As a part of a series of interviews with curators and museographers, Alejandro Sordo Guzmán, our Contributing Writer in Mexico City, interviews renowned museographer Ery Cámara, one of the main specialists in the field. Their dialogue sheds light on the role of the museum in society and the importance of the public in the development of its programs. To borrow Ery’s words, “museums are unfinished institutions,” and a dialogue between audiences and these institutions must be established for them to grow and continue to adapt to our needs.
Museums in Mexico are among the strongest institutions where artistic life happens. They show all sorts of art from Mesoamerican and colonial art to modern and contemporary. Mexico City has been admired and criticized for having a great amount of museums. Ery Cámara, an authority in museology, reflects on different aspects of the museum.
Ery Cámara has been vice-director of the National Museum of Anthropology, the Museum of Popular Culture, and the Viceroyalty National Museum and member of the National Institute of Anthropology and History of the National Council for Culture and the Arts. He has organized many exhibits, both artistic and ethnographic, such as “The xoloiztcuintle in Mexican history,” “Tepito, Magical myth: pun of the time,” “Rainbow’s dances and mirrors,” “Contemporary Art of Senegal,” “Reflex Echoes,” among others. His publications include “The language that we share,” “Looking at the Xoloitzuintle,” “Africa Today, Animist Art and Senegal: Cultural Traditions of ethnic groups”, and, recently, “The Museum Franchise—An Instrument of Cultural Colonization?”. This interview could not have been possible without Alina Poulain’s technical support.
Alejandro Sordo: What is the job of a museographer?
Ery Cámara: It is the one who designs and conceives the ordered distribution of the works and the rationalization of the space in an exhibition. The museographer provides solutions that allow the enhancement of the formal qualities of the works, while making the visit more comfortable for its appreciation. With the lighting, the location, the frame or the medium that the works receive, the museographer gives the exhibition a logical sequence that guides the visitors through the discovery and enjoyment of the works and of a discourse that curatorship intertwines in this combination.
AS: Why did you choose this profession?
EC: I first studied art but later on, the museum space really intrigued me as well as the modalities of presenting art to different audiences. I was very passionate in appreciating its triumphs, and at the same time, discovering that the museum had deficiencies, distorsions and dicourses that could misinterpret a culture or trend in privileging to highlight the power of collectors. For these reasons among others, I was very interested in museology as well as curatorship, to explore the possibilities of reading a cultural heritage, different to what I had been taught during my education. I had the opportunity to work in museums with very different programs, and to that I add the experiences provided by my travels and collaborations in other countries. My close ties with the artistic community keep me alert to the different forms of appropriating space.
AS: What were the reasons for your visit and, subsequently, those that made you decide to live in our country (Mexico)?
EC: It was a cultural exchange between two countries and as a result, I came here for an education, a bachelors in restoration and a master’s in museology. At the end of my studies, a measure taken by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) imposed on my country prevented me from exercising my profession in my country (Senegal). Fortunately, an opportunity arised to work in Mexico. I started working at the INAH and then I acquired experience in different state-run and private museums; raging from art, history, popular culture, arqueology or contemporary art. With all the relations and documentation gathered during my travels, an interest emerged in teaching museography and museology to younger generations.
AS: What is the difference between museography, museology and curatorship?
EC: Museology is the science that studies the development and the organization of the museum, the interaction with the public and the conservation and documentation of the collection. It measures the impact the museum has on society. It is a science that registers the evolution of the museums, analyzing its transformations, its adaptations to political, economic and cultural realities, while at the same time searching for new resources that allow to satisfy the expectations and goals of the institution. It is the practice that allows observation, revision, the development of selfcriticism and the reformulation of what we understand to be a museum, because its function has changed throughout history.
Curatorship is but one branch of research that began with the first curators, ie, those who took care of the collections, the heritage of a palace, or a cathedral or a sanctuary. This care, this endeavor to keep them in good condition is what would subsequently bring about interpretations or research that would give sense to the content of an exhibition. To present a collection in its context, highlighting a period for its stylistic qualities of cultural property or emphasizing the different relationships that can be ascribed to a symbolic object or of other references that allow the study of a civilization, they are museographic resources that develop themselves depending on the typology of the exhibitions or museums. Curatorships is this arrangement that the researcher makes combining the documentation with the heritage to make it known to a very heterogeneous audience with diverse references. Curatorship contemplates all the cares given to a collection, its organization, conservation, investigation, documentation and divulgation of its contents through exhibitions, catalogues, publications or the new media that technology provides us with. Today, attending to the needs of different audiences, the curatorial activity extends to an ample museo-pedagogical program: round tables, debates, workshops and other complementary activities to the exhibitions.
AS: What is the criteria for defining the order of the works?
EC: Each exhibition requires a different treatment, depending on its content, the space where it will be presented and the type of audience expected to visit it. There are times where we are given the freedom as museographers, since we know the space, to distribute the works so that they can be appreciated individually or as a whole, highlighting its aesthetic qualities and generating spaces of circulation and rest, inviting visitors to an exchange of sensory stimuli that incites their interests.
