It was a spring day in 2003. I remember checking at which stop to get off before taking bus number 8 to the United Nations for the first time.
First published in Geneva Solutions
An art history student at the time, I had entered a selection process there to become a lecture guide. I went through the security gate and took the marked path to the meeting place, a few minutes away. I was nervous. I admired the park and the huge buildings. I had been living in Geneva for a few years, but this site was virtually unknown to me as I had only ever seen it from a distance before. That day, I was to discover a whole new district of my city. I was about to plunge into its intense international activity, but as I entered the imposing historic building, I wondered if I really belonged there.
I have never forgotten this feeling, which is probably shared by many people whether or not they have lived in Geneva for a long time. The Nations district is indeed impressive. Its large international organisations can make you feel very small, all the more so as they are difficult to access on a daily basis behind their security protocols. Should you be parachuted in from abroad and caught up in its daily frenzy of work, getting outside the cocoon to discover the city’s other neighbourhoods and local culture cannot be self-evident. That may be a valid observation, but I’ve never been satisfied with it. Rather, I see the immense potential for encounters and exchanges between people from all walks of life, both local and international, who perhaps lack a place and opportunity to get to know each other better.
I often think about this whilst making the same journey I did back in 2003, now every day and on my bike. I have recently taken over the reins of the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Museum, a wonderful institution and totally unique. I see it as an ideal space for such meetings and exchanges in the heart of international Geneva. Through everything we set out to do, my colleagues and I have taken the first step towards breaking the ice by asking a central question: how does humanitarian action concern us all, here and now?
Mainly viewed through media coverage, it can easily seem dissociated from everyday life. Although often making the headlines, it’s just one piece of news amongst many transmitted via a device (screen, newspaper, radio) which can be turned off and put away. It can thus give us the impression that humanitarian action is deployed elsewhere, far away, and that it only concerns others. Yet, humanitarian issues are part of everyone’s daily life in various degrees of intensity. The pandemic and climate change, to give just two examples, are disrupting our lives here in Geneva as well as everywhere else. Above all, humanitarian action is born out of deeply personal and lived experiences. These are neither abstract nor the prerogative of a few insiders. At 9:00 pm every evening this spring, it was indeed based upon the principle of humanity that we all applauded from our windows here in Switzerland.
So, how can we promote a more nuanced and embodied understanding of humanitarian action? My answer, as a museum director, is unequivocal: by listening to our visitors, whom we encourage to express their opinions freely. To do this, we invite the cultural and research communities in Switzerland and around the world, to question the issues, principles and current events of humanitarian action and to produce new content which we can then exhibit. Art, in particular, creates different spaces and times for reflection. Through its encouragement of dialogue, it allows us to grasp the complexity of humanitarian action and to open ourselves up to other points of view.
I am deeply convinced that a museum is not a space for a monologue. It is not an intimidating temple in which you have to remain silent and dare not say that you haven’t understood something. On the contrary, it is a forum, open and benevolent, where everyone can feel legitimate in participating in the debate, and all the more so if it concerns our shared humanity. Thus, one year ago, we invited 2,500 Geneva schoolchildren aged 8 to 14 to send a wish for the future, a cry of frustration or a dream of hope to the 2,500 participants in the 33rd International Conference of the Red Cross and Red Crescent.
Whether delegate, diplomat or minister, each participant was given an authentic handwritten message on the back of a postcard reproducing posters from our collections. This started a very different, purpose-driven conversation between communities that hardly ever meet. To me, that’s what a museum can do. More recently, we launched the ‘Covid-19 and Us by Magnum Photos and You’ operation. This is a large-scale participatory project in which everyone is invited to share their personal story of the pandemic alongside exclusive images produced by some fifty Magnum photographers from around the world. Again, we are smarter together.
Clearly, the museum is not just a building on top the Colline de Pregny. It’s a catalyst within a social, cultural and economic ecosystem, a perspective on content that can extend far beyond its exhibition halls. This has enabled us to take up the pandemic challenge, which obviously puts us under exceedingly strong pressure. Although we have had to close our doors, we are still standing by our visitors and trying to be useful to them. We continue to produce innovative content that allows us all to make sense of the upheavals of everyday life. We do not offer online virtual tours. However well done they may be, they will never, in my opinion, replace the physical experience of the exhibition itself. On the contrary, we seek, as best we can, to produce content that is specific to digital spaces and modes of interaction. The current crisis has acted as an incredible accelerator in this field and the impact will be long-lasting. This does not contradict the onsite experience of the exhibition, but rather adds to it.
This said, I do think it is time to review the economic model of museums, especially private ones for which ticketing is an important source of revenue. The film and music industries have undergone a revolution to provide content to everyone’s fingertips. I feel museums should step up to this challenge. If you were to subscribe to a museum for a service, what would it be? If the museum arrived at your home, on your screen or in your mailbox, what would it look like? My colleagues and I are working on it, inspired and determined! Finally, when we can reopen and catch our breath again, we will be able to continue to make our physical museum a warm and welcoming place in the heart of a unique neighbourhood, open to everyone.