Wednesday, 25 April 2018

The Museum of (my) Discoveries

Exhibition "Return - Traces of Memory", Monument odf the Discoveries, Lisbon, 2015 (Photo: Maria Vlachou)

I'm Portuguese by adoption. When I arrived in Portugal, in 1995, the only thing I knew about the history of the country had to do with the Discoveries (of sea routes and spices, taught in my country in the 7th or 8th grade). Over the years, I have been "discovering" the rest (even with regard to the Discoveries and beyond the sea routes and the spices). The story I was taught in school was, as usual, only one part.
"Denying the Discovery isn’t the same as saying that the atom was never discovered by someone because of the mistaken idea that it has always existed?", questioned our colleague Pedro Manuel-Cardoso in a text shared in the list Museum. "The existence of a Thing does not confer on it the property of Discovery. The Discovery requires much more from the Thing than simply being. Isn’t this the difference between inert matter and living matter?"

For some time, the criticisms related to the use of the word "discoveries", as a reference to the Portuguese expansion, left me confused. If I find something I did not know before, can I not say "I discovered"? Without arrogance, without triumphalism, with the simple intention of conveying that I am no longer unaware of a certain existence? Over the years, listening to more voices, I "discovered" that the difference is really there: in the arrogance and triumphal discourse of a certain Europe that considers itself the center of the world, which claims to have discovered it and which tends to exclude from the narrative some of the consequences lived in the centuries that followed the discovery all the way to the present. This questioning has now come back with the debate about the "Museum of the Discoveries", proposed by the Lisbon City Council.

Two previous points

In relation to this proposal, I would like to say two things:

First, the idea of ​​having another museum incapable of fulfilling its functions causes me distress. When I say "incapable of fulfilling its functions" I refer, above all, to a museum incapable of becoming relevant to the communities in which it is inserted and to its visitors; unable to promote political thinking and assume its social role; a museum that is limited to describing the objects exhibited and putting academic essays on the walls – being, in theory, a place "for all", but remaining, in practice, an exclusive space, for some. I liked the way our colleague Pedro Pereira Leite put this question yesterday, in a note in the list Museum: "The strength of a museum's narrative is not in the way it approaches the past. It is in being able to talk about the present. If it is not so, with more or less technology, with more or less virtuosity, with more or less millions, it is a dying museum. And as we know, a museum that is no good for life is no good for anything." The country, and the world, does not need any more dying museums, much less if the intention is to approach a story as sensitive, as multifaceted as this; like all stories. Researchers specializing in the history of the Portuguese empire and social scientists, who signed an open letter against the use of the name "Museum of the Discoveries" for a museum dedicated to the Portuguese expansion, give as an example the Museu Afro Brasil (Sao Paulo). In my view, it is precisely on this kind of museum that we should not invest anymore: a book on the wall, confusing museography, lots of beautiful and curious objects about which nothing is said and a history so important for that country and for the world that remains to be said (some images from my visit). Portugal too has got many museums like this.

Second, when I say "incapable of fulfilling its functions" I am also referring, inevitably, to the financial and human resources of the big majority of Portuguese museums. In the context in which we live and work, we are surprised by the constant desire to create more museums, when there is so much to do with the ones we already have and when there is a number of examples of museums which have not been able to make ends meet after cutting the ribbon for the inauguration. I believe that this can be a point on which there will be a consensus among museum professionals: to dignify and reinforce what we already have, to build a realistic and lasting museum policy, with respect for the collections they preserve and for the professionals who work in them, would be a better option in our political-social-financial context than to plan for new venues. For example, I remember that when I arrived in Portugal I wondered why the history of the Discoveries was not a story told - well told, with the necessary conditions - by the Navy Museum. In fact, I saw one of the best presentations of this history in a Catalan museum, the Maritime Museum of Barcelona, in 2001, before its remodeling. It was a small part in that museum’s exhibition, but it was well-done.

"A Live Museum of Small and Forgotten Memories", Joana Craveiro / Teatro do Vestido (Photo:João Tuna, taken from BUALA)

Having made these two points, let us suppose that we live in another world and that the new museum is able to properly fulfill all its functions. It would still be necessary to discuss its pertinence, name, collections and narrative.

