Saturday 4 February 2017

Looking for sandy ground

"Free access to museums for under 30s", one reads in portuguese newspapers. The measure was approved in parliament yesterday. 

"Can anyone explain to me the logic of under 30s?", asks a Brazilian colleague.

"Is it to stimulate young families, like couples with small children?", replies another colleague. "Is it because it was found that unemployment is higher among the under 30s?"

Is it worth looking for the logic? Was there a logic? Was the measure based on any management report? Was it based on some audience survey? Were the professionals of the sector consulted? Are there concrete objectives that can be evaluated in one or two years’ time?
According to the news, "members of parliament decided to recommend to the government to adopt the necessary measures to promote access for all citizens to national museums and monuments, especially for people up to 35 years of age, giving free access on weekends, holidays and Wednesdays, and extending the use of new information technologies." This is in line with the government's programme, which we already had the opportunity to analyse here, especially with regards to the concepts of "access" and "democratization". 

So, we are once again discussing free admission to museums. As if this was the central issue. As if the museum sector did not have serious endogenous problems, related to management, which free admission cannot solve. As if the museum sector did not have other problems, permanent and fundamental, in its relationship with society, which free admission cannot solve. We can continue to try to guess the fundamentals and criteria behind this measure. But we do not need to guess the reasons why most Portuguese do not visit museums; and they will not start visiting just because entrance will be free.

Who invests time and money - yes, there is always an investment of money, even when entrance is free - in something that, a priori, does not seem to be relevant, does not communicate in an inviting way (on the contrary, it uses all means to say "This is not for you, this was not made thinking of you"), does not take into account the interests and needs of those it intends to attract and has an obligation to serve? And, giving it a second thought, I would say more ... Who invests time and money to see depressing things? To be in a space that smells mold, where exhibitions have not been touched for decades?

The people responsible in Portugal certainly know that studies, in the countries where they exist, show that free admission allows those who already enjoy visiting museums to visit more often (which is excellent). But it does not diversify the visitors’ profile. It is not enough for "democratization". For this to happen, it takes more work, it takes another type of work, it is a work that demands more from all those involved.

Are we going to work on this? Are we going to create the conditions to do it well? Are we going to assume our responsibilities for the barriers created along the years? Regarding free admission, everything has already been said. It will continue to make good headlines, that's true, but that will be all.

More readings

Boletim ICOM Portugal, Gestão de Museus e Políticas Museológicas, Série III, nº8, Jan 2017 (textos de Manuel Bairrão Oleiro, Maria de Jesus Monge e Ana Carvalho)

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