The first Plenary meeting of the Azorean Museums and Visitable Collections Network (AMVCN) took place on the afternoon of June 1st 2018.
Nearly fifteen days before, on May 17th, the Executive Board had had its first meeting of setup, so to speak, at the Arcane House, a branch of Ribeira Grande Municipal Museum.
The Plenary was attended by the nine museums that for now form the Network: Santa Maria Museum, Carlos Machado Museum (Ponta Delgada – São Miguel), Ribeira Grande Municipal Museum (Ribeira Grande – São Miguel), Pico Museum, Francisco de Lacerda Museum (São Jorge), Horta Museum, Graciosa Museum, Angra do Heroísmo Museum and Flores Museum.
The meeting took place at Biscoitos Wine Museum facilities, belonging to Brum Farm House (a more than likely forthcoming partner), where the rules of procedure for the Plenary itself and the proposal of Vision, as a guideline for the Network action, were both approved, and future forms of action were also discussed.
Thus we have, as due and officially formed, a network of institutions and areas devoted to the preservation, valuation, knowledge, sharing and promotion of the movable heritage existing in the Azores.
Whoever has tread for years the paths of cultural heritage in the Azores will say that “this is just another network!”. However, if not even the legislation is similar (Regional Legislative Decree 25/2016/A, November 22, 2016), any resemblance with former experiences ends here. Let’s see.
Former false starts
In fact, if willing to, one can say that there were, in the Azores, two former attempts at creating what might be regarded as networks, even though none actually became such.
The first came about even before 1980 and it was mainly a control system which installed “ethnography houses” in certain islands, under the responsibility of the larger “regional” museums, located at the former district capitals. One can readily understand that this system, with such limited goals, “condemned” some islands to only display what might be considered “ethnographic” (which was, by itself, a complex debate…), while others, located in those cities, were destined to hold a more eclectic kind of exhibitions in terms of content.
The “rooms” swiftly disappeared and were replaced by “Island museums”, a solution to which a new concept was added: the museums depending upon regional administration should be thematic and comprehensive, and particular themes should be addressed by particular Islands. In Graciosa, it would be wine, in Pico, whaling, in São Jorge, cheese, and so on.
If such an understanding would enable a vision of the archipelago, opening horizons to the prospective work of each museum, it would also lead to the exclusion of significant parts of the cultural identity of the remaining eight islands, where the theme would’t be addressed. This led to a huge passive resistance, while keeping, at the same time, the universalistic eclecticism confined to three museums and the “ethnographic” regionalism thematically spread among the others.
Issues concerning identity, overall relationships, strategic position kept receiving little discussion and what I like to call the cultural geo-referencing of the Azores was either just partially approached or only addressed within the participation of the islands in great temporary exhibitions taking place outside the archipelago, to where certain really interesting pieces were then taken for months, “for a stroll”.
In the middle of all this, significantly lacked a genuine and on-going effort in the creation of a sense of group and community, whether among co-workers within the cultural and natural heritage area or among the islands themselves, towards a broader understanding. Each island continued to live upon itself and for the sake of itself, at the lack of a rapport system, operating freely and allowing two-way movements.
Furthermore, in the Azores, the endeavor to safeguard, value and promote cultural legacy remained based upon the structures belonging to regional public administration. This set aside what others were trying to achieve in municipalities, military forces, the Catholic church, for instance, and not taking into account, but rather being wary of the numerous individuals that regard heritage assets with care and interest.
Another way of looking at things
On one hand, another way of looking at things was urgent and needed, in order to create among the islands the harmony that had been lacking and to enhance within the communities and their members their role as relevant and active participants in all processes of identifying, building, reflecting, enjoying and sharing cultural and heritage values.
On the other hand, ours is a time in which plain funding has definitely disappeared, since the issues of identity and legacy, if aiming at approval within the framework of European programs, currently need to present more than the work already done, while the investment proposals have to be clear, planned and justified.
A turnkey project can no longer be presented as an end in itself, in reports. For instance, nowadays in museums and related institutions, interest doesn’t lie rooms, but in numbers, that is, in understanding to what extent things and individuals become different because of the events that take place in those rooms.
That is why, in 2015, a survey was carried out in order to reveal within the areas, groups and individuals dedicated, in various ways, to cultural and heritage values, how many, who and where were they as well as which underlying dynamics operated among them.
A reflection of that work is the vision of the Azores described in the 2020 Operational Plan as:
A distinctive landscape, environment and lifestyle supported by qualified urban areas, a not only differentiated but also internationally acknowledged natural and cultural heritage, offering effective answers for the protection of biodiversity and ecosystems as well as for adaptation to climate change.
