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Museu Calouste Gulbenkian

"We are talking to people who usually are not represented in the museum: we want them to be represented but also representing in a very proactive way."

Although the Calouste Gulbenkian Museum in Lisbon is evidently connected to the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation, it is included in this case study library not for nepotistic reasons but because it is a useful illustration of an organisation early in the process of changing how it thinks about and implements the civic role of the arts, moving from an arm’s length outreach culture towards a more participatory co-design approach that shifts a museum’s usefulness to its local community. These changes are being overseen by Penelope Curtis, who has been director since 2015, and Susana Gomes da Silva, the museum’s head of education, both interviewed, alongside Diana Pereira, one of the education project managers working with da Silva. The museum has a dedicated staff of 50, and an annual turnover of approximately €7m, of which just over €1m is earned income through ticketing, a relatively small percentage comes from sponsorships, and the rest is received from the Foundation.

Mission: making the collections more relevant to a diverse audience

Museu Calouste Gulbenkian houses two collections: the Founder’s Collection of international material, some 6,000 paintings and objects amassed by Calouste Gulbenkian himself before his death in 1955; and a collection of 20th-century Portuguese art acquired by the Foundation since 1956. Before Penelope Curtis’ arrival in 2015, the two were disconnected and had come to be seen by Lisbon locals as unchanging and so less interesting to visit than temporary exhibitions. Part of Curtis’ remit is to “make each of them more active”, which could translate into raising visitor numbers, but for Curtis is a more complex proposition. She aims to move from an audience base of mostly tourists to “working with a more diverse range of people, who previously never came to the Gulbenkian and didn’t think it was for them. These numbers may not be huge, they won’t impact the overall audience especially, but it will have a much bigger impact in terms of people’s lives.” In particular, Curtis wants to make the argument for connecting the activities of the parent Foundation, especially of its Human Development Programme, to the museum: “If we’re talking about literacy, isolation, communication, dislocation, migrants, refugees, all those conversations can be helped and enriched through the collections.”

“If we’re talking about literacy, isolation, communication, dislocation, migrants, refugees, all those conversations can be helped and enriched through the collections.”

In this she is working from a belief that “education thinking can make an exhibition more interesting”, an approach informed by experiences in her first job, as junior curator at Tate Liverpool in the late-1980s. As “a new modern art gallery in a city that had not been exposed to modern art and was in the throes of terrible unemployment” it had work to hard to overcome suspicion and attract a local audience, and its “big calling card was that education and curation were at equal status”. Although Curtis brought the same principle to her more recent work with Tate Britain, where she was director from 2010-15, she also struggled to reconcile Tate’s “two objectives: one was to diversify the audience and the other was to increase visitor numbers to exhibitions – and they were diametrically opposed”.

Deepening relationships

Curtis is also building on work at Museu Calouste Gulbenkian that predates her arrival, both by Susana Gomes da Silva in the education department, and by the Human Development Programme of the Foundation (particularly its project O Nosso km² – Our Square Mile), working with various community groups – including young people failing in education, unemployed adults, women who had experienced domestic violence, and older people living in the area local to the Foundation offices and museum. Most of these projects were led by the education department, and although in some of them the model was participatory, for instance the one with youngsters aimed to “build up self-esteem and gain new skills of communication by working in a gallery with our pieces, and then in a through a collaborative and artistic process in a workshop”, in projects with older people, the museum only responded to specific requests, providing “guided tours and having tea with them”.  In these cases, says da Silva, the museum was “just a secondary partner, helping something that was already going on”; as such, the connections built with the museum’s collections were “not so deep” nor significant.

Under Curtis, the aim of da Silva and the education team is moving towards a more participatory approach: working with community groups to “design something with them in a very collaborative way and deepen the relationship” – and, importantly, sustain that relationship long-term.

