Saturday, 3 April 2021

What is the change we are longing for?

"Missing you", at the entrance of Musicbox.

Musicbox in Lisbon has made me smile more than once in the last months. I´ve never been there and, still, it has made me feel we know each other and we are going through this together.

I have repeatedly questioned why so many cultural organisations are unable to show their human face, share feelings, be close to people in different moments in life (both in people’s life and the organisations’ life – which should, actually, coincide on so many occasions). Back in May 2020, I wrote about Globe Aroma’s “Love Letter to a Caring Community” – a letter expressing sadness, concern, confusion in the face of the pandemic and clearly stating that the venue would close, not because of fear, but out of love and care. Every other communication I came across at the time of lockdown – but also when the time came to reopen – sounded like a decree. In that same post last May, I made a first attempt of creating a wish list, of defining the ingredients that could help us imagine a better post-pandemic world. There hasn’t been a second attempt yet: time, humanity, care, respect, appreciation and mission; this is what was – and still is - on my wish list.

In a recent debate on “Freedom, Participation, Inclusion and Museums” Álvaro Laborinho Lúcio chose to discuss the pandemic not as an opportunity, but as an absurd. He reminded us that the history of culture - especially the history of literature - has used the absurd to question reality and normality. “It is fundamental”, he said, “that we don’t try to overcome the pandemic with the wish to return to normality. We should use the pandemic as an absurd that showed us what was flawed in our normality.”

Change doesn’t come alone or peacefully, comfortably. Are we able to question our reality? Are we willing to? Do we truly wish to fight for something different, better? And who are we going to fight with?

A few days ago, art historian Raquel Henriques da Silva published an open letter to the Portuguese Prime Minister warning (or rather reminding) of the persistent lack of effective policies and support for national museums, devoid of human and other resources, which will result in catastrophies. “Catastrophies almost always give warnings before they happen”, Henriques da Silva tells the Prime-Minister, advising him to visit some museums as they reopen on the 5th of April and challenging him to give his word to “to anguished directors and teams that it is time to change and that change will actually happen.”

Naturally, these words resonated deeply with many professionals in the heritage and museum field. They also made me question: What is the change we are longing for? How do we define the absurd in this reality? What are the flaws in this normality? I wrote on Facebook that this appeal to the Prime Minister, this reminder that it is time to change, “must also be an appeal to ourselves, the professionals. And it must also be an appeal made by society both to the Prime Minister and to the professionals. The change will have to come from within (will it?). But it needs to be demanded from outside as well (will it?).”

I cannot see change happening if we continue placing heritage at high pedestal, ignoring what is happening on the ground, independent of the people - both within and around the organisations. I got the same feeling when I read Vitor Serrão’s Charter of rights and duties of the Portuguese historical-cultural heritage. Are we leaving people outside the equation? Who constructs our heritage, who defines it and why do we preserve it? Is this a process that takes place “despite the people”?

"Not long now", at the entrance of Musicbox.

Franklin Vagnone brought another perspective to this in his latest post Protecting what matters: “The best-kept secret is that some cultural institutions, because of unsustainable pre-COVID operations, may in fact be in a better position temporarily closed and using this to their advantage for the longer haul – rethinking an operations model that pays a living wage, is empathetic to staff, anti-racist, and includes shared collaborative leadership. Staying closed may not be popular, but do organizations really want to jump back into their outmoded top-down, financial & attendance driven models of the before-time.  This is a difficult opinion to voice.  In fact, I haven’t seen much in the public press about this perspective.  We are at a crucial moment in our social and economic progress.  We either see the present moment as the end of the storm – or we see it, as I do, as merely the eye of the hurricane, and prepare for the reverse winds.  Now is not the time to let our guard down, take down the plywood coverings protecting the windows, and the sandbags protecting the cultural property.  Now is the time to check to make sure those protections are still useful. We should reflect upon our operations and policies looking toward new organizational forms and behaviors.

On the day I read this, more news were coming out in the Portuguese press regarding moral abuses (bullying) of the staff at Serralves Museum and disrespect for its visitors (one feels dumbstruck to hear that staff at the ticket desk were not allowed to inform visitors about the discounts).

What is the change we are longing for?

On the 23rd of March, I had the honour and pleasure of introducing the keynote speaker of the conference Museums and social responsibility, François Mairesse. In many countries, there is a monument to the unknown soldier. I chose to open the session paying tribute to the unknown museum professional, who wrote to me a few days before:

“My anguish that museums are lagging behind in this new world has intensified, a fact aggravated by the pandemic, but also by conflicts, migration, new slaveries, and even more poverty in the future, even in countries at peace.

There are certainly more people thinking the same thing. Could we not think together of a strategy and actions that may contribute towards greater comfort, at all levels, for some people, who are often very close to us?

As citizens and professionals, in these new times and new responsibilities, there is a call for all us regarding:

The urgency for a sustainable consideration of the world;

The urgency of peace between humans and nature;

The urgency for more inclusive economies and cultures;

The urgency to consider poverty;

The urgency to consider all attacks on human dignity."


What is the change we are longing for?

In that same introduction, I referred to this year’s Trends Watch, Navigating a Disrupted Future
, which stated that: “By supporting their staff, museums will remain poised to rebound. Through the part they play in helping society respond to the pandemic, museums will demonstrate their power and relevance. By helping to build a more just and equitable world, museums will establish their role in creating a better future.”

It was precisely in the museum field that we registered the first casualties when the pandemic hit, with museum educators being considered “non-essential” by organisations in many countries, including Portugal, and being left on their own, instead of being supported and involved in finding solutions. Can we truly say we´ll take care of others when we don’t seem to be capable (or willing) to take care of our own?

Invited by the President of the Portuguese Republic to address the nation on the 10th of June 2020, Portuguese National Day, José Tolentino Mendonça gave a speech entitled “What is to love a country”. He looked into the etymology of the latin word communitas (community). “Associating two words”, Tolentino said, “cum and munus, it explains that the members of a community – as well as of a national community – are not united by some occasional root. They are united by a munus, that is, a common duty, a shared assignment. What kind of assignment is this? What is a community’s first assignment? To take care of life. There is no greater, more humble, more creative or more present mission.”

What is the change are we longing for? 

Photo taken from the website of the American Alliance of Museums.

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