Thanks to the international community to pay attention to the plight of the museums and cultural institutions in Venezuela. For those who are English speakers we decided to translate this paper by Graciela Pantin to offer a broader picture of what happens in our country. Thanks for the support.
FUNDACIÓN JOSE IGNACIO CABRUJAS
FORUM AT THE ATENEO DE CARACAS
MUSEUMS TODAY. APERTURE OR CRISIS
Since the early 70´s the Venezuelan cultural system experienced an interesting development. It took more than twenty years of agreements and disagreements, to achieve and consolidate the process of making laws, creating institutions, developing projects and programs for this to succeed. Thanks to this efforts Venezuela experienced a significant audience development, consolidated networks for promoting and funding creativity, preservation, and conservation of our heritage and culture. And, on top of it, creating and funding important museum institutions.
Today we can say that Venezuela became, despite the short history of this effort, an important international reference: the state´s support for its institutions was instrumental for this cultural development; the institutions became well known for their plurality and the value of their cultural programs.
Museums, a fundamental component of any cultural and social system, and our issue at hand, held a steady growth increasing and updating their collections, spreading a vast exhibitions programs, innovative installations extensive publications and documentation, educational activities, intensive training programs and extensive communities and inter sectorial relations. Above all, Museums obtained an independent legal figure (Fundación de Estado) that allowed them to have the necessary administrative and jurisdictional autonomy to manage its resources and to obtain external funding, and artistic freedom adapted to our national reality. We became an example to the world, a case of emulation.
In Venezuela between the late ’70 and early `00, to visit a museum was not only an everyday activity, but a festive one.
As museums work with knowledge, they´ve the need to be updated, to have access to the latest achievements in the international cultural scene, the new communication media and new technological advances in the area of conservation, restoration, documentation an enrichment of their collections. They need also to keep an extensive and plural frame of references, museums need to be updated with the art scene, if they´re to fulfill their mission. Otherwise it would mean going backwards, which means death to any cultural institution.
CURRENT STATE OF AFFAIRES
It´s obvious the deterioration suffered by Venezuelan museums during the last decade. This situation has had a deep impact on our cultural live. The administration of our cultural institutions is now officially centralized so the presence of the museums in the social scheme has been undermined. There is no artistic and academic autonomy and every museum in the country is subjected to the political/ideological premises imposed by the government. Museums, have been deprived of its role, isolated, impoverished in the large sense of this word. They have lost contact with our local communities and contemporary reality and with the international arena.
The consequences of these deplorable policies can be easily pointed out: reduction of budgets, abandon of collections, no attention to the professional staff, none maintenance of the constructions and installations, and worst of all the prevalence of ideological criteria over artistic criteria.
All of this has driven the museums away from the natural functions that they should perform, severely weakening its power to express to the people their cultural values.
This is reducing the impact of art in the society and the social functions of the services that the museum provides. In other words, this means that the quality in our museums has been diminished.
Museums are prevented to fulfill its mission not only as an art center; buy also is functions as an educative and research institution.
Actually our museums works without enough resources and with no planning, all of the events are mostly improvised depending on the governmental party priorities.
This stagnation has caused suffering in the facilities of this sector not only in terms of collecting and audience development but in maintenance measures. Staff and installations alike have virtually no technical or financial support. It also affects the international relations of our institutions, isolating them from any interchange or supporting programs from abroad.
In 2005 the government of Hugo Chávez made the decision to create a National Foundation of Museums (Fundación Museos Nacionales). Ever since, every museum became subordinate to this newly created umbrella figure, a super structure that assumed the programming, collecting, educational and community programs of all Venezuelan museums, including their administration and management. This new institutional arrangement not only devastated their creative and necessary artistic freedom, their financial autonomy, but also ended their corporative graphic identity, erasing their logos and submitting all to a unique visual image.
The last straw, in what appears to be an action to disappear every cultural trace in our country is the announced normative declared by the Minister of Culture Farruco Sesto a few week ago, that all museums collections, the whole Venezuelan visual patrimony (that belongs to the state) would be deposit in one storage location. This meant the museums will be deprived of their collections, and that they all will be placed in a warehouse.
It is of no use now to detail how this decision will affect our artistic patrimony, in terms of conservation, investigation, documentation, registration, preservation and security wise.
