The Interview

By Thom Gillespie, Maítre díIgital of the Café TECHNOS, with Karen Worcman, director of Museu da Pessoa

Q: How did the Museu da Pessoa start?

A: We installed an open video cabin (camera) for 15 days for anyone to come and tell his/her life story. We taped 150 stories and decided to create the Museum. After the Museum of Image and Sound, we started having regular meetings discussing how the Museum of the Person could work and what format we wanted the Museum to have. From the beginning, we had the idea that it should be a database, not a physical collection of objects, but there also had to be a permanent video cabin someplace opened for the public for recording histories. Government officials, both cultural and educational, wanted to transform the Museum into a physical city museum. This complicated matters because in Brazil public and cultural institutions are complicated by money and politics. So, rather than form a public institution, we created the Museu da Pessoa as a company in 1992.

Our first step was to make a prototype of the database idea. At this time, the Internet was not popular (at least in Brazil). So, the idea was to create a publicly accessible multimedia database, possibly a CD-ROM or a kiosk. The idea was always to keep the life stories, including video, photographs, etc., to allow any person the opportunity to make a selection, a choice to say something important about his or her life. What we wanted to keep was always essentially virtual.

To develop the prototype, we joined with another group to create a multimedia company. After developing the prototype, we organized a public launch. We installed the computer and a video, again during an event in the Museum of the Image and Sound. There we interviewed and digitized people participating in the event.

At the time, the goal was a to have a multimedia database and to build, little by little, a network of juke-boxed CD ROMs. We wanted to have multimedia cabins in a variety of places where people could get help if needed and record their stories.

By 1996, the Internet had became popular in Brazil and we had already created four CD-ROMs: memories of electricians, memories of commerce, the multimedia story of the São Paulo football team, memories of automobilist industry, and we were working on the history of Johnson & Johnson Company. We realized that the Internet would make it possible for people to write their stories and to essentially join themselves to our collection. This was when the Museum of the Person started to move online.

Q: Where did the idea come from?

A: The basic idea came from my research experiences working on an oral history project from 1988 to 1991 about Jewish immigrants to Brazil. A basic question I was dealing with was how historical concepts changed in didactic books and how this change changes how societies build their histories. The project was divided into two parts: one group collected and studied the objects the immigrants had brought, and the other group worked with oral history life stories. I coordinated this group. I collected 90 interviews and 200 hours of tape recording. The project results were an exhibition, a book, and organized material for an archive.

Two things struck me during the project: First, I was struck by how people we interviewed became so alive during the interviews. How good it was for them to be able to tell their stories, which were often very hard stories of concentration camps, exile, and so on. Sometimes this was the first time these folks had the opportunity to tell their stories of how they were born, how things were before, how they felt when they first arrived in Brazil. It was also very important for them to know that this was going to become part of something lasting (at that time not a museum, but an archive and a book).

For example, there was an 86-year-old woman who told the story of having come directly to northern Brazil in 1937 from Austria. She told her tale in great detail of the physical and emotional sensations and cultural impacts she and her husband lived through after they had arrived. She spoke of the first night they arrived, when they awoke in the middle of the night, in a very simple house, with all kinds of spiders in their rooms, and how they tried to run away and take a boat to Rio de Janeiro, but it was during Carnival, it was hot and everybody was in the streets and they had never seen this before so they didn't get far. When the interview was finished, she asked me to come to her house to thank me. She said: You know, I am a happy person, I have my daughters and I love them and also my granddaughters but now, after having participated in this project, now I know I can die, because who I am, the real me inside, my life story has been told. Now I know it is going to stay.

For me this story was very important. It confirmed my impressions that the stories of common folks were so very rich. I could hear so many different kinds of information, most of which could only be had through their teller's experiences, not through books. History became much richer because each story provided a different historical perspective. For example, there was also a couple that had lived and had fought in the Warsaw ghettos. They had lived there at the exact same time but in telling their stories, they seemed to have experienced two different wars. She was a great storyteller, very emotional and subjective. Her husband was very methodical; for him, everything that happened had a special cause, a special meaning. They both told stories of great detail but each in such different ways, it was almost as if they have lived in two different ghettos!

