Friday 4 October, 13:00 – 14:30 Restaurant, Brighton Centre (Museums Association Conference)
Chair: Tonya Nelson, Chair, ICOM UK
Hosted by ICOM UK, Arts Council England and the Museums Association, with support from the British Council, this invite-only roundtable discusses current issues around decolonisation in the sector. Museum professionals with experience of decolonising projects explore key questions in this emerging area of work. The conversation will be captured to inform the work to produce guidance for the sector.
Many museum professionals are connected through ICOM. They enjoy working in their museum and they are interested in meeting their colleagues. Sharing our knowledge and experience gives an extra value to being an ICOM member.
National Committee ICOM The Netherlands initiated the ICOM Family website to facilitate the personal connection between ICOM members worldwide. They invite you to add your profile and contact your fellow ICOM members when travelling abroad.
Last year the British Council commissioned Tom Fleming Creative Consultancy to conduct an evaluation for its Connections through Culture programme– a British Council-led mobility programme to advance and enhance UK / China cultural relations. The newly issued evaluation report can be accessed here. Over 13 years, Connections through Culture (CtC) has invested nearly £1.462 million in arts and cultural organisations and UK / China professionals.This figure includes £662,000 in grants and £796,000 supporting exchange tours, seminars and online networking in its first five years. It has operated as a seed-bed for purposeful encounters between UK and Chinese arts and cultural professionals, facilitating relationships which have progressed to develop co-productions, collaborative projects, and multiple instances of shared learning and professional development
Global Trends in Museum Diplomacy traces the transformation of museums from publicly or privately funded heritage institutions into active players in the economic sector of culture. Exploring how this transformation reconfigured cultural diplomacy, the book argues that museums have become autonomous diplomatic players on the world stage.
The book offers a comparative analysis across a range of case studies in order to demonstrate that museums have gone global in the era of neoliberal globalisation. Grincheva focuses first on the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, which is well known for its bold revolutionising strategies of global expansion: museum franchising and global corporatisation. The book then goes on to explore how these strategies were adopted across museums around the world and analyses two cases of post-Guggenheim developments in China and Russia: the K11 Art Mall in Hong Kong and the International Network of Foundations of the State Hermitage Museum in Russia. These cases from more authoritarian political regimes evidence the emergence of alternative avenues of museum diplomacy that no longer depend on government commissions to serve immediate geo-political interests.
Global Trends in Museum Diplomacy will be a valuable resource for students, scholars and practitioners of contemporary museology and cultural diplomacy. Documenting new developments in museum diplomacy, the book will be particularly interesting to museum and heritage practitioners and policymakers involved in international exchanges or official programs of cultural diplomacy.
About the Author
Natalia Grincheva is a Research Fellow in the Research Unit of Public Cultures at the University of Melbourne. She is also a Lead CI and Conceptual Designer of the award-winning digital mapping system Museum Soft Power Map. Dr Grincheva has been awarded numerous academic awards and fellowships, including Fulbright (2007-2009), Quebec Fund (2011-2013), Australian Endeavour (2012-2013), SOROS (2013-2014) and others. She has successfully implemented a number of research projects on new forms of contemporary diplomacy developed by the largest internationally recognised museums in North America, Europe and Asia-Pacific.
Book reviews are very welcome! You can request a free e-copy of the book via firstname.lastname@example.org or online through the ‘Media Review Copy Request’ form.
I am just back from Kyoto. What an amazing experience! Despite the heat and humidity, the energy of the 3,000+ attendees was high, which stimulated great debate, discussion and reflection about the future of museums. There were over 50 panels, workshops and events over 7 days – too much for me to summarise here — but I wanted to take the time to report back on three big conference themes:
New Museum Definition.
After six weeks of intense discussion about the proposed new definition (published on 25 July 2019), several sessions at the conference were devoted to the topic. The Museum Definition, Prospects and Potentials (MDPP) Standing Committee led by Jette Sandahl and including David Fleming, former Director of National Museums Liverpool, presented the principles that underpin the proposed definition and the process used to draft it.
Two items of note: The MDPP intended for the definition to combine a description of what museums ‘do’ – collect, preserve, exhibit – and their purpose – ‘contribute to human dignity and social justice…’. The MDPP also stated that they attempted to combine and balance the museum function and purpose phrasing to ensure each got equal weight.
There were several sessions devoted to discussion and debate amongst the ICOM membership. The main arguments against the adoption of the proposed definition were: (1) sounds more like a vision or mission statement than a definition; (2) absence words such as ‘education’ ‘intangible’ and ‘permanent institutions’; (3) inclusion of words such as ‘not for profit’ and ‘polyphonic’; (4) content of text is too political; (5) content is overly broad, potentially encompassing organisations that are outside intended scope; and (6) awkward phrasing. Overall, however, there seemed to be a consensus that the existing definition needs to change and general support for the spirit and intent behind the proposed new definition.
