Actually connected audiences

Connected audience took place in Berlin last spring, a loong time ago indeed, and only now I come to write something about what gave me the strongest kick for keep on doing research and writing while there. I think the reason is that I needed more elements that would confirm that, but also more knowledgeable, competent, passionate people in the field, and I only found them in quite different circumstances.

The workshop I chose to attend was held by Christiane Birkert, Head of Visitor Experience & Research at the Jewish Museum Berlin (DE), and it was called “Visitor experience mapping”. Ms Birkert was given a huge room for a little group of about 15 people who had to concentrate and carefully listen to her voice, after she had invited us to get closer to her, because she had no mic and did not want to scream. Without any doubt for me these were by far the best 60 minutes of the whole congress. Deciding to use Powerpoint with graphs and data (YES, DATA ALWAYS MATTER) she was kilometers above any other presentation I attended over those days. In the other ones most people showcased obvious, superficial, obsolete methodologies that had seemed to be immensely innovative from a technological point of view one or two years ago (I already wrote about this) but did not add any value to our discussions.

The insights she shared with us, the research activity the Berlin Jewish Museum is doing to understand the non-visitors, the audience research they plan in order to serve better the exhibition department, the fact alone that they have a department dedicated to visitors experience, the knowledge they have been able to accumulate over time especially in regard to the emotions generated within the museum space, mostly due to the potentially tense content of their narration of history but, above all, the humbleness Ms Birkert showed. It reminded me once again how the smartest persons I ever got the chance to know have always been also the humblest.

What would you ask 7 yrs olds about the Noah’s Ark?

These were the answers.

It felt reassuring, warm, encouraging and depressing at once. I could not let go of the feeling and the light anxiety generated by the fact that I am aware that these discourses can only be done within a certain framework of wealthy, inclusive, respectful and resourceful (yes, $ or € is what I mean) societies, and are in the vast majority of Southern Europe absolutely unknown.

I sort of broke up with research, after I had the chance to speak and take part in early July to the Spanish Sociology Congress. Here, within the cultural sociology working group a young man extensively lectured the small audience about the relationship of trap music, reggae and messianism. Many people were enthusiastic about it, especially because the rest of us presented and dealt only with sociology matters without venturing too much into other areas. I remembered vividly the sense of uneasiness some academics would give me in my first University years in the Philology departments, and how little at home I felt in that confused abstraction. Where were the data? Where was the knowledge Ms Birkert shared with us? Was this what can be valued in research? Should I do the same in my PhD? Should I leave it? A whole summer did not fix it any of this yet.

Two weeks ago I did my best to try to reconcile data, museums and work, and I might have ended even more frustrated.

I participated in one Erasmus+ workshop on Youth & Museums in Madrid held by the Spanish Youth Institute, the Ministry of Culture and the National Museums. Twenty museum professionals & researchers from different backgrounds from several European countries joined the workshop, but since half of us came either from Finland or Austria, the gap I felt among those who had the privilege of having time to set the most complex questions of museum work and those who could not was even deeper. I realized later we were involved in the final phase of a broader coordinated by the Spanish national museums about “how to get young visitors to museums”. It was not mentioned anywhere in the application. This meant attend some public presentations of the different museums.

I won’t go deep into the activities directly – we participated olny to a couple, but could not get any idea of their planning since we could not speak with the teams of those museums (Anthropological and Archeological).

I just wanted to positively remember the chat we had with Clara Nchama, from the Communication Department of Museo del Traje. She, as Christiane Birkert did, was capable of showing to an attentive audience what kind of work museums in the South really can do. Honest, knowledgeable, competent, up-to-date with what museums challenges in the XXI century are, completely aware of what is was feasible to achieve with a small staff, and she achieved a lot, proposing to a young audience (the ministry wanted them to address everyone from 15 to 30…) the chance of participating into the exhibition set up. The behind the scenes of museums work, something young people might really be interested in on the short, mid and even long term.

To look up for Ms Nchama’s name on the internet took me about 5 minutes which says too much about the Spanish museum system. Her name does not even appear openly, only the email address in an obsolete webpage within the Ministry of Culture web-environment.

How can a system in which it is required to study for YEARS after completing your M.A. to pass an extremely complicated national exam to be only eligible for potential future job openings in the museum field not even highlight the names of those professional who make them stand out among a mix of not even English speaking professional?

Seriously! I know well that one part of the exam is a language exam – does it make sense that these people can translate a legal document about museums (yes, that is what the content usually is) but they cannot express themselves and present their work in front of a foreign audience (this really happened)? How poor is the knowledge among museum professionals here? It is not only a matter of means a museum has, it is also a matter of being involved in contemporary issues and methodologies, and of course, priorities within museum work.

Who stands out? Who can stand out? Those who can afford not to work for years to take an exam based on law, history and art history? Is it worth it to keep staying here and have 3, 4 jobs trying to work in the field and changing it from within, hoping to work with people like Clara, or is it a huge loss of time? Who can afford to work in museums in South Europe? And what will they ever do anyway?

What audiences can be understood if there is no intention of supporting those who do? How perverse is this?

A long winter ahead.

Picture: Museo Gulbenkian, Lisbon, last week, by me of course.

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