Thy lady of authenticity

The Paris cathedral of Notre-Dame burned partially about a month ago. Drama, tears, money, resentment etc. Everyone spoke about it or felt compelled to express sentiments about it or issued a statement.

The two most interesting readings on the topic according to my interests have been the one by Paul B. Preciado, as it enlightens some relevant aspects of how distorted can the proposed re-building be, and the philantropic US perspective I read on the New York Times, because my focus was somewhere else and it is always important to rememeber where the general focus is ($$$$$$$) or how completely divergent the perspective on the non-profit sector is from a distant point of view, that of a country with substantially different cultural politics & social welfare state.

What called my attention at first was how mesmerizing it was for everyone in Paris: I myself could not stop looking for pictures of people staring at the flames and comparing them to medieval European paintings of suffering saints. I went to sleep over-excited thinking that it was the first time I had consciously assisted to the disappearing of a European landmark, I woke up to check if it had burned out entirely over night and a few days later a friend even wrote me she had dreamt of us living in a roof house on top of it. It was all very present.

A couple of days after this happened, a personal trip brought me to a yet unknown to me part of uninhabited Spain, the super beautiful and incredibly green montanous area between Castilla La Mancha, Aragón, Valencian community and Catalonia. We spoke about Notre-Dame while driving around, and the opinion of my family was “thankfully they are going to rebuild it”.

We visited, I believe, all the tiny and rare villages that the agricultural structure of the past centuries left on our route: we drove for kilometers through the countryside without seeing even a single abandoned house (the opposite of the central Italian landscape, where the division of lands created a pattern of little properties, and the human footprint is strong and evident everywhere. I am so not used to visually face empty spaces). I was with my parents, born in 1940 and 1954. They diligently trust tourist guides, and my father loves to be seen around with a book with the name of region he is visiting in his hands, trusting this will bring him in conversation with local people who will tell him stories, while at the same time being identified as a curious person discovering a new territory. Those 40 years between us are a personal endless source of inspiration, clearly. Anyway, many villages were marked as relevant in their guide, maybe empty, abandoned but with a historical center, or a castle and a monastery etc. As said, we stopped in ALL of them, and many were included in the route of the “nicest villages of Spain“. While I was rather interested in how wild and GREEN the nature around us was, my parents’ focus was on the monuments. Some they found interesting, peculiar, etc. but most they did not like because they were rebuilt. They lacked authenticity.

I asked them why Notre-Dame should be rebuilt instead, and in spite of this it would not lose its identity nor its symbolic meaning and consequent value but instead increase it, while these places could not experience similar paths or afford the same potential. They thought it over and honestly had no rational answer. Instead, facing the evidence that one was socially and politically constructed and artificially made more important, they, who are not so blind not to see that it was a contradiction, could not dare to acknowledge the logics behind it or structuring any thought on the power of emotions and materials.
Having situated authenticity as a cultural construct, it is as if layers of authenticity can be simply wrapped around any object irrespective of its unique history and materiality. The argument that ‘visitors to archaeological sites or museums experience authenticity and aura in front of originals to exactly the same degree as they do in front of very good reproductions or copies – as long as they do not know them to be reproductions or copies’ (Holtorf 2005: 118) exemplifies the cultural constructivist stance. It is undoubtedly the case that replicas can acquire authentic qualities (Hall 2006; Holtorf and Schadla-Hall 1999; Holtorf 2005; Pye 2001), but the important question is how and why some become more powerful loci of authenticity than others. Furthermore, to what extent is their authenticity a product of their physical state and material substance? Sian Jones, “Negotiating Authentic Objects and Authentic Selves: Beyond the Deconstruction of Authenticity “

Picture: Valderrobres, Aragon, deepest Spain. April 2019

Connected audience – emotions, the bitter parts

I had been studying the link between museums, empathy and emotions from a sociological perspective for the past 6 months when last January I received the NEMO Newsletter advertising the conference Connected Audience – Emotions in Berlin in April 2019. Perfect timing, sort of closing a circle of months long reflections. Now that I am back from the conference, I have a few thoughts on my mind regarding the event and some valuable inputs to process. Since I learned it to be better, I will start with the bad things and then go on with the positive fact so the latter stick to memory for longer time.