There were some pragmatic reasons put forth for voting against the definition. A number of Committees stated they simply did not have sufficient time to consult with stakeholders prior to the Triennial. This is particularly important for countries in which the ICOM definition is embedded in national legislation that guides eligibility for accreditation and government funding. Representatives from these countries expressed great concern about how the new definition would be received by policymakers and the impact it would have on their museums.
I want to emphasise, however, that there were many Committees that expressed support for the adoption of the definition as written. They see the definition as making clear the connection between museums and the wider world and, as a result, the relevance and importance of museums. For museums in emerging economies, the new definition encompasses non-Western operating models and thus serves as an important validation of their efforts.
During the Extraordinary General Assembly on 7 September in which Committees were to vote yes or no to adopting the new definition, the option of postponing the vote was raised and approved. Hence, the conversation will continue.
In the coming weeks, ICOM UK will develop a process for further discussion of the proposed definition and will communicate the memberships’ views and any amendments to the proposed definition to the ICOM secretariat. I want to thank all ICOM UK members again for the time and attention they’ve given to this matter thus far.
Decolonisation and Restitution.
I was pleased with the discussion and debate that took place during the 3-hour panel session I co-chaired on Monday 2 September. The session had representatives from North and South America, Africa, Australia, Europe and Asia speaking about best practice in these areas. I have written a piece for The Art Newspaper which highlights the key takeaways from the session. I am pleased that ICOM Executive Council member Terry Nyambe from Zambia will be taking forward learning from this session to design and deliver roundtables on the subject in spring 2020. A number of members have asked that a working group be established to take forward recommended actions. I am also pleased to report that National Geographic will be dedicating an entire issue to the topic of restitution and will include insights from this session in its article.
Resolution on Sustainability.
I am pleased to report that the ICOM membership has approved the recommendation of ICOM UK and ICOM Norway to approve the resolution ‘On Sustainability and the implementation of Agenda 2030, Transforming the World.” The resolution is the outcome of the work conducted by the working group on sustainability, which includes ICOM UK member Henry McGhie. The Resolution states:
Considering humanity’s current demands on the planet are unsustainable; the planet and all its inhabitants, human and non-human are facing an entangled series of unprecedented environmental and societal crises, the impacts of which: rising inequality, wars, poverty, climate change and loss of biodiversity, are serving to amplify these crises.
Recognising the members of the United Nations have unanimously agreed to implement Agenda 2030, Transforming our World, to address the crises and to initiate the creation of pathways to a sustainable future.
Understanding that museums, as trusted sources of knowledge, are invaluable resources for engaging communities and are ideally positioned to empower the global society to collectively imagine, design and create a sustainable future for all, we recommend that ICOM, its Committees, Alliances, Affiliated Organisations and Secretariat:
recognise that all museums have a role to play in shaping and creating a sustainable future through our various programmes, partnerships and operations;
become familiar with, and assist in all ways possible, the goals and targets of the UN Sustainable Development Goals and use the Agenda 2030, Transforming Our World as the guiding framework to incorporate sustainability into our own internal and external practices and educational programming; and
empower ourselves, our visitors and our communities through making positive contributions to achieving the goals of Agenda 2030, Transforming Our World; acknowledging and reducing our environmental impact, including our carbon footprint, and helping secure a sustainable future for all inhabitants of the planet: human and non-human.
There is much more to share – I invite anyone who attended an event or session that they would like our members to know about, to consider writing a piece for our website and weekly newsletter.
The next Triennial will be in Prague in 2022 and I invite all of you to think about attending. The opportunity to build new relationships, share insights and experience new cultures cannot be beat.
ICOM UK member Luigi Galimberti interviews Maria Eugenia Salcedo about the Inhotim Institute, Brazil.
Maria Eugenia Salcedo, Educator and Researcher. Photo: William Gomes
Maria Eugenia Salcedo Repolês is an educator and researcher. Since before the official opening of Instituto Inhotim in 2006, and until July 2019, she had been working there as Education Manager and, more recently, as Deputy Artistic Director. In 2008, she received the Rumos Educação, Cultura e Arte prize given by Itaú Cultural for her work with Inhotim’s educational projects, as well as the Darcy Ribeiro award in 2010. More recently, she has collaborated with the Fundación TyPA in Argentina and the São Paulo Biennial in Brazil.
Luigi Galimberti is a Board Member of Res Artis, the world’s largest membership-based network of artist residencies. He was previously Collection Care Research Manager at Tate, London.
Luigi:What is the history of Inhotim?
Maria Eugenia: Instituto Inhotim opened its doors to the general public in 2006, after being visited by artists, critics, curators and other specialists over the two years prior to that.
