Just in case you were wondering – no, we didn’t win anything. But that wasn’t surprising. The stage was full of extraordinary and very deserving winners. The lady from the Vukovar museum, who had spent 32 years of her life working to rebuild and renew the museum, decimated in the war. The Whitworth, for years of extraordinary community care and brilliantly imaginative engagement, and POLIN, the Polish museum commemorating the lives of Polish Jews, built on a the ravaged site of this thriving community, among many others.
But I feel like I won just by being in the room with these museums. The levels of care were extraordinary: of common endeavour, of ethical engagement and a sure and certain knowledge that art, culture and museums lead the way in building the future for Europe. Even as we were leaving, the talk was all about what more we could do, what more front-line social care museums might be able to offer. How to be stronger and make more of a difference in people’s lives. The insular attitudes of Brexit meant that the English were often apologising in a roomful of Europeans, making sure people knew this party didn’t stand for everyone (it’s just that everyone knows that one of the children in this family is behaving poorly).
The delightful Italians from the Baths of Diocletian in Rome said to me, “we deal in objects, you deal in people”. I was immensely gratified by this, and it has stuck with me. But I return again and again to objects over this weekend – the shortlisted museums are each allowed to bring one object, and while some are mundane and some even boring (often the originals have to stay in the museum, so a small paper copy or a pamphlet is offered in place of a treasured painting), some have extraordinary power, the unmistakable aura of the thing itself. There is a palpable gasp when the Polish European Centre for Solidarity brings out an original printing press and Solidarnosc print frame. I can still feel my shudder as the years reverberated through my body.
I have returned to Walther Benjamin’s essay a lot in the weeks leading up to this to help me understand the offer of Museum of Water, to help me define for myself why and how it works. The duality of being both live artwork and museum gives Museum of Water an immense creative force. These are 729 creative acts; these bottles are both the residue from each journey and new artistic creation. Both documenting artefact and original artwork. There are many sustaining dualities and dialogues in the Museum: it deals in absence and presence, invention and reiteration. Each bottle is rare and common, priceless and free, unique and identical, irreplaceable and dematerialising before your eyes.
How do you measure success? Museums over these 2 days have tried various means… Visitor numbers, quality of experience, endeavour, kindness, passion, diversity of engagement, visitor quotes (the Whitworth had a lovely one from a girl who said, “the Whitworth is where you go to be wonderful”). I am very proud of all our work at the Museum, I think it is an extraordinary thing, made extraordinary by all the people who have given to it, as well as those who have worked on it. Perhaps we are the only Museum who has had 3 poems written about it… This was one of my favourite visitor comments: “It is hard to think of an exhibition that allows anyone and everyone such direct involvement, that grows with every little tributary and can present itself in so many different ways.
Like its subject, there is nothing static about this museum; it is a moving (in every sense) illumination of what it is to be human. We are, of course, mostly water, and perhaps that’s where our ties to each other – our humanity – reside.”
Museum of Water is itinerant, and I have come to understand this as one of our greatest qualities. We travel because because we understand that not everyone else can, and we wouldn’t want to miss an opportunity to hear a different voice. There are barriers to stepping inside museums that are not just ones of access and ability. You need a little sense of entitlement to cross a threshold sometimes, and some people just don’t feel they can or want to do this. So we go to street corners, busy market squares, shopping malls, river banks and canal towpaths.
On the way home I read a quote from Leibniz, who talks about the “commerce de lumiere”, the correspondence of civilisations as knowledge gets passed between nations and around the world. I feel strongly that this is what I have been part of this weekend, and I feel all the more hopeful for it. I think museums are in good hands.
The Museum of Water has been nominated for European Museum of the Year, an extraordinary honour and achievement for all of us who have been working on the Museum with such care and effort over the last 3 years. The European Museum Forum have invited us to San Sebastián to talk about the Museum’s work. But it is an expensive opportunity, and I am desperately thankful to a-n artist network for the chance to come and represent the Museum on this pan-European platform.
And it is extraordinary being here, sitting in a room of 200 people from all over Europe, 200 people who are spending their days and years in marvellous endeavour, treasuring people and objects, memories, heritage and lives, to the very highest standards and best of their abilities. It is wonderful. It is humbling too, especially when museums take the stage like Gallery 11/07/95, which remembers the genocide in Sarajevo, the wonderful European Solidarity Museum in Gdansk or POLIN, the deeply beautiful Museum of the History of Polish Jews.
As barriers in Europe are being fortified, and our coalition feels more vulnerable than it has for many years, it feels very true that the best way to make long lasting links and connections is through the sharing of art and culture. This is how we share and understand each other, while politicians and economists wrangle and fight for rights, land and money.
Every museum has been given 10 minutes to talk and answer questions on their work, and it is surprising how much of a flavour of a place and its professionals you can get from that. There is much talk of service to the community, access, cultural expression, ethical care, new needs, infinite creations.
The prizes, they tell us, have been decided weeks ago, so the talks were only for fun, between professionals. I rather wished they had communicated this detail a little more clearly, after a few weeks of tension… However the atmosphere throughout has been glorious, kind, attentive, thoughtful and mutually supportive.
Tonight there is a gala dinner, where the prizes will be handed out. I don’t think there’s any chance we will win the big prize, which should go to POLIN or The Glorious Whitworth for the wonderful work they have done, but whatever happens, it has been brilliant to see Museum of Water share this stage. I had hoped for recognition for the extraordinary work the museum does, and to share some of the experience we have had with these European experts. An unexpected side effect has been the confidence this platform has given me. Museum of Water has held its own in this company, and more than that, many people have come up to me and told us how affected they were by our work, and how much it has to teach them. This is no small feat, amongst the very best in Europe.
Since arriving in Spain, it has rarely stopped raining. I am hoping this a good omen.