Gulbenkian, Lisbon

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.

The persistency of the genius

A few days ago Huawei presented their human edited artificially intelligence supported collection. Since then I have run into many conversations and debates on the topic, although after I intervened in one dominated by professionals and experts of that sector, I realized my view was considered too cynical, or that of a technology enthusiast and I stopped engaging further in other conversations. I haven’t had much luck in terms of variety, possibly, but the tone of the discussions I got to be involved in were permeated by fear. Ancient, atavic fear. Fear of losing jobs, fear of the machine in terms similar to those of the XIX century Luddist protesters, fear of being forced to learn and use tools and to acquire knowledge people did not want to or did not feel comfortable with…The background tone of this was that creativity and the unique genius behind it were going to disappear and be forgotten.
This brought me to a couple of considerations on things I tend to ignore

  1. The artistic field might have rephrased the obsolete notion of genius in the “arts” and its position in many areas (hi Benjamin, hi Bourdieu, hi any artist with her team, popping to my mind quickly are Tomás Saraceno or Olafur Eliasson because of their job-ads I often saw while living in Berlin and the people I knew raising spiders for Saraceno). This change though has not yet involved the mainstream notion of the expensive luxury world of fashion industry, (an oxymoron in itself, if the genius was connected to a unique sense of taste without even a social genesis), and this in spite of the fact that fashion houses have huge teams of designers designing, doing trend research etc. It is widely accepted for figurative artists to work with teams nowadays, having a skilled équipe of scientists, artisans, technicians producing part of the final product (something implemented in painting ever since anyway? considering late middle age as a good start, or sculpture in ancient European times), yet the idea of the genius dramatically persists in a way I would have no longer thought possible. Huawei did not do anything special but use a lovely and big database to produce an output. If you had the chance of working with technology this is the basis of everything. Like really. And there is nothing bad, except again in my view maybe the changes to the work flow of people.
  2. The claim that this is an INSULT to creativity and the premises of the death of “CREATIVITY” sound a bit ridiculous and pompous to me because in my, maybe radical view (?), creativity is long dead, intended in this very outdated romantic acception of a solitary work performed by exceptional minds. Having worked for years in translation and content creation without being a translator I have never been scared of the application of AI and MT to this field. It is my daily life and it is not a scandal anymore: I believe instead, it will give translators (or editors already?) even more authority than before in terms of adding a special touch to their content: that one will be the real localisation. I have checked the English version of the blog of two persons I really like and whose work I follow ( and realized that their translations contain mistakes, since they are done with an MT that does not get -still- anacoluthon, subjects omissions and this sort of rhetoric expedients. I loved this. Why should it be an insult for fashion? How can this be seen as an insult instead of the complete opposite?
  3. The value of authenticity: Again, the opposition between the genius and the standard relies on the assumpted value of authenticity which cannot be attributed to an artificially (even though “edited” by human) product. My personal leit-motiv apparently, authenticity, identity, invention, tradition, emotions, memory. A personal greeting to Halbwachs, Benjamin, Laurajane Smith and everyone involved in this conversation 🙂 that I am not able to leave, apparently.

(In case, here Another reading on the topic from the Guardian)

Above: carnations filtering Southern light against the wall.

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 the 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 an abandoned house (the opposite of the 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, but there was no rational answer. Better, brought to 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.

The charm of identity display

A couple of weeks ago I escaped Valencia while the city was being taken over by the local celebrations of Fallas.

While living in Spain about ten years ago, I thought very little of Fallas. Literally. I did not give too much thought to them and I only considered it a loud event to which bright Erasmus students would go to get drunk before going back home to become lobbysts or political VIPs in different countries handling the most crucial matters of our age. No need to get on any bus or train to see it. What I completely misunderstood and never bothered to even try to grasp or feel or understand was the massive support they enjoyed and how deeply rooted that was.

Then 2018 arrived and Fallas came along. I did not know the celebrations would last for weeks and they would overturn the daily life of the city. Little food trucks (the real ones) frying churros, buñuelos and any sort of edible thing from 8 am til 2 am at every corner, all sort of firecrackers at every hour of the day and the night, hoards of people ignoring basic traffic rules, let alone hygiene ones.

And the Parade for the “Flower Ofrenda“: every Fallero and Fallera of the city parades and brings flowers to a statue of the Virgin Mary on the main square. I remember coming back home from work with my bike and facing thousands of people of all ages dressed in expensive and uncomfortable traditional clothes parading through the center, and just stood there speechless. It might have been the first time I experienced a nationalistic folkloric event of these proportions. As an Italian raised in a very laic environment, I am really unprepared for this sort of events, and, I realize, I lack tools of understanding, and empathizing, I think.

With this on my mind, I went away for the weekend, and hopped on a train to the capital to visit friends. Friends have friends, and the latter ones might turn out to be curious and nice persons and all of a sudden it’s 4 am and you are talking nationalistic sentiments in Spain before the elections. It turned out the Fallas had a certain allure to them, actually quite a lot. The festivity as a shared moment through which people connect prevailed over any other nationalistic aspects, in their minds. Even though they had not lived in Valencia nor had they ever been in the city over fallas they envied it. They were longing for the common feeling of belonging to a strongly characterised place, longing for the collective identification process embodied by the attires, the objects, the shared spaces of the city being transformed in its design and traffic, and even in its possible generally accepted normative role.

To me it felt naive, almost childish at times, and it made me acknowledge once again how powerful nationalism as sentiment related to an administratively regulated area is among us, including left wing politically committed adults. It scares me but remains mesmerizing, this building of collective feelings.

Picture: YOU ARE HERE, Madrid, Centro drámatico nacional, March 2019