Instituto Inhotim. Photo: Otávio Nogueira
Inhotim was a new undertaking, not only because it was outside of the Säo Paulo-Rio de Janeiro Brazilian art circuit, but because it introduced a unique combination between sites spread throughout the land, outstanding national and international contemporary art, and exuberant gardens.
From the start, there was a strong focus on how education could be central to the development of the project together with the curatorial staff. At Inhotim this was being explored as a possibility some time before the educational turn in curatorial discussions became widespread in Brazil. On another level, its commissions brought the site-specific discussion to Brazil. This is also something that is in Inhotim’s DNA. Having works by artists like Cildo Meireles, Adriana Varejäo, Tunga on show for a long period and having them accessible was very special for those who worked there and for the public.
Luigi:How do the botanical and the artistic come together at Inhotim?
Maria Eugenia: Inhotim was established officially as a botanical garden in 2010, but the idea of creating a great garden was there since 2006. Inhotim is a place in which the visitor could be in contact with nature in an organized way, as all gardens are, but actually in a tropical scenario, with the smells, the changing climate and the light. The botanical garden is a place where research is being conducted, while at the same time it is there to stimulate the senses.
Galeria Adriana Varejão. Photo: Eduardo Oliveira
Inhotim is hard to define, and our visitors struggle with that too. I remember when I was an educator, I would show things to people and we would walk around for hours. At the end of the tours, some visitors would ask me something like, “When are we actually entering the museum? Where is the big portal?”.
Inhotim is about having this experience of being inside a gallery, outside a gallery, in the garden, or just sitting down talking about the sun in the same way that you talk about, I guess, a work of art by Olafur Eliasson and taking the conversation in a very soft way, because the space and the experience inspires that.
You see people who have an interest in botany and go there for that reason because they have heard about this in a specialized magazine and all of a sudden they are taken by a contemporary art project, and vice versa.
Across all the projects, the 23 art galleries and the outdoor sculptures, we have been able to maintain this experience-based transdisciplinary atmosphere, but also the idea of being able to breathe and relax. I am not sure if relax is the right word, but it is certainly about having some time between one thing and the other. This cannot be said about many tourist places or museums. This is what makes Inhotim quite unique and we have been able to maintain this characteristic since its beginnings.
Luigi:How has Inhotim been evolving since 2006?
Maria Eugenia: Over the years, I have seen Inhotim being dreamt as the greatest contemporary art museum of the 21st century, as a high-end botanical garden research centre, as a place for innovation and technology or as a tourist destination. All this was against all odds because of our location, the scarcity of nearby hotel rooms or services, or just because it takes time to get there.
Cildo Meireles’s Desvio para o Vermelho. Photo: Pedro Motta
Focusing on the art collection, the transformation has been about finding and installing great works of art in a very special site all over the territory, creating simultaneously a map that attracts visitors, but enough physical and conceptual space in between one thing and the other, but also for other things to happen, such as shows, seminars or cultural programs.
Not only have we been listening to how artists react when they have a commission in a place like this that challenges their concepts, but also in terms of how visitors respond to the idea of having a hike to find a work of art that maybe it is not beautiful in its aesthetics, but it is beautiful in the way it challenges and makes them question their reality or maybe sparks a great conversation that happens at that moment.
Luigi:Can you tell us something about Inhotim’s more recent past?
Maria Eugenia: Our galleries always originate from a conversation about connecting architecture, landscape architecture and art every time in a unique way. Our last big project of this kind was in 2015, which is when the building dedicated to Claudia Andujar was inaugurated. This project made us think about how we can engage in a deeper way with certain contemporary issues. 2015 was a point where Inhotim had to look back to its history but also look ahead and I think that is one of the reasons why Claudia Andujar was the last biggest building that was built.
After that project and after the landmark retrospective on Tunga, who had recently passed away, we did a couple of revisions of the collection exhibition, which mainly focussed on what else can be shown on a temporary basis that would really give to the public the experience of an interconnected territory. The idea was to expand contemporary art dialogues with nature but also with its own history, such as bringing shows that can reflect and give to the public a sense of historical background and the context to artists that the public seems now to be familiar with. For instance, when you mention Helio Oiticica, you hear, “Yes, of course, I know Helio”. Then, all of a sudden you can put Helio into a context in which you introduce other artists that are really fundamental to understand what Helio Oiticica was and is all about in Brazilian art, but also in the global context.
Luigi:What challenges lie ahead for Inhotim?
Maria Eugenia: Before I left Inhotim earlier this year (I now work on special projects with them), we were considering how to expand its relationship with the neighbouring communities, particularly in light of the Brumadinho dam disaster, which occurred in January 2019. That tragic event put everything into a different perspective and made us aware of a different responsibility about the surroundings.
