Museums and the Web 1999

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Published: March 1999.


Museum of the Person: a Brazilian Experience of Virtual Museum

José Santos Matos, Karen Worcman and Rosali Henriques, Museu da Pessoa, Brazil


"All family histories are banal, but who does not have his or her own?

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 - teacher, born in 1930)

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 Person

The 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:

  1. a better preservation of the material, because it is a digital preservation and not an analogical one. The magnetic medium avoids the ageing and/or quality loss f the material with the copies (which is the case of audio and video tapes or Xerox copies);

  2. a wider possibility of registering testimonies - once voice, image, and text are recorded;

  3. large possibilities of consultation, because, unlike books and videos, in which the information ordering is imposed upon reader, the multimedia information bank is non-linear, enabling the user to "navigate" through the system, cross-referring information and investigating more profoundly those sections he is interested in.
Finally, the idea of establishing a "Museum" that preserves "people's life stories", forced us to re-consider our standard idea of "place". There are many people, and their discourses are impalpable. Therefore, the "place" to gather that material had to be a virtual "place". Today, with the progress of Internet, speaking about "virtual" space may even seem as a trivial thing, but at the beginning it sounded more like an ideal, the one of creating information networks that could be connected, constituting a "virtual Museum". Therein, the only possible way to carry our purposes through was the creation of the multimedia data bank that could eventually be available in networks, thus creating a virtual network of life stories.

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:

  1. How to make this collection available and expand its reference possibilities beyond the products we were had been creating?

  2. How to open a permanent space to enable each and every person - regardless of the projects which were being developed by us (and for which we had obtained financing) to become part of our collection?

  3. The third question is of conceptual order, and passes by the trajectory of the very oral history: at which moment the people who, with their testimonies, contribute for the realization of behavioral, social and political studies and make possible the constitution of cultural products, cease of being only history sources and effectively become agents of construction of their own histories?
With the organization of its site and its entrance into the Web in 1996, we can say that the Museum of the Person had its second birth, and established as a goal to face the three questions submitted.

The Museum of the Person and the Web - the meeting with Internet

The 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 Evolutions

To 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 Histories

Currently, 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
Poems, poetry, and even some jokes that came true
It is a retired man's creation
Who, despite having little studied,
Has always fought hard for life
Consider the notebook as the book of part of his own history"

(Salvador Martin Pintor - metallurgical worker, born in 1934)

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?

This history has not finished yet. It continues following the natural course of life."

(Elaine Silva - Advertiser, born in 1974)

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.

Very soon he started to work to help in the domestic budget, which was very tight, as his very humble parents survived on their harvests. But everybody knows that the drought in that region of the country punishes all the people. His father died young, and then he took over the household with four younger sisters and a disabled mother.

He worked for years as a traveling salesman, leading a sacrificed life, but which yield much money for the support of his large family. Then, he visited the State of Mato Grosso during one of these trips, and moved here with the wife and children, but his sisters refused to follow him; here, he built a healthy and respectable life, which arose much admiration.

He died in 1993, at the age of 87, leaving in my family's heart many remembrances".

(Lisiane Daphne Dantas da Fonseca)

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.

Everything started when I was surfing in the Internet. I decided to enter into a chatting room; I could hardly have imagined that, from then on, my life would change.

I was talking when suddenly I started to talk to somebody named Polly. I was immediately enchanted, as she was fascinating. We talked a lot, she sent me some mails on the following day, and we started to talk frequently. We gradually know each other, and learning with each other. I was more and more enchanted with her, and her tenderness, her kindness, were incomparable. Someday, I decided to met her.

I live in São Paulo, and she lives in Blumenau. I went to Blumenau, and nothing can be compared with such a happiness. We had incredible moments, and our feeling grew so much that she is already part of my life, as she is now my girlfriend.

This crazy story only proves that when love decides to play, there are no limits or barriers. I would like to point out how much I love this girl."

(Carlos Soifer - informatics instructor, born in 1973)

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..."

(Leandro Francisco Ferreira - student, born in 1977)


1. 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.