Saturday 11 July 2020

The "threat" of museologists

In his book “The constructivist museum”, George Hein quotes Edward Forbes (a British naturalist) who in a 1853 lecture said that curators may be prodigies of learning, and yet unfit for their posts, if they do not know anything about pedagogy, if they are not equipped to teach people who know nothing.

Years later, in 1909, one of my greatest inspirations, Newark Museum director John Cotton Dana said that “A good museum attracts, entertains, arouses curiosity, leads to questioning and thus promotes learning. (...) The Museum can help people only if they use it; they will use it only if they know about it and only if attention is given to the interpretation of its possessions in terms they, the people, will understand”. And it was in 1917 that he wrote: “Today, museums of art are built to keep objects of art, and objects of art are bought to be kept in museums. As the objects seem to do their work if they are safely kept, and as museums seem to serve their purpose if they safely keep the objects, the whole thing is as useful in the splendid isolation of a distant park as in the centre of the life of the community which possesses it. Tomorrow, objects of art will be bought to give pleasure, to make manners seem more important, to promote skill, to exalt handwork, and to increase the zest of life by adding to it new interests.” (both quotes come from Reinventing the Museum: Historical and Contemporary Perspectives on the Paradigm Shift” by Gail Anderson).

The people, all people, are central in the thinking of both men in what concerns the role of museums. Cotton Dana, though, lived and worked in a critical moment for the history of museums and their relationship to society. In his book “Making Museums Matter”, Stephen Weil dedicates a chapter to one of the most decisive paradigm shifts: in the early 20th century two major US museums, the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, determined that the emphasis of their work would be on the aesthetic rather than the instructional aspects of the works of art that they chose to acquire or to display. Weil quotes sociologist Paul DiMaggio, who said that driving this process was “an aesthetic ideology that distinguished sharply between the nobility of art and the vulgarity of mere entertainment”, resulting in social distinctions that would also differentiate the publics for high and popular culture.

This movement was not confined to the US. In fact, it is considered to be a bad replica of inappropriate models of European art museums. In her 1991 essay “Museums and Gallery Education”, Eilean Hooper-Greenhill writes about a new generation of curators, from the 1920s onward, which was less interested in the public use of museums and more interested in the accumulation of collections. In the process, people were somehow left behind, museums did not really exist for them, but for the pleasure of the specialists caring for their collections and some knowledgeable elites. As John Berger affirms in his essay “Landscapes”, “Anybody who is not an expert entering the average museum today is made to feel like a cultural pauper receiving charity.” This is a mentality embraced by a number of museums professionals (and, among them, many museums directors) which still holds on, decisively affecting the relationship museums have with society. If more than fifty years after Pierre Bourdieu’s “L’ amour de l’ art” it is a fact that the profile of museums visitors hasn’t changed significantly, this is one place where we should definitely get a better look into.

New mentalities have formed in the last thirty years, which bring the people back to the attention of museums of all kinds (as not all museums are art museums). Museums initially “for” and more recently “with” the people are the dream of a significant number of museum professionals, who don’t see the functions of collecting / preserving / researching as antagonistic to those of exhibiting and communicating. Another great inspiration for me, Elaine Heumann Gurian, nailed it in her book “Civilizing the Museum”, when she talked about the “museum ‘and’ ”: the museum that doesn’t determine that some of its functions are more important than others or have some kind of priority, but aims to fulfill them all, in order to better serve the society. The museum is not 'either' collections 'or' people; it's collections 'and' people. There’s no need for museums to choose; they shouldn’t choose. This is what makes them 'museums'.

This week, I heard the name Rita Rato for the first time. She is the person chosen to direct the Museu do Aljube in Lisbon, which tells the story of resistance during António de Oliveira Salazar’s dictatorial regime. Aljube was the place were political prisoners were held. I was truly surprised to find out that the new director has a degree in Political Science and International Relations, and no museum studies or any previous professional experience in museums (the latter was a preferential factor in the announcement of the post). People with, apparently, more relevant qualifications were not even interviewed. Thus, I hope that the concerns expressed by a number of specialists (historians, sociologists, different museum professionals, as well as museologists) will soon be answered, with all transparency.

