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#WomenInCulture: a chat with the “Museum Doctor” Ngaire Blankenberg


Disclaimer: this story is accompanied by a dose of lucky coincidences.

We ran into her online, more specifically through the TedX Talks speech she gave in Hamburg in 2015. We were looking for some concrete inspiration concerning the core theme of #MuseumWeek 2019: #WomenInCulture as well as wanted additional insight in order to continue with the movement of woman in culture of yesterday, today and tomorrow.

Her German speech was called: How you can activate the soft power of your museums and we were hooked. This woman, Ngaire Blankenberg, who lived in Canada, France, South Africa and who travels the world every other day (“I travel a lot, I fly at 7 o’ clock in the morning, not the holiday flight, and it’s like 80% men on the flight”) is currently based in Barcelona (as CloudGuide is) and she kindly agreed to meet up offline, in front of a cup of coffee.

She calls herself a “Museum Doctor”, because, as she explained, it was very complicated to make people understand her job. She isn’t exactly a curator, a consultant or even a manager: “I help to fix or give birth to a museum… I’m like a midwife or a doctor.” She ended up with this profession “pretty much by accident”, from being a television producer in South Africa until becoming the Head of the European Projects of the Lord Cultural Resources based in Paris.

She then worked for the Exhibition Design Company in Amsterdam deciding afterwards to move forward on her own. Having collaborated with so many different cultural institutions around the globe, Blankenberg affirmes that the experience with every museum is indeed a case by case scenario, but noticing that: “The European museums come from a different tradition regarding art and museums, and it’s quite a leaders approach, focused on the collections, less on the visitors”.

It’s not easy to recognize a pattern through different cultural institutions because: “Every museum is different, but every museum thinks they are more different than other museums… they overestimate their uniqueness”.

What Blankenberg strongly believes in, no matter which peculiarity the museum carries with it, is an admission free policy: “Admissions are to make money from tourists and I understand the value of that… but what about residents?  When I lived in Toronto I never brought my 2 children to a museum, there was no way I was gonna pay 60 dollars to go to a museum every week”.

In addition to the inspiring insight into Blackenberg's life we also wanted to know more about her personal history as a woman active in the cultural field.

“It’s actually a question of power. Museums are like 70% women, everywhere. It’s a quintessential pink ghetto employment, so for me the story is not about women access. First its about representation. Second is about pay, equal pay, huge issue. And third is about power. Who’s the main director? Who tend to be largely men in particular in Europe. And I found, to be honest, the cultural sector in Europe to be more sexist than anything I’ve ever experience before, I am astounded. Its not just the cultural sector, but the society in whole. How you can have like a legal environment that intrench the right of women and you have a workplace culture where women are not present. Either its invisible or diminished. And for me it’s like one of the biggest things that I haven’t expected.

I can’t believe how many times I walked into a room and it’s like all men. I travel a lot, I fly at 7 o’ clock in the morning, not the holiday flight, and it’s like 80% men on the flight.

I’ve often come accross a scenario where I say something and somebody, younger guy mostly, would say: “ I think what you are trying to say is…” What I am trying to say it’s what I said!”

I think that you have to understand what you are getting yourself into. There is a lot more room for entrepreneurial or activities outside of the institutions, that is still related to working in cultural sector, and I think people should consider that as an option. A lot of the times, when people study museology, science communication, whatever they are doing, their goal is to get a job inside a museum, and I think that we should expand the goals. There are a lot of interesting things still to do in the cultural sector and institutions are not the most innovated and are not necessarily defining it.

There is opportunity but maybe not where you think the opportunity is.

I think for women that wanna work into this field, with museums I think it’s great, but you should actually do it with your eyes open!”.

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