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Published: March 1999.
Museum of the Person: a Brazilian Experience of Virtual MuseumJosé Santos Matos, Karen Worcman and Rosali Henriques, Museu da Pessoa, Brazil
We decided to write our history for ourselves, and because we believe in family and want to leave to our descendants something to be remembered. Thus, we will not pass by life ignored. Our life philosophy does not comprehend concepts such as souls, afterlife death, heavenly kingdom and the like. We think that continuity will be achieved through a new combination of the descendents genes, as it was already achieved from the ascendants. There will always be something in common in the various generations. Our descendants are our ancestral heritage. We have children and grandchildren who era our hope of immortality. Thus, for those who succeed us, there remain the records of the events of our lives and of our ideals".Neuza de Carvalho is one of the people who have been registering their stories and the stories of their families in the Museum of the Person page. When Mrs. Neuza contacted the Museum of the Person, she already had notebooks written with her history and with her family history. When she was informed about the possibilities provided by the Museum, she became a frequent member. She was enthusiastic. She gathered photos, expanded her concept about the family extension limits, which today encompasses not only their origins - hers and her husband's - but also the stories of the son-in-laws, daughter-in-laws, close friends, etc. At the age of 66, a retired teacher, Mrs. Neuza was enchanted by the possibilities of links, creating a true complex romance, where names and places lead to new facts and situations. Her stories about past uses already ad-up to about 260 pages and 200 photos. This collection is a rich panel about past uses, the Italian immigrants trajectory in São Paulo, and, especially, about the city transformations. Her activity is so intense that Mrs. Neuza, besides writing her stories almost daily (as she certainly perceives how dynamic and continuous history building is), incentives people to do the same. Today, she counts on the cooperation of children, grandchildren, and friends. And she was recently invited to integrate a group of the Museum of the Person which, trained in oral history, will also participate in the organization of interviews open to the public.
Mrs. Neuza summarizes, starting her history with the aforementioned excerpt, the human being demand which originated the creation of the Museum of the Person: the demand for eternity. In her occasional activity, Mrs. Neuza fully explores the potentials of our proposal: installs an information network which, through the Web, causes her history to be part of the social memory. Mrs. Neuza is part of the Museum of the Person's "collection" in permanent growth, an essentially virtual museum whose objects are the very people and their stories.
The Museum of the PersonThe Museum of the Person is a private institution founded in São Paulo, Brazil, in 1992. Our aim was to collect, organize and publish life stories.
Philosophically, the purpose we had in mind was to create the possibility of preserving, and turning it into an information source, the life history of each and every person. Our concept of work and method were formed as from the possibilities opened by the oral history stream led by Paul Thompson (1978), which considers oral history an instrument allowing anonymous people to become part of History. For the Museum of the Person there are no narratives with more "historic value" and/or "truthfulness" than others, even if the latter do not be compatible with certain versions of official History. It is in the junction that the various narratives can be compared, enabling the reader to absorb a multiplicity of History visions.
From the beginning we had some crucial questions to think about. The first one was about the archive we were going to create. So, we thought of how was the better way to systematize information. The second one was about how we were going to survive with this activity. Because the Museum of the Person is a private institution, we dedicate a large part of our time thinking about projects and products that might be created, thus making their existence feasible.
As for the first question, the immediate choice was the creation of a multimedia data bank, once it allows:
The second question lead us to think about several problems. First of all, it is necessary to explain that Brazil has a very unstable policy towards cultural projects, and more specifically, memory. In a country like Brazil, where the new prevails over the old and memory preservation is something almost inconceivable for the majority of the population (including there the State and the private enterprises), selling history projects sounded as selling ice-cream in Siberia. It is important to stress, however, that it has always been our proposition to work with oral history on a business basic: to prove to the market its interest, use, and fascination.
The Museum of the People tries to contemplate the various possibilities that the people lives provide for history construction. This work methodology lead us to surprising uses of the oral history resources: from company anniversary celebrations to team training for human resources areas. This work is carried out based on a broad investigation, with the use of all media available: books, almanacs, diaries, CD-ROMs, documentaries, circuit exhibitions, thematic museums.
However, although we advanced a lot in terms of collection constitution and exploitation of possible products, three questions remained unanswered during these years:
The Museum of the Person and the Web - the meeting with InternetThe first experience of the Museum of the Person in the Web followed, as we believe, a trend that we start to name "outdoor trend"; that is, to use the Web as another medium to exhibit what the Museum is, its goals, ideas, some testimonies from our collection, a list of developed projects, etc. During this period, we had a relatively small visitation, and periodically received e-mails from people congratulating us for our initiative.
In 1997, we were invited to integrate the Universo On Line site - the largest Portuguese language site, which today gathers on-line newspapers, magazines, chats, and countless other activities. This site today has about 1 million visitors a day. From then on, we made a self-evaluation, and found out that we were not using the basic potential provided by the Web: the possibility of organizing a dynamic museum whose contents can be reproduced day after day, and, more importantly, it can be reproduced by the users. Then, we decided to use the Web not only as a medium of exhibition of an existing collection but as the very form of the museum existence. The central proposal is not only to exhibit a collection of histories, but also to provide the possibility for the people to actively participate in the building of this collection.
