coming Out" initiative? Emptying or at very least using the collections held museums storage has always been a great passion for me, from the experience of collections management and a museum's role whilst working in large regional museums in the UK.

Maria Vlachou said...

Portuguese newspapers wrote a lot about the initiative. If you read portuguese just do a search and you'll find it. I suggest you have a look also at the National Gallery's "Grand Tour", which was the project that inspired "Coming Out", much more structured though in terms of objectives, monitoring, evaluation. There is also a book about the whole initiative, called "The Grand Tour" and soled on the National Gallery's online shop and Amazon.