One rabbit, noise, and wonder – the possibilities of Museater and Cultural Democracy
“(…) because he who understands nothing, just as he doubts nothing, does not seek to know what does not doubt, and in this way, remains ignorant because he does not know how to wonder and doubt the things he sees, from which wonder and doubts their enquiry is born, and from enquiry experience, and experience memory, and many memories, science.
Gaspar Frutoso wrote this particular reflection circa 1583-84. I read it on a museum wall amid different objects, none from his era, but all selected as part of a narrative about him.
I read this quote and was suspended by it for a few seconds. It is not only an intellectual process. These moments – if silent and invisible to others – are usually emotional. In this case, the angst of making science and the burden of doubting are described sincerely and straightforwardly. You feel the excitement of being in a strange place where you learn something new that you also recognise from other contexts. It is about a “true place” that is strange and familiar simultaneously. Standing in that museum room, you are starstruck by a man who disappeared long ago.
I remembered Julian Barnes (2016):
“What could be put up against the noise of time? Only that music which is inside ourselves – the music of our being – which is transformed by some into real music. Which, over the decades, if it is strong and true and pure enough to drown out the noise of time, is transformed into the whisper of history.”
Very closely, a bunny looked coy, almost ready to jump. She, too, is the placeholder, or a stage prop, for a funny? (scary?) story about the first rabbit to arrive to the Porto Santo island, pregnant. Her offspring found the perfect breeding ground. After a few years, rabbits were a pest in an archipelago that had only known birds, sea mammals, fish and a handful of reptiles until men arrived with their rabbits, mice and other creatures.
With the very words of a man long dead and selected objects, we are invited into the mind of a brilliant intellectual. The exhibition creates a world where we think about knowledge and ethics, method, and science.
It draws us in with objects – scenic pieces, symbols and baits – eliciting interesting thoughts and uncomfortable feelings. David Mamet (1998) muses playwriting that is especially relevant for museology and exhibition design:
“If you and I start writing that play, like scenes will suggest themselves, and we will let them work themselves out. But the play is a product of the conscious mind. It’s been overburdened by the necessity of expressing a consciously held view of the world.”
Imagine you discuss an exhibition with its creator (it is always interesting). In that case, you can understand this process, which is incredibly enticing with subjects that are ghosts and whispers, rather than bold protagonists in the mainstream culture.
Little is known about Gaspar Frutuoso’s life. We relate with what he thought through his books (editions with their own exciting story, remembering a Pérez-Reverte thriller). However, to be more precise, we engage with the consciously held view of the museologist that created this exhibition, weaving a narrative full of excitement and anecdotes.
Misinformation is not a contemporary problem, as the history of science shows us. Why do specific ideas thrive when others are forgotten? And some are ignored to be rediscovered or authored by others years, decades or centuries later.
Museums play a fundamental role in fighting ignorance and misinformation, as exhibitions such as these show us. We learn about the world (facts and figures). But the critical factor is how we understand and empathise with the process, the effort, and the frustration.
A good exhibition cannot be reduced to the display and museum texts. Using a Moby Dick quote (so appropriate when thinking about an Azorean): “It is not down on any map; true places never are.” (Melville, 1851). It’s about the true places that we find in ourselves when visiting. Where we experience and feel doubts, build memories, and understand science, ethics and aesthetics.
Visiting something implies a host. And a story always has a narrator. Projects such as DREAM engage with these different players – the host, the narrator, the subjects, the visitors – acknowledging other possibilities. The word “Museater” mixes museum and “theater”, building upon the performative action of the museum exhibition and mediator and individual engagement.
Digital mediation allows us to build upon these experiences and share them with others. I took a photo (several, in fact) of the quote and shared it with a friend in London. With the “Museater” methodology, I can create my own story of this exhibition and share my narrative, pinpointing what resonated within me.
It can be a noisy process with so many voices and themes. Still, it enables a genuinely participative process where we acknowledge different voices and perspectives, gearing up for a more diverse world.
As described by the Porto Santo Charter (2021), it can offer “open space for interaction, appropriation and promotion of cultural democracy, and in the territory of cultural creation, as culture is being created within the digital realm.”