With an average of 430 visits a day, the Museum of the Person has been attracting a varied public, which is not only composed by the standard population (young people) that use the Web. We receive about 15 histories a week, containing testimonies from old people, young people, and children.
Reflections and EvolutionsTo face our first question - increase the reference potential of our collection - we are incrementing the page, so that the users can access the data bank of the Museum of the Person.
The data bank conformation and the definition of the reference fields was started in March 1998, and is not finished yet. Our work has been to think about means of allowing the most varied references possible, and to allow references in closed fields, which basically are: witness name, date and place of birth, parents names, local of origin of parents, professional backgrounds, dates of successive immigrations and migrations, hobbies, etc. With the witnesses reference files, we will also establish a series of fields allowing references to the iconography - pictures, documents, and objects - catalogued with our witnesses. The users will be able to, for instance, select pictures per topic, local, date, etc. Simultaneously, the users can make open references, scanning the testimonies and selecting them per presence of words and/or topics.
At the same time, we will be opening possibilities of conventions with schools and professional courses at unions, aiming at using our data bank as support for subjects such as History, Portuguese, Geography, and Sociology.
To deal with our second and most important question - how to allow each and every person to be part of our collection - we created the section Write your History, through which people can send their autobiographies, or even the biography of somebody they wish to honor or to eternize. We provide the user a supporting route, but we are open to any and all history format sent (in verses or in prose). The only kind of control that we exercise is an e-mail confirmation and a copyright signature. Obviously, we do not present texts which be incompatible with the Museum's purposes, such as advertisements, pornographic texts, etc.
The histories that we have today show what kind of needs move the people to write, and display, in a surprising way, the routes we must follow to make the virtual space of the Museum of the Person more and more a part of people's quotidian lives.
Some Examples of HistoriesCurrently, our collection of histories received might be divided as follows: Autobiographies: People who, like Mrs. Neuza, already had the impetus of registering their own private histories, or like Salvador Martin Pintor - who, like Mrs. Neuza, already had his own histories in notebooks. Salvador was a metallurgical worker and wrote his histories on a school notebook. His notebooks were brought by a relative, who later caused Salvador to be amazed seeing his own picture and texts - including indexes with links - in our site.
"This notebook has many histories
Still in autobiographies, people count on a summary of their histories, almost as presentations of themselves. They leave, at the end of their pages, an e-mail for contact. In general, they are younger people, and clearly perceive the exhibition of their histories provided by the Web. It is the case of Elaine, an advertiser, born in 1974. Elaine, one of the first persons to send a text to the Museum of the Person, tells very intimate histories of her life: conflicts with her family, loss of virginity, love relations, etc. Elaine has the clear notion that she will be read. She finishes her text as follows:
"The dragonfly, even not being what it dreamed to be, continues to fulfil its mission, distributing pollen among the flowers, so that the miracle of life can happen; that is why I am here writing this book, exhibiting so many things that are complex to me, making a self-analysis. You, who are reading, must have felt somewhere in life the same wish of being perfect. But what is perfection, after all?
Most people use our space to pay homages, sending histories and photos of people who have passed away. An example:
"My grandfather, Domingos Dantas, was born in Alagoinhas, in the State of Bahia. He grew up in the interior of the State, without any comfort whatsoever.
Another interesting way of using our space is the testimony of people telling how their life histories changed when they met others. They are registrations of love:
"I will tell a fact that happened to me, nearly 2 months ago. A fact which changed my life, as thanks to it I met the woman I love.Today, our collection counts on 123 histories and 250 pictures received through our page in the Web.
For what?It is a question that we might ask ourselves. Is all that history? Should all that really be in a space named Museum?
Memory is the constitution of our continuity while group and while community. The constituted memory - either in a book or in Museums - acclaims a given segment of society, appointed as being representative of a given period. It is a consensus which is established. It is certainly an established consensus from the present towards the past, as whatever it be, the history is always written from the present towards the past.
The existence of a virtual space enabling any and all people to manifest what they consider important at the moment they write allows the manifestation of what we might call the history of quotidian, of the personal wishes and interpretations of the facts. It allows, as Bosi (1979) elucidates in her work, the common manifestation of the common wishes and expectations of people who would not necessarily be objects of studies or parts of a Museum. All is registered to be filtered and gathered in various ways by the readers.
The set of those narratives certainly forms a dynamic collection, in permanent construction. But we might still ask ourselves: for what? Maybe one of our witnesses has a more incisive answer than any of us:
"At last, for short, that was a little of my life. I hope that those who are patient enough to read it, like it. I liked, a great deal, of having lived all that, and the fact of having written it made me remember many things, and this is wonderful..."
References1. Bosi, Ecléa (1983). Memória e Sociedade: Lembrança de Velhos. São Paulo: T. A. Queiroz.
2. Thompson, Paul (1978). The Voices of the Past: Oral History. London: Oxford University Press.