Last month I was invited to impart a conference for the Spanish Friends of Archaeology Association in Madrid, Spain about international museum exhibitions.
The Association is a powerful group of people that have been meeting each week during almost 50 years to talk about archaeology and museum related topics. Most of the members are retired and they really enjoy attending the conferences, going on field trips and museum visits.
My idea for this conference was sharing the behind-the-scenes and the making of an international exhibition, using the Mexican case as an example, telling them how complex and long term is the work to develop this kind of project, the challenges and the rewards of having been part of the team that organized exhibitions to show Mexican history abroad.
When people visit international exhibitions it is difficult for them to imagine the hard work, long hours invested and all the people involved in deciding the topic, adjusting the focus, selecting the objects and putting together everything that is needed to finally open the exhibition.
It also requires museums to take difficult decisions: should they lend important cultural artworks for long term periods? Is it worth investing time and money to move collections far away and putting them at certain risk? This was precisely the topic that raised debate in the questions and answers time of the conference!
Part of the audience felt that there is no need to spend large amounts of money on insurance, special crating and object couriering, putting collections at the risk of damage or even of loss. Also raising the use of non-renewable energy -aircraft fuel- and contributing to pollution. People in favour of this view stated that this is more relevant in a world that can have exact copies of the original or where we can see more details and be as near as we want with mega pixel images as the ones the Google Cultural Institute has promote through the Art Project initiative.
For others in the auditorium there is no doubt that original objects play a central role in the museum setting. Why should I go to a museum if they offer me replicas? They argued in favour of the so called “aura” – something coming from the originals itself that touches us and has no replacement with non-original objects.
You can guess this was not an easy question to solve! It raised issues about museum ethics to inform visitors when they are displaying replicas, the difference between originals and copies, the possibility of whether a uninformed visitor could tell if an object is original or not, the possibilities of interacting or not with artworks depending on each case.
Our research seeks to shed light on this topic. Nowadays there is a lot of movement in the area of international exhibition touring, just take a look at 2015 Visitor figures made by The Art Newspaper, each year millions of visitors attend museums, a lot are attracted by touring exhibitions. What is the value of this practice? Museum literature and studies in the diplomatic area have emphasized their role in promoting understanding between the countries and people from different contexts? Little has been researched in the field.
We have not finished the complete analysis of data. We are working now on going through 118 interviews made with 57 visitors and 36 museum professionals from the three venues where the exhibition was shown, as well as staff from the Mexican side. So far, through our analysis we can see that international touring exhibitions enable connections at different levels:
- The exhibition promoted by the museums put their audiences close to other world cultures, in this case an antique one.
- There are connections in what the visitors actually can perceive about Aztecs and also about contemporary Mexican culture.
- In the relations it promoted locally with specific communities. For instance the impact of good government relations and business possibilities.
- Connections are present between museums professionals that worked hard to put together a show like Aztecs
Whether this can be done with or without original objects is something we haven’t arrived at a conclusion about yet.