Sunday, 28 February 2021

It is called "leadership"

"Today was one of the most important days in my professional life. The Republic Museum became a vaccination centre against Covid-19."

Ever since I saw this post by the director of the Republic Museum, Mário de Souza Chagas, I can’t stop thinking about it. I shared it by simply saying “This is called ‘leadership’”. The kind of leadership we are eager to see from other museum directors around the world.

Operating in a dire political landscape in Brazil, Mário Chagas is something of a lighthouse for many of us. Back in November, invited to speak in the 2nd Meeting of Museums of Médio Tejo here in Portugal, Mário also stood out, when he stated that it is not technology that brings novelty, it’s human relations. “Novelty is to say ‘Good morning!’”. He also reminded us that museums are both spaces of memory and oblivion (omission), they can be used to imprison or to liberate our minds and that we must face the challenge of democratising the tool ‘museum’ itself.

Thus, for this museum director, his museum becoming a vaccination centre against COVID-19 marks one of the most important days in his professional life. It makes sense. Both in a country whose President has underestimated and carelessly managed the pandemic (with tragic consequences many of its citizens – part of a larger plan of denying the humanity of many people), but also beyond.

From Mário Chagas, my mind flew to Esme Ward, Director of the Manchester Museum. In a conversation we had a couple of years ago, Esme told me about “A Rubbish Night at the Museum”, an idea that emerged when she got an email from a museum neighbour expressing his concerns regarding garbage and pollution. She also told about offering the museum to host “Difficult Dialogues”, an initiative of the interfaith group “We Stand Together” founded after the terrorist attack at the Manchester Arena in 2017. These are not isolated, one-off, opportunistic initiatives. They are developed in order to serve the museum’s larger vision regarding its position in the society.

These are museums that don’t embrace the illusion of being ‘neutral’ or ‘apolitical’ because they don’t mention things. These are museums that realise that they always communicate, both when they speak and when they don’t speak; both through what they do and what they don’t do. These museums are not run by simple executive directors, they are run by people who have a vision that can inspire others into action, starting from their own teams.

I recently published an article entitled “Curating the discomfort” and a colleague drew my attention to a discussion around it on a Facebook page. Someone was adamantly argumenting that, when culture professionals mix their technical opinion with politics, they lose their credibility and that a professional must be impartial. To those who answered that there’s no such thing as impartiality, he repeatedly retorted: “Tell me, where are the politics in the painting and sculpture galleries on the 3rd floor of the National Museum of Ancient Art (Museu Nacional de Arte Antiga?”.

There is a generalised incapacity to make the distinction between politics and parties, as well to realise that politics are made of statements as well as silences, of actions and inactions. And that this is felt and understood by many citizens, having a decisive impact in the nature of the relationship different people develop with organisations such as museums, tools of power that decide what must me remembered and what can be silenced. There is a need for museum leaders who are aware and involved in what is going on around them; who can be humble and courageous; who have the capacity to truly listen and take risks.

This becomes particularly relevant in Portugal, days after the announcement of the names of new national museum directors. Contrary to the expectations that had been created when the international call was made, we cannot find museologists among them. Was it because they didn’t answer the call? Was it because they did not manage to present strong applications? A number of colleagues (among them some candidates) have already commented that the process was constructed in a way that would favour ‘insiders’. I don’t know, I didn’t look into that. Judging from the first interviews emerging in the press, I cannot help feeling concerned by the fact that Santiago Matias, the new director of the National Pantheon, chose to highlight that he has got “many ideas for initiatives to be undertaken in the next years”, aiming at the inclusion “as much as possible, of sectors of our society that are not always open to visiting places such as this monument, namely younger people.” Should we wish to see this rather banal statement under the prism of a larger context, the new director tells us that he has got a rather conservative vision, “not only in the sense that monuments such as the Pantheon are spaces of the outmost importance in paying homage to those who, physically, lie there, and through memories, but also as spaces for the construction and preservation of the country’s collective memory.” I find the choice of words unsettling, we´ll have to see what they mean in practical terms. Nevertheless, was this kind of “conservative vision” that Portuguese citizens deserve from a museum or monument director in 2021? Is this vision the members of the jury appreciated and thought that would better serve our society, in its plenitude?

Currently, in the UK, there are major concerns regarding the editorial independence of museums, as the government expects them to “remain impartial and not be beholden to a ‘vocal minority’”. In a summit this week, which the Museums Journal defines as “polite but managed”, it was agreed that a working group will be formed to develop guidance on putting the government’s “retain and explain” policy on contested history into practice.

Queueing for a vaccine against Covid-19 at the Republic Museum in Rio de Janeiro. (Image taken from Maria de Souza Chaga's Facebook page).

Moments like this – be it Brazil, the UK, Portugal, Poland and, indeed, many more countries – require strong leadership in the sector. A leadership that we still largely miss and whose absence we don’t seem to realise or aim to tackle. Realising we´ve got a problem is the first step. Perhaps the second could be asking ourselves “What were the most important days in our professional lives?”.


More on this blog:

The urgency of difficult conversations

Curating the discomfort

Are we with the bees or with the wolves?

Museums making sense: dealing with the discomfort of a multicoloured world 

‘Just’ a museum, ‘just’ an artist?

The ‘threat’ of museologists

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