This horrendous situation caused the alarm and caused important reactions not only from the cultural world, but form the public and specialists at large.
Letters and public manifestoes started to circulate. The Minister kept silence, but so far, there has been not a denial of his original purpose.
This unseen official proposition goes against every principle regarding art conservation, custody or safeguarding nationally or internationally speaking. It does not only attempt against the concept of a museum, it exposes our whole heritage to grave risks regarding its custody, increasing the difficulty to work on them and breaking any standard rule concerning their maintenance.
Venezuela requires and demands that its cultural heritage should be safeguarded in and by, the national museums. Art works and ethnological pieces should be kept under their responsibilities. Should be storage in specialized institutional spaces, submitted under the international ICOM codes and with all security measures. Each museum should be equipped not only with the specialized professional but also with the technical facilities, proper to every, and different collections.
They should be allocated with the required resources to support the necessary conditions for their conservation, research and promotion mandatory for this kind of patrimony.
Today we ratify our discontent and upset with this circumstance.
We expect the very best of our museums: they should keep on being the pride of the past generations and of the ones that are yet to come. The institutional dignity that they need should be handed back to them, along with their autonomy, support and aid in order that everything will function properly.
Their staff should be respected, stimulating their professional development and fortifying their experience and personal stability with fair remuneration.
As social organic institutions, museums should be guaranteed their permanent growth. This premise is essential for the construction of any society, for their education and for the wellbeing of any citizen. They should be recognized as bastions of our cultural identity, diversity and plurality.
Let´s review some data that describes the situation that is seriously threatening our museums and cultural life at large, which could lead to their ruin:
*ABOUT THE BUDGET:
-As of now, budgets are assigned by high level government officials, so they´re not planned or worked from within the institution, this means that their needs are not taken into account, programs are imposed. Their performing becomes rigid and nonfunctional.
Budged amounts are meager and cultural institutions are forbidden to find and incorporate any alternative ways of financial support. (Other government institutions included, private financing is adamantly prohibited). Paradoxically, the government demands results of the cultural institution in question; but any director, manager or curator would come to the conclusion that this is an impossible task without proper funds.
If there is a case of an internal activity that generates revenue, such as material sold or subscriptions to workshops, etc, the revenue is centralized. This means that the profits from these activities which could be used for improvements on its institution, is taken by the Fundación Museos Nacionales with no refunds at all.
*ABOUT THE STAFF:
-The government officials have constantly claimed that the budget for manpower and human resources in all cultural institutions has been increased about five times since their take over. This is not the case. The professional honoraria, wages, salaries or benefits for the museum staff and workers, have suffered important reductions. Steady Jobs have been lost and the poor remuneration of professionals has caused an exodus so most workers are temporary recruits; since they only fulfill temporal contracts this impedes ongoing formation, institutional identification and corporative ‘sprit de corp’; promoting detachment and indifference in the workers: they come and go. Employees’ can´t get promotions and in most cases the selection of the staff is arbitrary with no accreditations.
Some professionals in the search for more stimulating challenges apply for a transfer between institutions hoping for a promotion but it almost always ends in a heavier burden and more responsibilities for basically the same pay. Emergencies have surpassed the important things in the cultural system because lack of planning and very limited resources, no only financial, but technical and professional. Those committed with the cultural cause can barely achieve anything, always forced to work under pressure given the urgency of the situation.
The last time that there was a rise in the worker´s wages in this sector was about four years ago; benefits are likely to disappear (bonus tickets, valued at around 500 Bolívares a month or 117 dollars approximately). Directors earn 2.500 Bs (582 dollars depending on the grade of the institution), 1.660 Bs (387 dollars), 1.400 Bs (326 dollars) or even 800 Bs (187 dollars). Ghost museums have been created and their managers have higher salaries than those in the recognized institutions.
*ABOUT THE PLANNING AND THE PRODUCTION OF SUPPORT MATERIAL:
-Exhibitions are planned without schedule and are rushed without the necessary prior research, documentation or any backup plan that a museum needs in order to fulfill its educational mission. It affects directly the quality of cultural objectives a museum has. Four years ago it was indefinitely suspended the production and publication of exhibitions catalogs and brochures, eliminating every possible way of preserving the legacy of our museums in the memory of our society (It can´t be published digitally neither, there´s no money or TIC’s access). Work with and for the community is reduced to the minimum, events are made but those who do make the effort are voluntaries, willing to work for free.