Doug Aitken’s Sonic Pavilion. Photo: Otávio Nogueira
What we discussed in the last few months was how we can be sensitive to what is happening and what is going to continue to happen around us in a way that does not change our characteristics of being a beautiful, almost enchanted place. Local people are actually very thankful for our presence, not only for economic or tourism development, but also as a way of reconstructing the sense of self, the sense of belonging, on so many different cultural levels, but at the same time being sensible to what awaits us in the future. I think that is a great opportunity.
The fire had already chewed up the front half of Brazil’s National Museum in Rio de Janeiro by the time zoologist Paulo Buckup drove up. The blaze was surging into the rest of the museum as firefighters stood by looking helpless. “Then I realized why,” says Buckup. “They had no water.” The two hydrants next to the museum were dry, and engines had to race to a nearby lake to fill up. Buckup knew that the museum’s precious collections wouldn’t last long.
On the night of 2 September 2018, he and around 40 other scientists, administrators and volunteers checked their fear and broke into the burning building — forming human chains to rescue specimens, computers, freezers and microscopes.
Inside, the museum felt surreal. The only light in the building came from the progressing fire. Buckup rushed through the dark hallways into the inner courtyard, where a lone firefighter tried in vain to extinguish the flames consuming the top floors. The courtyard echoed with loud cracks, and shards of glass rained down, while “a tornado of smoke” erupted out of some interior windows.
Buckup didn’t know it yet, but he was witnessing the biggest scientific tragedy ever recorded in Brazil. Soon, hundreds of years of natural history would turn to ash — including much of the nation’s most prized records of its past. The fire claimed tens of thousands of the museum’s 20 million fossils, animal specimens, mummies and Indigenous artefacts, including recordings of chants in native languages that are no longer spoken. More than two-thirds of the 90 resident researchers lost all of their work and belongings.
Classes for the museum’s graduate students resumed a few days later in one of the annex buildings, and admission exams for new students happened on schedule in November. But ten months after the fire, the research community is still struggling to recover. Many scientists have had to shift research topics entirely — often as visitors at institutions in other countries. Buckup and other researchers whose laboratories did not burn have taken in colleagues seeking space for their students and any surviving specimens. And some have begun the painstaking process of restarting collections that had taken two centuries to build. Together, these scientists are trying to revive what once was one of Latin America’s largest science collections.
Brazilian researchers are no strangers to this type of misfortune. Fires have consumed at least four other science museums and research centres there over the past ten years; and scientists worry that other natural-history collections are also at risk — thanks to a combination of ageing buildings and budget cuts that have put off essential renovations for years.
Many had warned that a similar fate would befall the National Museum, which was established in 1818. “The museum in Rio was a matchbox,” says population geneticist Kelly Zamudio at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, who grew up in São Paulo and typically travels to collections around Brazil for her research. “It was just waiting to happen.”
A night ablaze
Buckup, a fish scientist at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro (UFRJ), was in the middle of writing a grant proposal when an urgent voice message at 7:55 p.m. alerted him to the fire raging at the museum.
He scrolled through his social-media feeds, where people were already posting pictures, and felt strangely relieved by what he saw.
The fire was ripping through the museum’s main building, but had not reached the botanical gardens to the south. That area houses a series of buildings, including the herbarium, the library, the archaeology laboratory and the vertebrate department in which Buckup has worked for 25 years. The department’s archive of 600,000 fish specimens floating in yellow-tinged alcohol was the only thing keeping him in Rio de Janeiro, an expensive city known for its rampant violence and poor infrastructure. The fish collection would remain untouched by the fire.
Buckup jumped into his SUV and drove. When he got within a kilometre of the museum, he started to see flames. “The sky was full of sparks.”
At around 8:40 p.m., he and others decided to kick open a door to enter the rear part of the museum, which had not yet caught fire. They started removing what they could from the teaching department. Another group went to the crustacean laboratory to recover materials. As the blaze slowly ate its way towards them, a technician from the mollusc collection, Claudio Costa, asked Buckup to help him retrieve the precious type specimens — those that serve as the basis for describing new species.
That night, Buckup and Costa carried drawers full of preserved snails, clams and other molluscs to safety. In total, they rescued 760 boxes and vials, including all 664 that contained the type specimens. But they couldn’t continue. By around 10 p.m., pieces of burning wood were falling on the volunteers, driving them from the building.
For researchers and students, the museum was more than a workplace, and its destruction has left them reeling. In the competitive world of academia, scientists tend to hide their emotions, says Buckup, but that is no longer true at the museum. Since last September, Buckup has found students and senior colleagues — researchers “that you think you’ll never see lowering their defences” — crying. “The tears from all those people are still more disturbing to me than the tragedy itself,” says Buckup, who sometimes pauses his story to stop his voice from breaking.
Before the fire, months would go by without him running into researchers from other departments. The building was so massive that they could immerse themselves in their work. Now, nine professors have taken refuge in the ichthyology section. “They lost everything — even their birth certificates,” he says.