1. Pertinence
The desire of the Lisbon City Council to create the Museum of the Discoveries may be related only to the tourism boom, a way of profitably contributing to the city's tourist offer. If so, it is an unwise and uninteresting option. If so, I suspect that they will opt for the glorifying narrative, for the celebration of the encounter of cultures and will not touch on sensitive, painful, complex, contemporary issues, so as not to spoil anyone’s holiday.

However, if there is a real awareness that this society demands (in part) and needs (in general) to have a look at itself in the 21st century, to deal with its past (good and bad), to understand how it reflects and affects its present and to imagine its future, this could be a necessary museum. Considering the importance of the history of the Discoveries (of the Portuguese expansion) for this country, for its citizens, for the construction of its identity; and considering also that today it is considered controversial and multifaceted, a story that concerns not only the Portuguese but our globalised world, this museum could make sense.

2. The name (also associated to content)
Let's continue, assuming that the purpose of this new museum will be the second one, which is what would make sense today. What should its name be? What to call a museum that will take on the responsibility of talking about the expansion and discovery, the encounter and confrontation of cultures, colonialism, slavery, post-colonialism, our hybrid society, racism? I share all the concerns expressed in the above mentioned open letter signed by academics. It is also because of these concerns that I think that names that sound euphemistic, poetic, metaphorical, romantic, inaccurate, would not be adequate, would not respond to what is intended; that is, if the intention is a museological approach in the 21st century, which will integrate the various voices that wish to be heard in this matter and promote critical thinking about this long and complex history. Thus, the proposals of our colleagues Matilde de Sousa Franco (for a "Museum of Interculturality of Portuguese Origin") and Luís Raposo (from a "Museum of Travel") find me in disagreement.

Pedro Pereira Leite, in another note he recently shared in the list Museum, said: "I believe that Matilde de Sousa Franco has always defended the idea of ​​such a museum of interculturality or the celebration of the 'encounter of cultures' as the Portuguese intellectual elite likes to refer to the Portuguese colonial and post-colonial tragedy." It is exactly this feeling that the article published in the Observador transmits. We know well of our colleague’s work and there is no doubt that she is someone with knowledge and experience in these matters, and her opinions are well founded. However, it does convey some lack of empathy towards the other versions of this story. Even when she refers to the questioning regarding the use of the term "discoveries", recognizing that "there are people who do not like it", this is a just a small note, which only serves to dedicate more space to the defense of the alternative of "interculturality". And this interculturality materializes in examples such as linguistics, music, botany or cooking. It is also said that what is intended is to create a well-founded Museum of Interculturality of Portuguese Origin "in a practical, engagingly pedagogic, and fun (...) way". She refers to this museum as "a solution to heal the aforementioned reopened wounds, which run the risk of causing an appalling gangrene if we do not treat them immediately, with wisdom and diplomacy." There is no word, though, as to how this museum proposes to discuss the aspects of this history that many see as a tragedy, whose consequences many today still feel on their skin, those wounds. I consider that this is not the appropriate approach to what feels like the pull in Lisbon and in the Portuguese society today, especially for that part which has been silenced, because it is not heard. This is not just a fun story. It is also controversial, painful and very contemporray. Peace will never come with the imposition of happiness and consensus, just with the celebration of what unites us. In her initial position, in presenting her global vision, Matilde de Sousa Franco points to a contemporary museological approach. However, this is not what emerges when she seeks to present concrete ideas.

"Liberation", André Amálio / Hotel Europa (Photo: Bruno Simão, taken from the newspaper Público)

In an article in Público Luís Raposo shares his views on the several proposals regarding the name to give to this museum and reminds us of hos own: Museu da Viagem (Museum of the Journey). Considering, again, that what is at stake is the creation of a museum that will tell the story of the Portuguese expansion and what it has brought, good and bad, up to our days, I agree with his analysis of the term "discoveries", as well as with what he says about the proposed museums of "interculturality","emigration" and "language". I consider, however, that his proposal, "of the journey", can be subject to the same type of criticism. These are metaphorical and euphemistic names, just as their contents will be. We would be going around the central issue without addressing its core. I do not think that they will respond to the aforementioned pull which is felt in our society.