The heated debate regarding this appointment has once again brought forward an issue I have been reflecting upon in the last years:

In 2020, shouldn’t we expect that every announcement for a museum director’s post indicates “museums studies” (in many countries and languages defined as “museology”) as an obligatory requirement from candidates interested in running a museum?

This week’s public debate in Portugal reveals (once again) a number of misunderstandings regarding the technical preparation and role of museologists. Here are some of the things I read:
  • Catarina Vaz Pinto, responsible for Culture in the Municipality of Lisbon, stated that “The profile of a museum director doesn’t need to be academic or museological”. She also defended the choice of Rita Rato not only for the project she presented (although the post announcement didn’t mention the candidates were supposed to present a project), but also “for the expectation that her experience in interpersonal and political relations may guarantee a generational transition and renovation”. – Question: Does the counsellor for Culture know what a museologist is? And is an experience in “interpersonal and political relations” a technical requirement for museum directors that makes up for the lack of other essential requirements and professional experience?
  • Historian and politician Rui Tavares wrote that Rita Rato’s problem in being chosen for the post is not the fact that she is not a historian or museologist, as there are many excellent museum directors, programmers and cultural managers who are neither (her only problem - O único problema de Rita Rato – being the fact that in a 2009 interview she defended Stalinism and denied knowing anything about the gulags; Rato having been a MP for the communist party…). – Question: who is an “excellent museum director” for Rui Tavares? How does he define “excellence” in this field?

Some further comments in relation to my own position on this issue further showed that there is not a clear notion regarding what a museologist studies and does:
  • “Historians have often shown little respect for museologists. 'They are in the canning business', I heard an older colleague saying one day. Museologists, meanwhile, counterattacked and gained their market share in the business of the past. (…) Museologists wish to protect their corner.” – Short answer: being a historian and a museologist is not mutually exclusive, it’s not a confrontational relationship. Museology is a specialisation for historians, archaeologists, anthropolgists, art historians, engineers, astrophysicians, biologists, as well as museums educators and mediators, marketing and communication professionals and all sorts of other professionals and researchers wishing to work in museum management and perhaps also become museum directors.

  • “Does someone with general training in museology become automatically qualified to run a museum, be it the design museum, the coaches museum or the cod fish museum?” – Short answer: Yes, together with experience in working in or for museums (by the way, there’s no such thing as a “general training in museology”).

Today, we find a number of professionals working in museums and they are all museum professionals (there was a referential of museum professions published by ICOM – International Council of Museums in 2008, which would need some updating today). But is not a museologist for working in a museum. A museologist is a specialist coming from diverse professional backgrounds who trains in museum management, collections management, care of collections, communication, education. For almost two centuries now a significant “corpus” of knowledge, of theory and practice, has been built and forms the basis of this specialisation, accompanied by conferences, seminars, debates that keep an intense reflection around the role and development of museums going. This is the kind of preparation I would like to see in anyone wishing to run a museum in 2020. After more than a hundred years of a different paradigm, it’s high time we tried something different, something more substantial – something Edward Forbes, John Cotton Dana and many others dreamt of long ago.

This expectation and demand seems to constitute a threat for some of the people who monopolised museum directorship in all these years: namely, collections specialists (in some cases, researchers). Having myself a degree in Archaeology, I am in a position to guarantee that it was not in the faculty neither in the excavation field nor while working in an archaeological museum that I developed my thinking regarding museums and their role in society. Thus, if I had to choose between an excellent archaeologist and an excellent museologist (with a background in archaeology or not) to run an archaeological museum, I would definitely choose the latter. It’s a different kind of knowledge and practice we are talking about.

This is not a confrontational relationship, this is not a privilege I wish to give to museologists, as a colleague told me I was trying to do. All sorts of specialists and researchers may apply for a position of museum director, but in 2020 they should be technically prepared for it. And many people in our field are prepared for it. This kind of technical preparation cannot be an “option”, a “prefential factor” anymore. It’s basic, it’s essential, it’s needed. Good museologists are those who can give us the “museum ‘and’ ”.

More texts of mine on this subject:

Para que servem os museus?, Público, 21.9.2019

Os museus devem promover a igualdade ou a sua missão (ainda) é outra?, Público, 1.9.2019 (enrevista à Lucinda Canelas)

On the appointment of Rita Rato:

João Pedro George, Aqui há Rato 

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