Palaeontologist Antonio Carlos Fernandes knows the feeling. He spent more than 40 years studying the fossils of corals and other invertebrates, and has continued working as a volunteer researcher at the museum since retiring in 2016. But when a century-old skeleton of a humpback whale fell through the ceiling and into his office during the fire, he lost most of his research materials. Fernandes still finds himself “wanting to believe it was all just a big nightmare”. But he has no plans to abandon his work. “Once a researcher, always a researcher,” he says.
That’s a common sentiment. Members of the entomology department have started to replace their destroyed collections by retrieving some of the specimens that were loaned to other institutions. They have also received generous donations from collectors, and have begun venturing into the Amazon and other regions around Brazil to collect fresh samples. But it will be a challenge to resurrect an inventory that once totalled some 5 million insects — not least because many of the forests that yielded those specimens have since been transformed into farmlands and cities, says museum entomologist Pedro Souza-Dias. “We don’t know if we’ll find them again.”
He has organized six expeditions to the Amazon, Paraná and nature reserves in Rio de Janeiro in the hope of adding more crickets, grasshoppers, mantises and stick insects to the recovering collection. The newly amassed invertebrates are now temporary residents in the already cramped vertebrate department. “We are not in our best conditions right now, but we are fighting,” says Souza-Dias. “We don’t have another option.”
After the fire, Thaynara Pacheco had trouble sleeping. The entomologist was haunted by a burning smell and by the fear that her apartment, like the insect collection, had caught fire. In March, she traded the odour of smoke for the fumes of naphthalene preservative, when she took a fellowship at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History (NMNH) in Washington DC.
On a day last March, Pacheco opens a wooden box and reveals hundreds of tiny beetles pinned in place. They belong to the Sericini tribe, which she’s trying to catalogue. She brought them all the way from her home state, where they are part of the collection of the Federal University of Mato Grosso in Cuiabá. Others are from Nebraska and Florida. And more will come from California and Canada. Surrounded by trays full of insects, Pacheco removes her glasses to peer into a microscope. Up close, a glossy wing cover adorns the greenish-brown body of a beetle. “That’s the beautiful one,” she says.
A PhD student from the UFRJ and the National Museum’s graduate programme, Pacheco is one of 14 fellows selected to continue their studies at Smithsonian institutions through a US$250,000 emergency exchange programme. “It gives them a boost, I think,” says NMNH ichthyologist Lynne Parenti, who coordinates the programme.
For Pacheco, that meant completely changing her thesis project. Back in Rio de Janeiro, she had been reviewing the taxonomy of Chelonariidae, or turtle beetles, a little-studied family of almost 300 species. But her notebooks, sketches and more than 1,500 specimens from the National Museum and other institutions disappeared in the fire. “It was a general sense of grief, you know? Like losing someone very dear,” she says.
To continue her new project, Pacheco needs to visit the Zoological Research Museum Alexander Koenig in Bonn, Germany, which houses most of the type specimens for the Sericini tribe. But first she intends to take a step to memorialize the National Museum — by getting a tattoo of the logo of her destroyed lab, or maybe even one of the turtle beetles she used to study.
She’s not the only one. Beatriz Hörmanseder, another NMNH fellow, says that getting inked has helped others to cope with the trauma of the fire. Museu na Pele, or Museum on the Skin, is a project she conceived with a Brazilian tattoo artist, Luís Berbert, to give professors, officials and students a free and indelible memory of their institution. A group of 140 people, including some needle-phobes, have already signed up. “When I started Museu na Pele, everybody was smiling more. They talked about their tattoo, not about their loss,” says Hörmanseder, rolling up her left sleeve. The outline of the museum’s façade drawn in black ink runs across her forearm. Below it is a code, MN 7712-V.
That’s the catalogue number belonging to a 110-million-year-old dwarf crocodile-like reptile unearthed in Brazil’s northeastern state of Ceará. For some two years, Hörmanseder had been painstakingly extricating it from the rock with acid, brushes and dental picks at the National Museum. She suspected the opossum-size creature was an unnamed species — or at least evidence that a previously identified extinct genus had survived 10 million years longer than scientists had thought. “It was a big deal for me,” she says. But the Ceará fossil didn’t make it out of the fire.
She is now completing her studies by describing a fossilized crocodile from Utah. It’s a huge switch in focus in terms of evolution. The Utah fossil is much younger, 35 million years old. By that time, crocodiles lived in rivers, swamps and marshes — unlike their earlier relatives, which were strictly marine or terrestrial.
That is why Hörmanseder, who is set to graduate next year, has been trying to learn about groups of crocodiles she had never studied before. During her four-week Smithsonian fellowship last March, she toured three natural-history museums in the United States in search of ancient specimens she could compare against the Utah crocodile.