Considering that this story is not just about colonialism and slavery, and that "expansion" will not be a clear term for many (or even an accepted term), my suggestion would be to assume the term "Discoveries". With all the connotations it has had, in the past and today, with all the reactions and criticisms it provokes. It is a clear term for Portuguese and foreigners, this is how it is still taught in schools in several countries, it allows one to understand immediately the "object" of the museum, and, frankly, I cannot think of a better place than the "Museum of the Discoveries" to question the very term and to be able to follow the evolution of our thinking around all the issues that this encompasses. In 15-20 years, if the museum and the whole system around it are effective, one may think of rebranding it.

3. Contents and narratives

Considering the contents and the narratives, Matilde de Sousa Franco and Luís Raposo gave us in their articles a number of ideas to think about. They made pertinent and relevant proposals, but, as I have already mentioned, partial, considering the purpose of this museum. António Filipe Pimentel, director of the Museum of Ancient Art (MNAA), also shared his opinion in a Facebook post. He raised specific questions regarding the collection of the future museum, taking advantage also to refer to the political and financial context in which the museums in Portugal operate. However, following these introductory points, it seems that his purpose is only this: to take advantage of this moment as another opportunity to present the narrative of the "first museum", of the MNAA brand and its contribution to the Portugal brand, stating that the country, through MNAA, takes a place in the world. This, in my view, is a dubious strategy which is now leading to some excessive claims.

More especifically, what is more important to question in the context of the proposal for the new museum is the statement that "it is the collection of the National Museum of Ancient Art which holds, by its very nature, enough material - not to say indispensable – for a dignifying exhibition on the Discoveries/Journey/Interculturality.” There is no doubt that the MNAA has got material that can contribute to telling the story that the new museum seems intent on telling. But it would be only a small part and told through art objects. However, this story is much more than ancient art, so the MNAA director's intention to consign it to the domain of knowledge and mission of his museum seems strange and exaggerated. Especially so, as MNAA, and museums such as MNAA, have not shown any kind of interest or ability to interpret their collections from a socio-political point of view, beyond the scope of art history, making them interesting and relevant also to those do not visit museums just to enjoy the art.

How do I imagine the Museum of the Discoveries?

"Moçambique", mala voadora (Foto: Leonardo Lima, Festival de Curitiba)
For the Museum of the Discoveries to be a relevant museum in the 21st century, it should be above all, in my opinion, a social history museum, which will receive contributions from several other areas (history of expansion, maritime history, military history, objects related to these areas and contemporary creations) and that will also consider contemporary collecting. What kind of objects will these be, where they will come from, I do not know, there will be people far more able than I to respond to this. I know that this is a story that begins in the 15th century, whose consequences, good and bad, reach our days. It is the present and the future that must be debated, looking at what was the past. It is the present and the future that must be discussed with all those who feel touched by history and the present.

This should also be reflected on the experiences, memories, knowledge, origins, gender and skin colour of the members of the team that will be formed. And the person who will conduct this "chorus" should be someone with the capacity to feel empathy and show concern for the needs of diverse people (both team and visitors); someone with solid technical/scientific knowledge, but also curious, willing to learn, humble, without fear of contradiction and dialogue, as well as able to understand that this is mainly a human story (are they not all?); someone whose willingness to communicate, to share, to contribute to the promotion of knowledge and debate within the society - and thus to the promotion of social justice - is sincere and conscious. Does it look like a super-person? We can look at the work of David Fleming at the National Museums Liverpool (which include the award-winning International Slavery Museum), Anne Pasternak at the Brooklyn Museum or Maria Balshaw, first at the Whitworth Art Gallery (Manchester) and now at TATE. They are good, real examples.

Note: After the publication of this post, it was also published:
Maria Isabel Roque, Museu que nasce torto
Miguel Sousa Tavares, O esplendor do politicamente idiota

"Museums are dead. Long live the streets", Padre Cruz neighbourhood, Lisbon (Photo: Maria Vlachou)

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