In general, according to the subject, it could be a chronology or simply the relationships shared between works with different characteristics in group shows, or simply the work of a particular artist, in any case, we always collaborate with the artist. We also work with the curators and the designers to plan the needs of the exhibition. Recently we had in San Ildefonso an exhibition of works from the British sculptor Antony Gormley. After the artist’s earlier visit to San Ildefonso, his studio developed the plan for the exhibition, in the designated halls. Then it turns out that when the artist came back to install the show, he realized that the proposal didn’t fit with what he wanted; an integration or a dialogue with the building. With this surprise just 10 days before the opening, we quickly reacted by examining the building, selecting points where his work achieved this relationship with architecture, with the passage of light, with the patios, with the halls, with the passage of the visitor that walks through San Ildefonso. For him, a need for information about his work process wasn’t a priority, but that the visitors, taking as a starting point the encounter with the work of art, could have an aesthetic experience that liberates their creativity and understanding of his sculptures.
AS: Antony Gormley… Problems
EC: We overcame them all thanks to his availability to assume the challenges that these required changes meant faced with the short amount of time we had before the opening. We worked comfortably with him because he dedicated all of his time in raising the quality of the works presented. Contemporary artists can be very unpredictable in their way of provoking an encounter with their work, however, they are catalysts for significant changes in exhibition spaces.
AS: Do you have some recommendations for improving the aesthetic experience of the audience in museums and galleries?
EC: For any visitor to the museum, my suggestion is to go with confidence in yourself. The aesthetic experience stems from the relationship that we enter with the works. Many times there are works that question us, that attract us and seduce us. They are very valuable moments where spontaneity, references, novelty or intelectual curiosity, sensibility and imagination fuse with the work of art. Reading the cards that researchers provide us with allows us to extend or refute the interpretation of the object. Exhibitions don’t pretend to be the absolute truth, they are quite simply proposals among many others that allow visitors the freedom to critically view all cultural proposals. On the other hand, the public should give their opinion on what they see in museums and galleries to strengthen the professional exercise.
AS: How do you think museums will be in 10 years?
EC: I believe that in art it’s very difficult to be a prophet. The transgression that artists make doesn’t have a fixed direction nor is it predictable. Even with the current technology, what we see in artistic proposals, in video, photograpy or other interventions, is the resurgence of resources and readings of the recent past. I see a return to drawing, painting, to a dematerialization of sculpture, etc. I feel that the field’s boundary is the imagination. Let’s be very open in accepting this expansion of the imagination and of artistic creation and be alert to new proposals which we are not accustomed to. We shouldn’t fall into the habit of stopping ourselves, creativity is constantly taking us to reformulate the artistic. What use could this have to our future or our education? In art, as in life, we breath. I prefer to wait for the wonder of what will be the art of tomorrow.
AS: How would you define Mexico in today’s contemporary art scene?
EC: Mexico as a producer has an indisputable potential. It’s really a country that has contributed to artistic language, many talents, great artists and today in contemporary art, you can find the names of many of these artists in the most important collections and also in artistic encounters, biennials, art fairs and museums where the most prominent contemporary artists coincided.
On the other hand, within the country, we also see in different states a very interesting contribution of visual artists and of various genres. The only thing I regret is the fact that Mexican society has no documents, magazines, books or monographs on these artists and the trends that characterize them. Unfortunately, in schools and educational institutions in general, absolutely nothing is taught about contemporary art. It’s very stimulating to admire the artistic expressions and the quality of works in galleries, alternative spaces or in spaces in other countires that give them an importance, or to find them in books in English, French or other languages. Art students or art history students have very little access to the documentation of the present day. We are wasting time and we will regret having to do things later on. I believe that contemporary creation is a very important heritage that you have to monitor to understand how art manifests itself today.
AS: Is there a museum whose work inspires you?
EC: There are many museums that are contributing with extensive research regarding the contemporary, I think we all complement each other. Museums are unfinished institutions in the process of perfecting themselves, their interaction with the community is the complex process that allows them to correct all of their weaknesses.
In the world there are also very dynamic alternative spaces that question audiences. It’s not about manipulating the masses of consumers with attractive mega exhibitions, but to propose exhibitions that can detonate within the visitor an intellectual curiosity, an appreciation or a concern that allows them to demand more from these instructions. If we teach our audiences to demand quality, this same quality will increase for everyone’s benefit.
AS: What type of work would you put in your living room?
EC: A work that sparks interest and curiosity, which often times we may not like, but that at least indicates a radical and transcendent change in the visual arts. A work that truly opens a debate at an aesthetic level, at the level of concepts as well; a catalyst of new attitudes towards what we consider art. I believe that the works could be ancient, classical, modern or contemporary, the important thing is that they have something that has never been seen before, and that allows us to perceive a feeling of overcoming. I don’t advocate a style, or a genre, but regardless of where it comes from, what should distinguish the artistic work is its instrinsic qualities.
Interview by Alejandro Sordo Guzmán
Introduction & translation by Carla Acevedo
Images by Afrotak TV, Gary L.Todd PhD, Jessica Uribe