“It’s kind of suffocating to have so little time and begin from zero,” she says. But she thinks her endeavour will pay off. Having studied all kinds of prehistoric crocodiles will be of help when she starts her doctorate degree elsewhere, in North America or Germany. “I’ll know everything from all around the world,” she says, and bursts out laughing.
Out of the ash
Early in the morning after the fire, while an avalanche of reporters interviewed her colleagues, UFRJ astronomer Maria Elizabeth Zucolotto entered the museum’s ruins.
When she walked into the main entrance, she saw nothing but the Bendegó, a colossal 5,360-kilogram iron meteorite discovered in 1784 in northeast Brazil. The space rock had been barely licked by the flames: “A symbol of resistance,” says Zucolotto, curator of the museum’s meteorite collection.
Next door, however, the heat had cremated an exhibition of other prized meteorites. Zucolotto went inside, got down on her knees and blindly ran her hands through the ashes that once were display cases. By touch, she found some smaller meteorites, grabbed them and filled her arms with them. But the firefighters didn’t let her stay long. Plaster was still falling from above.
Those fragments from space were among the first objects to be recovered from the National Museum.
On 18 October, more than a month later, the police allowed Zucolotto to return to her old office. Twisted iron beams and cabinets from the upper floors had crashed into the room. That day, she rescued more meteorites, including one called Angra dos Reis, which is valued at $750,000. It was the second time she had recovered the same rock. The first time was in 1997, after police had seized it from two US dealers who had stolen it from the National Museum and replaced it with a fake.
Zucolotto isn’t the only one sifting through the wreckage. On most days, dozens of trained researchers, armed with brushes and trowels, go through the museum’s debris in search of artefacts. Stationed outside, students sieve the dirt through mesh screens, then clean dusty items and photograph them.
“Incredible as it may seem, we’ve had many happy moments,” says palaeontologist Luciana Carvalho, co-coordinator of the team of nearly 70 people. By the end of June, they had recovered 5,345 objects — pterosaur fossils, ancient human bones, coffee mugs, microscopes, full specimen drawers, Egyptian relics and ceramics from the Amazon.
The effort has taken a physical and emotional toll, says Zucolotto. Some days, she hopes the government will rebuild the museum quickly so she can go back, but she also thinks about retiring and finding a successor to care for the surviving meteorites. In the past few months, she has found joy in adopting a bearded grey dog that had emerged hungry and cheerful around the museum in the days following the fire. “He loves me so much,” she says. “I can’t get rid of him.” Researchers named him Fumaça, or Smoke.
A fire foretold
The accident last September is only the latest in a long line of fires that have plagued scientific institutions in Brazil. In May 2010, an inferno destroyed the zoological collection of the Butantan Institute in São Paulo — a research powerhouse responsible for most of the venom antisera and vaccines produced in the country. The centre held the largest repository of snakes that Latin America had ever seen, about 90,000 specimens, representing hundreds of species, some endangered or extinct.
“Most of that is now gone,” says Miguel Trefaut Rodrigues, a herpetologist at the University of São Paulo who worked at Butantan as a wide-eyed 16-year-old trainee in the 1970s. Although Butantan constructed a new building with fire-prevention systems three years later, the institution never fully recovered. Today, its snake bank houses only 24,000 specimens.
When that institute burnt down, Trefaut Rodrigues and a colleague published a column in a national newspaper warning that something like this could happen again because of the poor state of many of the country’s museum buildings. “May this tragedy serve as a lesson,” they wrote. They begged the government to take care of other biological facilities, and then listed the ones they thought were most at risk — including the National Museum.
One cause for concern in the future is the Museum of Zoology of the University of São Paulo (MZUSP) and its 10 million specimens. In the early 2000s, when Trefaut Rodrigues was about to step down as the museum’s director, he pushed to transfer the collections from the 1940s-era building into a larger, more modern complex. The project was approved, and construction began in 2012, but the economic crisis in 2014 halted work. Today, the new venue exists only as a concrete skeleton.
“The university budget now is not enough to finish that thing by any means,” says ichthyologist Mario de Pinna, the MZUSP’s current director. Still, the museum is taking measures big and small to minimize the danger — from placing heat detectors in all its collections to confiscating coffee machines that represent a risk. “I think we’re doing well,” says Pinna. “Of course, you know, shit happens. Let’s hope it doesn’t happen here.”
The National Museum had been on a downward spiral for decades, according to museum staff. Critics say that the government ignored many requests over the years to renovate and modernize the facilities. And the financial troubles have only grown. The university’s budget, one of the main sources of funding for the museum, has shrunk significantly — from 487 million reais (US$130 million) in 2014, adjusted for inflation, to 361 million reais in 2019. According to the UFRJ, the National Museum was not given enough funds to preserve its collections (see ‘Missing money’). “It’s not for lack of asking,” says Zamudio. “This is the federal government failing science again. They don’t want to invest the money. The money, even if it gets appropriated, ends up not reaching the place it should be reaching.”