Much more than a whim
The Azores comprise nine islands, almost two dozen municipalities, and dozens and dozens of parishes, in turn including many, many nooks and corners.
The aforementioned survey enabled the perception that multiple public and private entities, connected to the government, municipalities, the diocese, the military forces, parish councils, folkloric groups and even private collectors gather, are interested in and store pieces and collections in places that, even though not always of the highest quality, nevertheless show a concern, an appreciation and a readiness that are noteworthy in all respects.
These are entities and people that we need to embrace and respect for their effort, their appreciation, and, why not say so, their love!
Looking back at former attempts, one realizes, on one hand, that this was after all a government and governmentalized network, where the perspective of a pyramid chain of command was very much present and, on the other hand, that this whole “world” of entities, groups and people survived by being supported here and there, in many different ways, but without a structure that would truly integrate their effort and appreciation and, at the same time, reinvigorate their potential.
Thus, what is now born is much more than a whim. This means taking as a tenet that all those entities and people need to be embraced and their effort must be valued, leading the most instituted and institutional museums to the understanding that they’re necessary but non-exclusive partners. This, in turn, prompted the broadening of the idea of network far beyond the usual limits and the traditionally involved institutions.
To the end of plain funding and the need of a new perspective, which had already increased pressure upon those who deal with cultural heritage, the recent arrival of tourism joined in, pursuing goals that are not necessarily the same and to which, not always or almost always, culture and identity issues hold minor interest.
If reality and the role of museums were already complex concerns before, they became even more so, mainly due to the pressure carried out by economy sectors associated with the visit and temporary stay of people coming from all over the world, but interested in knowing the Azores and needing and wanting open rooms, visitable collections, a lot of pieces as well as available and beautiful places to see.
That´s why this Network has a double role to play.
On one hand, to be among us the material and permanent foothold for building, reviewing discussing, visiting, analyzing – in short, for whatever it takes – the identity of the Azores, in freedom and within the community, at the clash, not only with global and immediate communication, but also with visiting groups.
On the other hand, to be an active and participant member of the relationshiop between the resident community and the visiting community, preventing that one or the other turns away feeling strange and disconnected, as well as ensuring that culture plays a key role at the heart of the economy related to tourism.
To simplify, the Network must follow three lines of action:
To ensure the support, training and skill of all those who work with or are related to movable heritage;
To ensure that objects and collections have a future and are appreciated and studied;
To ensure that residents and visitors enjoy and share that heritage, making use of it while reflecting upon their present and the building of their future.
Created and “set up”, the Network must now be promptly enlarged and bound so that, come hell or high water, it might resist and keep its organs functioning: the Plenary and the Executive Board.
An internet site is being finished and we have already received membership applications by several future partners, such as the Azores Military Museum, Lajes Airbase no. 4 Museum, the Carnival Museum, the Tobacco Museum, Biscoitos Wine Museum, the Cathedral Treasure. Some private collectors have also expressed their interest in joining us. They are all welcome.
The Executive Board will visit the areas, draw up reports, sugest directions, positively help to fulfil skill requirements and identify training needs. To help and support are key words here and always!
The Plenary will then accredit and certify those new partners among museums and collections and, above all, we’ll all try to build a collaborative spirit, through technical cooperation as well as global and virtual exhibitions, organized from Santa Maria to Corvo.
Culture is made of sharing, exchange, the deepening of knowledge and feeling. Far from taking out value from any Island, we aim at adding value to all of them and at deepening our idea of a common identity and culture.
Let me give you an example: let’s talk about Bread! How many kinds of bread, grain, bread substitutes, ovens, ways of preparing, what motives, origins, similarities with others are there beyond the horizon? If each partner, in each Island or in each Island nook, studied and told such a story, if from all that a catalog was made, an exhibition could be visited for a few months and then remained long-term available on the internet, wouldn’t that be interesting? The truth is that there are multiple ways of addressing the same question and enriching our work and that of others.
As someone I know said one day, we have to stop acting like eucalyptus. I absolutely agree. We have to stop acting like eucalyptus (which dry everything around them) or lettuces (which are all the same). A good forest is full of different greens and different species which live together and compete among themselves. As a result, such a forest resists much more and much better to any adversity.
That’s what we need, that’s the Network I want!
Text: Francisco Maduro-Dias | Coordinator of the Executive Board of the Azorean Museums and Visitable Collections Network
Photos: Cristina Brum