*COLLECTION STORAGE, MOVEMENT, RESTORATION AND INSURANCE:
- Any crew of maintenance and registration that works with art and culture has a delicate task on their shoulders. This job is not an easy one. There have to keep up to regulations on the subject regarding climatic conditions, temperature, and humidity, besides manipulation strategies, that are to be fulfilled requiring adequate funds. Many of the deposit areas in our museums have walls that are cracked or leaking, besides there are no temperature or humidity regulators. When it rains, workers have to run and remove art works, exposing them to additional risks.
Some buildings haven´t been fumigated in years. And, with the new mandatory norm that obliges museums to open from Sunday to Sunday, there´s not one day left for maintenance. There are no restoration workshops and we don´t know if works of art have being insured before they are moved. When they have to exhibit elsewhere, what sometimes happens is that the responsible curator of the artwork does not travel with it.
*ACCESS AND USE OF DIGITAL TECHNOLOGY:
-The concept of the museum has not changed, it only has evolved. Today they have to be vibrant institutions, dynamically strong, generating and producing knowledge within the new ways of interacting with society. Ibermuseos in its document of 2007 qualifies cultural institutions as "pillars for strengthening the community to which they belong, they are supporters of education and training, encouragement and respect for cultural diversity and promote social cohesion." In this area it is impossible for a museum to resist the importance of joining the era of new information and communication.
Internet makes it possible for people to open the doors to the all world but in our terms it makes the interaction between the public, works and artists, possible. The museums can be open and available not only to the local but to the universal community. Not taking advantage of this means signifies a loss of opportunities to access new audiences. With this tool museums can fulfill many of the challenges institutions are facing now days: participation, contextualization and democratization. A new audience architecture is being constructed that will allow the public to move towards more personal and interactive experiences.
Our museums in Venezuela are missing it.
The new technologies of information and communication need to function, not only to promote the institutions or their libraries, collections and publications, to announce events and schedules or to facilitate its internal functions. It is adding content to the web sites. It has to be used to incorporate visual and audio innovation, which allows, encourages and fosters the creation and recreation of the contents from museum pieces, (Example: Brooklyn Museum , Madrid’s Prado, Tate in London) integrating sound, image, writing and even the user's actions as an important part of the application.
Evaluating the current state of our national museums in regard to the access and usability of these alternatives, it is easy to see the huge gap between what is and what should be. To perform these functions it is required to support museums, because not growing in this area means, as we said before, going backwards.
Currently, none of our museums not even have its own web site. There is only one page (http://www.fmn.gob.ve, of the Fundación Museos Nacionales) which seeks to unite museum standards, as we have said, putting partial, inaccurate and confusing information. All content is subjected to pass so many filters and consistent approvals, so when you close the page, it is already outdated. Not all museums have access to Internet, much less intranet, and their gear is not adapted to the latest technologies. Some computers, etc, were purchased in 2008 but only for the use of a small group in the ministry. Rarely printers have ink and copy machines have damaged because of lack of maintenance.
-This brief description of the crisis affecting our Venezuelan museums today, not only faces us with what we lost but reminds us that we are decades behind the advances, advantages and facilities available to any modern museum in the world. We will continue to fight to achieve the revitalization of museums and cultural institutions; for the recovery of their collections, physical spaces, autonomy, documentary, economic, administrative, and staff resources required to fulfill its delicate socio-cultural and educational mission.
It is necessary to raise awareness, to inform our nation and the world on this very serious issue affecting our national museums, so we can begin to make decisions and actions that allow them to resume its institutional space in our cultural life.
If the contemporary museum is lost, citizens lose opportunities.
The current cultural authorities have not only acted against the museum, but have fallen into very serious omissions. To not achieve results is decreasing, to reject innovation results in isolation; museums will become dilapidated abandoned mausoleums if the actual cultural authorities of Venezuela keep this up. And, as a known Uruguayan leader said: “The Bridge between today and tomorrow will be long and difficult to cross. It requires sacrifices and efforts, but we owe it to our sons and grandsons”.
There is no greater challenge before us.
Caracas, Junio 10, 2010.