Museums and the Web 2005

Reports and analyses from around the world are presented at MW2005.

Identity and Representation: Social Justice and Community Building Through The Museums Of The Person

Thom Gillespie, Indiana University, USA, Karen Worcman and Rosali Henriques, Museum of the Person, Brazil, Philip B. Stafford, Indiana Institute on Disability and Community, USA, Jorge Gustavo Rocha, Universidade do Minho, Portugal, Jean-François LeClerc, Centre d'histoire de Montreal, Canada


The Museum of the Person is an initiative that emerged in São Paulo, Brazil, in 1991, aiming at building a virtual museum whose collection includes life stories of all and every person in society. To be a virtual museum developed as a network has been the Museum of the Person's postulate from the start. The 1997 advent of the Internet provided the idea with the tool needed for its expansion. Since then the Museum of the Person has been open to receive stories, documents, photographs and other data through the Internet (

The presentation of that idea at the MW1999 in New Orleans inspired the creation of the Museum of the Person in Portugal (, which is currently based at the University of Minho. After that experience, other initiatives were started – one in Bloomington, at Indiana University ( and another one related to the Centre d'histoire de Montréal, Canada (

Each center independently carries out on-line and off-line activities, and each has distinct experiences. During the session, from the viewpoint of those issues, the distinct experiences will be presented and the audience will be invited to take part, further discussing the issues and/or suggesting new ideas.

Keywords: virtual museums, life stories, oral history, community memory, digital collection


In 2003 a meeting of Museum of the Person centers took place in São Paulo. Some key issues were pointed out:

  • What is The Museum of the Person's methodological essence?
  • How can the collections be integrated through metadata?
  • Which are the technological challenges in order to integrate this and other similar efforts?
  • How can the effort be expanded?
  • What are the sustainability challenges?
  • How is it possible to function as a network and keep independence and connection between efforts?
  • Which is the cultural and social role of Museums of the Person in the world?

User Content: Projects

Joselita Cardoso was born in the Brazilian state of Bahia in 1960.  Her father, who came from the state of Pernambuco, was a small farmer and her mother, also born in Bahia, was a housewife.  Her parents met in Bahia’s capital Salvador, where he had migrated to in search of a better life and started to do occasional work as an assistant mechanic at a garage.  When Joselita was 13, her mother, who had a heart condition, died suddenly.  She and her brother stayed with their father, who started to drink heavily.  When she was 17, her father decided to move back to Recife, in his native Pernambuco. There she decided to hop on a bus and go back to Bahia secretly, where she started to live with a neighbour.  At 20 she got married and had her first child, a girl.  When she was pregnant with her second child, her husband  was hit by a car.  She went to the morgue to identify the body, and there she saw her father's body and her husband's body in the same place.  She says: "I was benumbed. I wouldn't eat, I wouldn't drink, all I would have was coffee.  All I did was drinking coffee and smoking".  Eleven months later, Joselita lost her second child, still a baby.

After a quarrel with her family, Joselita left her husband's home and, surviving on people's help, ended up living and working at Salvador's landfill, where, together with her daughter, she worked for several years.  There she remarried and, still at the landfill, she had four more children – only one of them at the hospital, because, according to her:

I worked until dark at the landfill and when I felt the throes and went to the hospital, I was still dirty and stinking with garbage.  The nuns looked at me and thought I was a beggar.  I'll never forget that look.  I said ‘I work, I'm no beggar'.  After that I never came back to the hospital, I gave birth to all my children at home...  I didn't feel alright there.

After Salvador's landfill was shut down in 2000, a non-government organization helped the garbage catchers to found a cooperative to recycle.  Four years later, with five children and two grandaughters, Joselita is the leader of Salvador's garbage catchers cooperative, which gathers 50 catchers. She is a member of Brazil’s National Movement of Recyclable Garbage Catchers.  Recycling involves over 600,000 people all over the country and makes Brazil one of the world's recycling champions. Joselita laughs:

My dream? My dream is to work to organize the cooperative in order to turn people into a new professional category. Because the more we get to bring [in] those fellows that are out there in the streets, the more the category will gain strength and the whole thing will grow and be appreciated. What changed in my life after the movement? I don't feel like society's garbage anymore.