The most relevant aspect for me, as a researcher from Spain, was the complete absence of non North-American & European (mostly western) perspectives. No more than 10 attendees out of over 300 came from Southern Europe and only one speaker came from Russia, which is possibly not yet Europe entirely.

Indeed museum studies are absolutely not something in Italy, for example. But they are in Spain and there was only one other colleague from Spain and one from Portugal. Very sad. Reasons for that? Costs? Language? That might even be true for participants but not for speakers*. Where were they? A conference about emotions in museum which does not include experiences of conflictive events and XXI historical narratives? That was by far the biggest disappointment: in the whole conference there was only a person coming from India and one from Hong Kong. How can a discussion about audience and emotions lack inclusiveness and diversity at its core?

Beside that I acknowledge that overall and everywhere my perspective is annoyingly academic, and therefore focusses always on aspects of work and planning. In general, I focus on data and methodologies (or lack of) of projects, and every time I remain surprised by how knowledgeable some professionals are but how all of a sudden money, grants and big projects take over and nobody in the end cares about the original projects and objectives or will ever state it transparently.

Here two points:

  • Paying people for their work: When asked about the budget the National Museum of Archeology of Naples he had worked with for this project after his presentation, an Italian professor and consultant answered that some things can be achieved if you have very committed people, regardless of how much they are paid, and sometimes they do it even without a budget because they believe in the work they do and that is more important. I hoped someone would laugh out loud, as many attendees had had the rudeness to do when a Russian colleague presented the experience of the Yeltsin museum because it was Russian propaganda (heard in the crowd), but no, nobody said a word. It felt shameless to me, and I felt bad for not pointing this out as I felt outnumbered. It seemed this privileged White group was reinforcing itself in its assumption of art for art’s sake concept, in other words that it is correct to finding compromises such as using students as they might do this for free.
  • The lack of boldness and the gap between the budget some institutions have and the way they openly declare “we haven’t done any front-end research and we do not know who we will work for”. Assisting to the presentation of part of the team of the never ending Humboldt Forum project was really the most surprising thing of all. A controversial project that will give material to hundreads of PhD dissertations on politcs and identity in the coming centuries (if the format of PhD won’t estinguish sooner, as will humanity for that matter), in which over 15 Millions of euros have been invested and about 60 Millions per year are foreseen as budget (here sources: use DeepL / learn German), the Humbold Forum presented a super PowerPoint in which part of its permanent exhibition dedicated to Berlin is described as a fun and entertaining technological space with technologies that might get obsolete in a couple of years and with the complete exclusion of one part of the potential visitors – older ones. What I missed in the Humboldt Forum presentation of Paul Spies and Brinda Sommer was the boldness of saying after we did not do any research” (which I refuse to believe to be true) because this Berlin does not care for the older ones, we want to attract young adults, targeting 16-40 white visitors and therefore we will not provide them with objects (I think 100 exhibits in 4000 square meters were the figures) but with an immersive space that can I interact with, if they want. Everyone else can go to the other museums of the museums island that are across the street around Lustgarten. They wanted to compromise with the conference audience, who was mostly composed by educators and mediators and supporters of inclusion (despite not being diverse at all s.above) but this brought to a broken narrative that would not satisfy anyone and attracted many critics and questions from the public.

These aspects left me with a bitter note of disappointment about the environment I was in, but I will expand on the positive parts soon, because of course there have been too.

Picture: Tiergarten from inside the Kulturforum and “Ist das Kunst?”, the museums mock the famous pop saying (especially in Berlin) “is this art or can I throw it?” to put itself back on the map using material cultural studies.

*In fact, a German speaker read through her written English text with no intonation in her voice and interrupted her sentences in the middle with no sense of grammar because she had too little confidence in English (something the moderator said, and all questions to her and her own answers were actually translated to German) and therefore made our following of her speech veery challenging. This makes me think also that the organization could have thought of interpreters.