Old and new

At present the museum is focusing on three communities:

1.) Older people – project Entre Vizinhos (Among Neighbours)

Not wanting “to drop this relationship that we already started”, the education team has continued and expanded on the work with older people begun through O Nosso km², encouraging them to “use the collections as a way of opening up conversation, allowing them to talk with other people about their pasts and personal experiences” constructing shared narratives. This is interesting to Curtis as it “gives them a safe way to talk about art – very often contemporary art that they thought had nothing to do with them”. Better still is the “cross-fertilisation” that happens when people “discover that they had neighbours that they’d maybe never talked to, who had similar interests and concerns”.

Diana Pereira, da Silva’s colleague in the education team, who project-manages this work, has forged relationships with three local day centres, and argues that in all relationship-building it is essential to work with “a local partner who works with the people and can follow up after the sessions, so there is some continuity”. Currently this project is gaining an artistic dimension as the group is working with a visual artist to create a collective piece that maps and materialises the relationships constructed so far.

2.) Refugee groups – project Aqui Eu Conto (Here I can tell)

Again, this strand of work began by building on a pre-existing connection: refugee groups learning Portuguese at the welcome centre in Lisbon were already being brought to the museum by their teacher, who recognised that the Islamic collections “had a lot of possibilities of connection with their own origins,” says da Silva. “Again, this was not our work, we only welcomed them – but we decided to become more active with this relationship, try to challenge the group to do different things, and co-design a project where we all had a voice.

This coincided with Curtis inviting a visiting Iranian professor to challenge the conservative interpretation of the Islamic collections and “help us think about how they could be made more active. She noted that the objects in cases were mostly designed for feasts: they would have had food and drink in them, and it was sad for her to see them all behind glass.” In response, the museum programmed two actual feasts, to coincide with Nowruz (the Persian New Year) and Eid al-Fitr (the end of Ramadan): “We brought things out from the cases, laid them on carpets and textiles, played music, and invited people from Iraq and Iran, including refugees, to talk to our visitors about what these things meant, so that we were not the guides.” What this created, says Curtis, was “a safe place in which refugees and migrants could start to talk – and in which Portuguese people could ask questions they hadn’t been able to ask.”

The important thing to da Silva is that refugee people were involved in the design of the events. “We invited the Iranian community to a very open session where we said: we’re going to celebrate Nowruz and we’ve never done it before, so what would you advise us to do? Through that we got a lot of ideas and created a small working team – which was really nice because it was the first time we had non-scientific voices in the museum. People from a different cultural background have a completely different relationship with the collection and that is an added value for us: we have been used to seeing the objects in the same way for so long that it seems there is nothing else to say about them, but that’s not true.” The education team is continuing its collaboration with the refugee working group, for instance designing a poetry and foreign languages event with them in a collaborative and participative artistic project.

3.) Young people

A priority for the board, but not yet developed as a strand of activity, is “renewing the audience, so that there’s a new generation of people coming to the Gulbenkian,” says Curtis. Looking in particular at 16-24 year olds, the plan is to build a young people’s ambassador scheme, to create “peer to peer championing of what the Gulbenkian can be”. Additionally, says da Silva, “we want to work with them in the creation of programming for youngsters: if you were the one to define it, what would you do? We don’t want to decide for them.”

“We want to work with them in the creation of programming for youngsters: if you were the one to define it, what would you do? We don’t want to decide for them.”

What next?

Curtis regards the co-designed projects created so far as “tests to see whether they would work or not – and they’ve all worked well. The question now is which ones to take forward, develop and make bigger: do we mark the end of Ramadan every year or do different things?” Her key intention is for “the Founder’s Collection to be more active, and a better understanding of why the modern collection is important. We need to communicate that our collections are not always the same, and that we’re trying to do new readings.”

“We need to communicate that our collections are not always the same, and that we’re trying to do new readings.”

For the education team, says da Silva, the priority is to ensure that: “we are talking to people who usually are not represented in the museum: we want them to be represented but also representing in a very proactive way, so they can propose things, and they can be the voices talking and constructing meaning, alongside the scientific voices. In that way we are changing our methodologies and choosing more and more participative strategies, incorporating different visions and narratives so that one day the museum will be a place where everybody has a voice and can co-create things with us.”

(Image: Corações ao Alto performance at the Founder’s Collection of Calouste Gulbenkian Museum, June 2018.Photographer: Márcia Lessa)

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