That story was recorded at the Museum of the Person on December 18, 2004, within a joint pilot project developed by the Museum of the Person and the National Movement of Recyclable Garbage Catchers, sponsored by Avina.  When the leader of the Movement learned of the work developed by the Museum of the Person, his eyes twinkled. Based on the assumption that each and every person can be part of social memory and that those stories are, can be, and should be used as information to review our reading of history and our way to see relations within our society, the work carried out by the Museum of the Person matched the needs of the National Movement of Recyclable Garbage Catchers.  An ex-alcoholic, a paper catcher for several years, and founder of a recycling cooperative in Poá, in the Greater São Paulo Area, Roberto Laureano da Rocha said:

That is exactly what we need. We need garbage catchers to understand that they are not garbage, to be inspired by our own stories, to mobilize and assert their role in society. We will record stories, we will make a documentary, we will tell the rest of society who we are.

Development of the Museum

The partnership has just begun, but that story was intrinsic to the proposal that guided the creation and development of the Museum of the Person, founded in São Paulo in 1991: how to allow other Joselitas the possibility to narrate, preserve and, above all, convey their story. How do we make that story help us review our biases? How do we make that story and others help mobilization and organization of catchers in our society?  How do we make that and other stories become part of our intangible heritage at the same time that, by forming the identity of today's Brazilians, it touches humankind's universal values.

The Museum of the Person believes that promoting the construction of a social memory open to narrative by people from all segments of society and acting to spread that memory are essential to building a democratic society based on respect for the other.  That stance is grounded on some conceptual assumptions:

  1. Every life story has its value and should be part of social memory;
  2. Listening to others is essential in order to respect them and to act as peers.

Before the Internet became popular, we used to believe that common people's narratives recorded in CD-ROM were important information sources and should make up a significant collection to help rethink paradigms of value that guide symbolic constructions in our society.  Thompson & Slim (1993) point out the importance of oral records to promote social change:

Whatever the outcome, it is important that the process of listening does eventually result in acknowledgement and action, and that those who have given up their time to talk, know that their words have been taken seriously. This notion of applied oral testimony is what gives the listening process a particular relevance to development and differentiates it from a purely academic study.

Why Call Us Museums?

But why Museums of the Person? What characterizes our activities that allows us to call them museums, and, more precisely, virtual museums? Why have we not chosen memory centers or mere oral history archives? A museum of the history of people is a museum whose museological goals are stories themselves and those people's worldviews. Based on the symbolic assumptions that guided the construction and function of museums in our society – spaces for preservation of symbols (objects, narratives, artifacts) of what we elect as "monuments" of our memory, focusing on the perpetuation of those values, where we "keep" what we consider meaningful – we collect our achievements, and there is nothing more important than to review what we "keep". 

The proposals of the Museum of the Person comply with a museum's basic activities: constitution and preservation of a collection; organization of such collection aimed at social and cultural reflection; and museological actions, more precisely those aimed at capturing statements and cultural formation and mobilization of communities. However, that same view entails the review of some musicological paradigms:

  1. Instead of consolidating symbolic "moments", it consecrates common people's narratives and objects.
  2. The role of the curator, of the collector, is replaced by that of the mediator, since the aim is to encourage people and communities to take responsibility for recording and organizing their own memories.
  3. To make the collection virtual without necessarily having a physical counterpart, the collection is digital.  Actions are the ones to go beyond the digital domain.

The Museum of the Person in Brazil is a virtual museum that since 1997 has been on the Internet open for each and every person to send his or her story. Part of its collection is already available on-line. Together with its Internet activity, the Museum of the Person in Brazil has developed, for the last 13 years, an oral history methodology that allowed it to record 4,931 life stories, besides production of 4 thematic museums, 20 books, 18 documentaries, and 24 exhibitions. Since the beginning, the Museum of the Person Brazil has worked independently from Government, using the oral history methodology and developing cultural, pedagogic, and communication products as a way to raise funds. In 2003, the Museum of the Person developed a new Internet Portal aimed at organizing all its statements in a database, integrating those sent through the Internet, and allowing users, besides sending in the stories, to assemble their own exhibitions and story collections.

Challenges and Successes

In a country where less then 15% of the population has Internet access, challenges to the dissemination of statements are multiple.  Therefore, some efforts were developed that go beyond the Museum's Web activity.  The Walking Museum (traveling video recording booths), for instance, has traveled the whole country recording people's statements in public spaces such as subways stations, squares, schools and even oil platforms. On the other hand, the perception that each person is a potential producer and multiplier of memory led us to create training programs for technology transfer. Project Local Memory is an example, since it involves teachers, students, and technicians of Municipal Education Departments who have worked for three years with people in their communities.  Nowadays, Project Local Memory's assumptions are already part of History curricula in some Brazilian cities.  The Project – based on three pillars: reading, memory, and digital inclusion – trains teachers and pedagogic coordinators to encourage children to build their stories as well as those of their families, their neighborhoods, and their towns.  The Project often means it is the first time a teacher or a child uses a computer and sometimes the first opportunity for children to produce their own texts.

