Tomorrow's museums

Sharon Heal, 20.06.2016
How museums in Brazil are engaging with contemporary issues
I recently got interested in futurology after being asked to write a 2025 provocation by the London College of Communications for its Forecasting Futures event.

It got me thinking about what the future might hold for museums and what we would do to adapt if we could predict what might happen.

I explored this idea when in Brazil last week to speak at a conference of museums in São Paulo. In particular I talked about the social role of museums and what an activist museum might look like.

It was a timely topic considering the current upheavals in Brazilian society; the Ministry of Culture has been dissolved and then reconstituted in the past month since the new president has been in power.

Many of the museums I visited were clear about their role in society. The brilliant Museu da Imigração (Immigration Museum) in São Paulo covers the story of the many people who have settled in Brazil historically and also raises questions about current immigration and the refugee crisis.

My visit coincided with the Festival of Immigration hosted by the museum, a fantastic and diverse celebration of food, music and culture from many nations, which made me wonder why museums in the UK don’t do this?

The museum at the Memorial da Resistência de São Paulo is housed in the former headquarters of the political police and tells the brutal story of the military dictatorship and those that resisted it – many of whom were imprisoned, tortured and murdered on the site.

The museum portrays this difficult and recent period of Brazilian history using the voices and memories of former inmates and their families. The museum deals with this sensitive subject skilfully and doesn’t shy away from raising questions about what contemporary resistance might mean also.

On the surface the Museum of Tomorrow in Rio de Janeiro looks very different to these museums. The building designed by Santiago Calatrava dominates the waterfront and looks like a monument to the future rather than a museum of the past.

It describes itself as a "museum of questions" and its futuristic interior takes visitors (over 600,000 in the first six months) on a journey to consider their impact on the planet and what they might do to help shape or change the future. I am delighted that speakers from the museum are part of our conference programme this year.

I was in Brazil as part of the British Council Transform programme, which aims to build partnerships between arts organisations in the UK and Brazil. And what it showed me was just how much we have to learn from our colleagues in Brazil.