Applications are now open for the 2019-20 ICOM UK – British Council Travel Grant Scheme.
ICOM UK, with support from the British Council, is pleased to offer travel grants to support UK organisations seeking to build reciprocally beneficial international projects and partnerships.
The 2019-20 ICOM UK – British Council Travel Grant Scheme will enable recipients to undertake an international visit to meet with colleagues and share skills, expertise and experience. The Travel Grant Scheme supports museums who are starting to develop mutually beneficial international projects and partnerships.
Applications will be considered for grants up to £1,500 per organisation or consortium for visits beyond greater Europe and up to £700 for visits within greater Europe. The total amount of funding available for 2019-20 is £28,500.
The grant will cover the cost of travel, including international and local transport, visas, accommodation and subsistence.
With well over a billion users, WeChat is an app that you may never have heard of. This is because by far the majority of its monthly subscribers are Chinese although it is certainly popular in many other locations around the world, too.
Given its popularity you may wonder what sort of opportunity this platform affords. For museums WeChat is a chance to promote and to explain what they are all about to a huge audience.
In other words, it has the potential to be one of the most powerful marketing tools that museums, galleries – and many global businesses – are now looking to exploit.
However, before we look into the specifics that will be of interest to professionals in the museum sector, it is probably best to define exactly what WeChat is – something that is easier said than done.
What on Earth Is WeChat?
As mentioned, WeChat is an app designed for smartphones and tablets. In this regard, it is nothing extraordinary. However, to western audiences especially, WeChat is something out of the ordinary.
Essentially, this is because it is a combination of a messaging system, like WhatsApp, as well as being an in-depth social media platform, such as Facebook.
In fact, many technology sites will refer to WeChat as the Chinese version of Facebook and WhatsApp rolled into one but this is to do it a disservice because it is so much more besides.
WeChat is a super app that has the ability to connect with and act as an umbrella app for at least 85,000 other apps. In this, the app seems more like an operating system than a front-end piece of software. For some users, it is the only app they ever use because any other program they utilise is seen through the medium of WeChat.
Yes, WeChat is a messaging instant messaging service and an email service but it also allows users to share information about what they have been doing publicly, more like a Facebook page, for example. There again, it also operates like Flickr or Tumblr where visual self-expression is the order of the day.
Thousands of photos are shared on WeChat every day which means it also inhabits the same sort of online territory that Instagram does in the west.
Launched in 2011, WeChat has built on its initial success with social media profiles and added to its core services. These days, its so-called ‘Moments’ service allows users to share music, to like articles posted on the web and post images. Crucially, Moments carries advertising with it but WeChat limits exposure to a modest two adverts per user per day.
In 2015, WeChat launched its ‘City Services’ function. Initially rolled out in China only, this service allowed people to engage with a huge number of external services via their smart devices, such as booking an appointment with a local doctor or even the ability to settle their utility bills.
Like Apple’s Pay service, WeChat can also be used to transfer credit from a smart device to a payment terminal.
Finally, it is worth mentioning that some of the latest functions added to WeChat include the ability to make voice calls through it, making use of Wi-Fi signals rather than conventional GSM ones that mobile telephones usually use.
It now has its own news feed service and is working towards an augmented reality platform which will place WeChat at the forefront of this emerging technology. In short, WeChat has many irons in the fire and has more to come.
WeChat and Its Marketing Potential
For museums WeChat’s potential cannot be underestimated. Yes, it is primarily aimed at Mandarin speakers and most of it is set up in that language. Nevertheless, WeChat also launched an English version in 2015 which may not have all of the functionality of the Chinese one but which, nevertheless, is growing steadily in terms of monthly users.
That said, marketing professionals – whether they work in the museum sector or not – primarily harness WeChat to reach a Chinese audience. Of course, nearly all of the subscribers WeChat has are located in the People’s Republic. Nevertheless, a sizeable minority reside elsewhere in the world.
Currently, WeChat can boast 1.09 billion users. That is a truly astonishing figure so the outreach potential is unlike any other platform. However, marketing professionals should note that in the region of 70 million of this vast number of subscribers are people who live outside of China’s borders, many of the Mandarin speakers. As well as the English language version, WeChat offers services in around 20 or so other languages, an obvious attempt to grow its number of users even more.
As such, if museums think that their use of social media marketing only needs to extend to a Facebook page and a few tweets per month, then they are surely missing out on one of the largest potential markets in the world in the form of WeChat.
How to Market a Museum on WeChat
WeChat provides three different methods for marketing professionals to make use of. Firstly, you can go for a subscription account which would not be dissimilar from maintaining a Facebook page. It allows subscribers to find your museum account and to like or follow you.
With an entry-level subscription account, you can reach all of your subscribers with a straightforward marketing message, such as announcing the launch of a temporary exhibition, for example.