I thought how beautiful and how important all these stories are, how many prejudices could be eliminated by understanding the different points of view, as many points of view as there were people living in the world. The main thing to understand is how important it is for each person to have the opportunity to tell his or her life story, to organize their memories, and for their stories to survive their deaths.

History seems to be made of what the dominant culture elects to be important. But how about people, regular people? Regular people make history while they are here. Each person has a unique life story and a different experience that is valuable. To be able to understand life through a housewife's point of view or through a doorman's point of view or through the view of a child on the street, this can be really important and revolutionary. There are museums for everything: art objects, civilizations, kings, queens, cities, etc. But, why not have a museum for regular people? A museum that could give everybody the possibility of having his or her life story preserved for eternity? Why not have a Museum of the Person? I think that was how the idea was born.

Q: Do you have any good stories about doing stories and getting funding?

A: [One] good story is how the Johnson & Johnson project started. I was at the office and I received a phone call from Johnson & Johnson. This was 1995; it was very common that people would phone us to ask how much would it cost to make a multimedia presentation for a fair or for a business meeting (so many times we were with promotion managers trying to understand how to make a 5-minute CD ROM). Anyway, Marcia and I went to Johnson & Johnson. As we entered, the doorman asked to whom we were going to talk, and we [told him the man's name]. Then he looked at us and asked: Does he know you are here? We were very offended, of course; he then escorted us to our meeting!

At the time, we were we having difficulty selling projects, lots of struggles and, while waiting, I was saying to Marcia, "You know, my dream is that one day will come that somebody will call us to make exactly what we want to do. We are going to be known for this kind of work. We won't have another situation like this where we are waiting to talk to another manager trying to figure out how to make a 3-minute business presentation. This type of situation will be finished." Then we go into the meeting, and the guy in the room hands us his card and he is the president of Johnson & Johnson in Brazil! He starts saying: "It is so important for people to know their story and the story of their company. There are people that have worked here for more than 40 years and nobody knows that. I would like to create a project to tell the story of Johnson & Johnson in Brazil, but through the lives of the people working at Johnson & Johnson. Can you do this?" We started in a week. We were getting paid to do exactly what we wanted to do!

Once Jose went to tape the life story of one of the oldest people in Brazil, who was 125 at the time. Jose went to the address and when he got there, he saw these big, big stairs in a hill. It was kind of a slum. The guy he was interviewing was in the open market because he was a professional beggar. He went every day to the market to receive food. This guy smoked two packages of cigarettes a day, had 13 wives and 68 sons and daughters. His last wife was only 20 years old. He gave his testimony but asked us not to publish it, because he did not want to be famous. He was afraid that people in the market would stop giving him food and money. He came from Minas Gerais, and he remembered slavery!

Q: How has the idea of the Museum changed over time?

A: The essence of the idea hasn't changed much. But the format has. Originally we applied our story collecting ideas to all media: books, exhibitions, CD-ROMs, radio programs. We have now added the Internet. The Internet made it possible to let people write their stories without being interviewed by us. This was a big change. We began to think of other changes, such as ways to be more present in people's daily lives: net diaries and calendars for scheduling special dates such as birthdays, anniversaries and Mother's Day; places for people to tell special stories on special days. We changed a lot with the Internet, and we expect to change even more.

Q: From where have people contacted you?

A: From all over Brazil. Some people have sent messages from Portugal, and some emigrants have already sent us their stories from Europe and the USA.

Q: Where do you go next?

A: After seven years of work, our actual goal to create a network has been accomplished through the Internet. Presently, we think a lot about how to get funding to develop more institutional projects. We would like to work with the elderly in asylums and hospitals. We would like to have an educational program with schools, and also we would like to go around the city and the country with what we call the 'memory truck,' registering people's stories in the town squares. That would be a great way to enlarge the possibility for ordinary people to register their stories with the Museum of the Person.

Final Thoughts