Protest and the Museum? - MuseumNext

Protest and the Museum?

On 16 February I read about The Davis Museum at Wellesley College in Massachusetts de-installing work created by or given to the museum by immigrants to protest against President Trump signing an executive order barring citizens from seven majority-Muslim countries from entering the United States.

As a liberal who has long believed in the power of museums to have a social impact, I smiled as I read about the museum taking action to highlight the contribution that immigrants have contributed to the United States.

This was a simple protest, but it gained press around the world.

Museums are not neutral spaces and the people who work in them have opinions. It shouldn’t be surprising that some channel these views into their programs, especially when faced with a political shift to the right that many find unsettling.

But while I thought that the removal of the artworks by The Davis Museum was a powerful statement, the more that I considered political protest within museums, the more I wondered how this would be seen from the other side of the political spectrum.

In a polarized political world, should museums be seen to be taking sides in the ‘culture wars’, or does doing this drive half of the population away and reinforce a view that museums are for a liberal urban elite?

Do we risk becoming an echo chamber for a certain section of society and blocked out by those who disagree with our views, or would they not visit anyway, so it doesn’t matter?

Perhaps the hardest thing to do when faced with views that we find as abhorrent to us as the politics of division is to create a dialogue with those who we disagree with, but I believe that we must.

In my own country, 2016 brought its own political challenges with the UK voting to leave the European Union.

As in the United States, the country found itself divided with anti-immigration rhetoric and a sense that some had been left behind playing a role in a campaign that was echoed by the anti-establishment politics of Trump.

In the city of Derby, an old industrial town in the middle of the country, 57% of the population voted to leave the EU.

The Director of the cities museum service Tony Butler wrote on his blog ‘Like many of the 48% who voted to remain in the European Union, I was heartbroken by the referendum result last June.’ He went on to reflect on a campaign that framed the conversation around the impact of immigration and shared the ‘shock and anger’ in his organization at the Brexit vote.

Derby Museums could have channeled this anger in many ways, but they focused on creating bridges in their divided community and trying to find common ground.

In February 2017 they ran a workshop with Neuroscientist Kris de Meyer and change strategist Tom Cromepton that brought together people from both sides of the European argument.

The workshop found that while liberals and conservatives have a polarized view of the world, they also have shared values such as honesty, deep friendships and meaning in life and suggested these as starting points for exploring why people have the values that they do.

The event gained no newspaper headlines, but I can’t help but admire the approach that Derby Museums have taken. They have looked at how their museum can serve a divided community and decided to use their trusted status to create a space to bring people together.

This approach won’t work for every situation and I admire the bravery of The Davis Museum’s protest (and to be fair to them, I’m not aware of the wider actions that they are taking), but in a world where experts are increasingly being discredited, museums must strive to keep their status as trusted institutions in the eyes of diverse audiences.

To do that, there is a careful balancing act between saying what needs to be said and being willing to listen in order to be heard.

I think that museums have an important role to play in being the place where that happens, and I think that society can benefit greatly from museums being safe places for these difficult conversations.

As Tony Butler puts it, ‘As the public realm erodes, museums should remember their qualities as trusted institutions, and ask ‘if not here, where?’’

What do you think?
How do you think museums such react to an increasingly polarized political landscape? How can museums be activists without alienating some of their audiences? Should museums be places of protest? How can museums measure their social impact?

About the Author

Jim Richardson is the founder of MuseumNext. He has worked as a consultant to the museum sector for more than twenty years advising on technology and leadership. Jim now splits his time between running innovation consultancy for museums and leading our museum conferences around the globe.