That said, this model allows you to make such a ‘broadcast’ message only once per day. It is the best way to dip your toe in the water of what WeChat can offer museum marketing teams and to learn about its potential.
Secondly, WeChat allows for so-called service accounts. With this service, you are able to send more messages to your followers. In addition, you are able to set up some commercial services, such as the ability to sell tickets, for example.
The third model, enterprise accounts, is reserved for Chinese businesses only but the time may come when this is also made available in the west.
Whichever service you opt for, WeChat offers an automated customer service response system that you can take advantage of. This means that if someone reaches out to your museum with a question or a query via WeChat that their response will be generated by WeChat itself.
For example, if someone wanted to ask about opening hours, then WeChat could provide the answer without you having to devote any human resources to translating or responding yourself. Obviously, WeChat charges for this service.
Advertising on WeChat
Just like any organisation which wants to promote itself to a Chinese audience, museums and galleries can use straightforward advertising campaigns to raise awareness on WeChat.
For some museums WeChat’s advertising platform may be all they require to increase knowledge about their establishment and thereby augment visitor numbers from Chinese tourists.
To advertise on WeChat, you have to have one of the aforementioned accounts. In order for western museums to advertise on WeChat, an approved agent in China will need to manage the campaign for you – this is a one-party state we are talking about, after all.
That said, it is relatively easy to start a banner advertising campaign or to see sponsored articles published on various WeChat pages that will hone in on your preferred demographic target group.
This could be WeChat users that are within a certain age range, for example, but you could equally have your ads and content targeted on WeChat subscribers who have an interest in the arts, history or western culture.
Some Museum Case Studies That Demonstrate the Power of WeChat
So far, we have looked at the marketing potential of WeChat for museums but the question that many in the museum sector will be asking themselves is whether or not it is really worth the effort of investing in the platform. To some extent this will depend on whether the museum is already attracting Chinese visitors.
However several museums are finding success with WeChat.
The Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam was one of the first European museums to explore the possibilities of WeChat. The museum benefited from a Chinese staff member who was put in charge of setting up the establishment’s WeChat account, something that contributed to a significant rise in the number of Chinese visitors over the course of the 24 months that followed.
The Rijksmuseum ended up developing its own free app which included a Mandarin version as a result. This was designed to assist Chinese people to plan their trip to the museum as well as get more out of it when they were there.
The strategy may have begun with WeChat, but it ended up with a full blown Mandarin audio tour to Chinese visitors to take advantage of once they arrived at the museum.
The Museum of Modern Art in New York has enjoyed a great level of recognition among Chinese tourists for years. In 2016, it was listed as one of the most popular places to visit in the city by the Chinese travel website Mafengwo, for example.
To boost its brand even further, MoMA now makes extensive use of its WeChat account, as well as and Weibo, the popular Chinese blogging site. Typically, the gallery shares videos about its collection plus behind-the-scenes content that could be followed with few, if any, language barriers.
The marketing team at MoMA frequently posts interactive content, too, and will think of special campaigns that coincide with Chinese holidays, such as Golden Week and Chinese New Year, for example.
The strategy has proved to be so successful, with MoMA picking up hundreds of thousands of online followers, that its sister museum, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, is following exactly the same approach with its Chinese-focussed marketing activities.
In Australia, a popular tourist destination for many Chinese overseas travellers, the country is often billed as a place of natural wonder rather than one for a genuinely cultural experience. A number of museums in the country are starting to alter perceptions, however, principally by harnessing WeChat to market themselves.
A good case in point is the National Gallery of Victoria in Melbourne. Here, the powers that be decided to really go for it with their WeChat strategy.
The NGV decided to focus its attention on younger travellers, the tech-savvy generation who might be tempted to spend time on their own in the museum rather than the older, organised group trip type of visitor. The public relations strategy paid off because the NGV found that visitor numbers from both demographic groups rose.
Clearly, the campaign was as successful with independent travellers as it was with those people organising tours in China for Chinese people!
As a result of their WeChat marketing activities, the NGV has risen to become one of the most-visited museums in the world in terms of Chinese attendees.
Only the British Museum in London and the Louvre in Paris have a similar number of views and likes on WeChat. With every passing temporary exhibition at the NGV, such as the hugely popular Vincent Van Gogh one in 2017, visitor numbers from China grow.
This is due, in part, to the specific marketing the NGV does on WeChat to promote these shows but also down to the increased brand awareness that comes from regular posting.
China has a huge population which is increasingly enjoying foreign travel and is, therefore, a huge market for western museums to tap into even before you consider the Mandarin-speaking diaspora in the west. Few platforms offer the level of outreach to Chinese people that WeChat does.
Used judiciously, it can raise awareness, build interest and contribute to visitor numbers, especially when locally held content, such as certain pages on your own website, are available in Mandarin and are linked to from WeChat posts.
Few other apps offer such potential to the museum sector today.