Another interesting experience developed in 2004 as a partnership with Ashoka ( was the training of leadership in civil society organizations. The proposal involved 9 institutions that for a year took part in training activities, using the Museum of the Person Portal's collection tools.  From patients' memory to training of youngsters in a slum to promoting interviews with community elders, each of the institutions identified a specific use for memory production while taking responsibility for capturing and treating stories in their community.  Therefore, the Museum of the Person Brazil has advanced towards promoting a role as protagonist for every-man and inclusion of multiple narratives in a common collection through proactive efforts.

The Museum of the Person Portugal

Inspired by that experience, after a meeting at Museums and Web 99, the Museum of the Person Portugal nucleus was born, linked to University of Minho. Originally at the Computer Science Department, the first motive was understanding that those narratives were an excellent information source. Nevertheless, in order for all those narratives to become information and, after they have been grasped, become knowledge, we must catalogue and structure the whole Museum of the Person's collection so that readers can explore all its potential – whether they are only curious or are investigators.  That structure – which is not necessary fixed – starts within life stories, where markup techniques are applied in order to organize stories, identify people's names, historical context, important dates, episodes, etc.  Only then can people take advantage of that collection.  If it is no more than a repository of stories, it will be like a museum's storage facility: full of interesting things but rather inaccessible.  The Portuguese nucleus, however, not only took an interest in technical issues; but they were also willing to undergo the whole process of constituting a team to develop memory projects. That experience is crucial to better perceiving the reach of the Museum of the Person. In these five years, the Portuguese nucleus has already developed 6 projects, collecting 150 life story interviews and promoting training actions for University of Minho students as well as teachers of the public school network in the northern Portuguese city of Braga.

The Idea Expands

Two institutions emerged right after that.  The nucleus of the Museum of the Person in the USA, inspired by the same assumptions, was born within Indiana University, in Bloomington (see Stafford, Philip B. 2005)

The other initiative started in Canadá. The Musée de la Personne in Montreal is the brainchild of the Centre d'histoire de Montréal's (CHM) director Jean Francois Leclerc. One of CHM's main focuses has always been to promote Montréal's diverse cultural heritage through individual stories. Contact was initiated between Montréal and Sao Paulo in 2003 by the CHM's director and local historian Marc Andre Delorme (now director of the Musée de la personne de Montréal) who met the Brazilian team at a workshop in Sao Paulo in Brazil.

Musée de la Personne (MDP) Canada

In 2003 a small team was formed, inspired by the CHM's exposition for the 50th anniversary of the arrival of the Portuguese in Montreal: Encontros. The Portuguese Community. Neighbours for 50 years. The team managed to gather over 100 hours of audio information, drawn from 70 interviews. Numerous artifacts and photos were also collected. The event was called a Memory Clinic. The participants responded tremendously with excitement and enthusiasm. The project was so successful that a similar clinic was organized the following year with the Haitian community of Montréal to commemorate the bicentennial celebration of Haitian independence.

From these fruitful and positive experiences, the non profit organization Musée de la Personne (MDP) was officially created in 2004. Seven people presently staff the museum. The organization already has over 80 digitalized photos of artifacts and 100 recorded audio interviews in the  archives Musée de la Personne collected during more than 5 community benefit events.  Numerous other projects will be organized this year to continue this work of cultural preservation.

 MDP of Montreal is one of the first to become a part of the growing nucleus of institutions similar to the Museu da Pessoa on Sao Paulo. The collaboration between these two organizations is a sign of a growing trend towards a globally accessible museum which brings many disparate cultures together. The Musée de la Personne believes that documenting historical and cultural context behind individual experiences is as important as, if not more important than, the collection of personal memories and objects. How to make the stories understood by such different people from so different historical and cultural backgrounds: that is the question. There is indeed much work to be done in this venture. But with the help of a growing number of people from all over the world, perhaps the ultimate goal of preserving the collective memory of mankind can be achieved.

Establishing a  Museum of the Person Network

With distinct experiences aligned to their origin and place of birth and resulting from each country and team's context, today the Museum of the Person nuclei's main challenge is the actual construction of a network that can jointly:

  1. Expand itself and widen the scope of the work developed in each country;
  2. Trigger new initiatives;
  3. Connect the information produced;
  4. Align the actions in order to allow the global use of life stories.

Network-oriented management of knowledge produced by people themselves aims at empowering communities, people, and schools as potential content producers and users, carrying out actions that go beyond their own communities. Those are premises that ground the constitution and the challenges of all the Museum of the Person's nuclei, especially regarding our network action. The assumption that the network is based on local Museum of the Person nuclei is grounded on the perception that the collection process is an essentially presential action and, besides being global, is under strong influence by local cultures and processes.  Each person's identity and the perception of cultural arrays that segment each activity derive from empathy between producers and receptors, and that is what guides the Museum of the Person in each place.  However, in order for those stories, organized in a decentralized way, to go beyond their boundaries, it is important that nuclei overcome communication challenges.  Besides sharing and integration by nuclei, it is necessary to share experiences, to improve and adapt methodological aspects, and to reinforce their own identities within the Museum of the Person brand. Regional nuclei are autonomous to develop products that are adequate to the community around them, but they have to share methodologies, experiences, and institutional stances with the others.

As the idea of how that network of museums of the person must be built matures, it seems clear to us that the three main aspects are:

  1. Network management that allows independence of each nucleus at the same time that it combines efforts in face of common challenges;
  2. Definition of actions that focus on the use of the context produced and allow the best use of the collection so as to integrate actions towards education, opinion formation, and influence on public policies;
  3. Creation of technological parameters that allow the use of the collection in the most varied actions, together with a large diversity of publics, thus going beyond the boundaries of each nucleus.

It is important that the story of someone like Joselita can be cross-compared with so many others from all over the world to awaken desires for change. Occasionally, some reading keys must be provided to those who do not understand the codes used by Joselita. Her face or a picture of Salvador's landfill, in turn, are easier to read in any place in the world.  That technological challenge has to answer question such as:

  1. Digital preservation of contents. Supports (floppy disks, cassettes, etc.) deteriorate and have to be replaced from time to time.  Content formats might become obsolete within a short time and proprietary formats can suddenly lose their support.
  2. Compatible cataloguing/markup mechanisms. While cataloguing can more or less be homogenized, making the markup process by researchers from distinct nuclei uniform is a complex task – because inside each nucleus there are stories collected within different projects, with different scripts, and with different markup demands. A possible solution – already rehearsed but not yet assumed – is the construction of a local thesaurus that meets the needs of each nucleus and then the construction of correspondences between the terms of each nucleus/language so as to allow studies about the several contents, e. g. the term marriage, whose concept we know has distinct meanings from culture to culture.
  3. Integration of different media. In technological terms, it is increasingly feasible to offer different media on the Web. Given that there are already hundreds of hours of audio and video within the Museum of the Person' archives, it is necessary to make them available, as a whole or in part, thus creating the maximum synchrony possible between audio, video, and photographs and their corresponding narratives.
  4. Translation mechanisms. The Museum of the Person's contents have a high linguistic value. The audio recording of stories is also a very rich document, but only those who speak the same language are able to capture those peculiarities. Some automatic translation mechanisms will be tried in order to offer the contents to a larger public, thus allowing people who do not understand the statement's original language to read the stories.
  5. Virtual Museums: taking advantage of personalization mechanisms. The Internet is no doubt becoming the cheapest means to reach everyone. The challenge of publishing all that content on the Web implies the creation of virtual museums that exploit as much as possible the absence of the physical restrictions of traditional museums, open 365 days a year. It will have to be easy to show the thematic exhibitions integrating distinct contents that speak to a certain controversy, subject, or event.  Those museums will also have to explore as much as possible the possibility of keeping every visitor's trajectory (stories read, subjects that were more often sought after, interests, etc.), so as to suggest new contents every time that visitor enters the Web site and is identified.

The result of the sum of those efforts can be evaluated as Joselitas from all over the world are able actually to be protagonists of their stories, and those stories, together, help change the organization of our global society.  As Burke (1992) points out:

it is often said that history is written by the winners. It could also be said that history is forgotten by the winners...  I would rather see historians as guardians of disturbing facts, skeletons in the closet of social memory… 

To turn those memories into consolidated collections organized in virtual museum networks is certainly to make the best use out of technologies – those available and those that are to yet come – on behalf of a more democratic view of our society. That is the real proposal that justifies us and unifies us after all.


Burke, P. (1992). A História como Memória Social. In: O Mundo como Teatro: estudos de antropologia histórica. Lisboa: Difel.

Thompson, P. & H. Slim (1993). Listening for a Change: oral testimony and development. London: Panos Publication Ltda.

Cite as:

Worcman, K., et al., Identity and Representation: Social Justice and Community Building
Through The Museums Of The Person, in J. Trant and D. Bearman (eds.). Museums and the Web 2005: Proceedings, Toronto: Archives & Museum Informatics, published March 31, 2005 at