Protest and the Museum? - MuseumNext

Protest and the Museum?

By Jim Richardson, Founder, MuseumNext.

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?

  • mvlachou

    Can we risk allienating people who wish to discuss and try to understand in favor of those who are not looking for (they might even avoid) a discussion? Can we risk being irrelevant so that people can continue keeping away because we are boring? Giving people a space to discuss different views is highly political (not partisan), the museum becomes an Agora. Have museums that took a stand lost audiences? Has MoMA seen its visitor numbers fall, for instance? Defending a specific position (like the rights of refugees and immigrants) might keep some people away (perhaps the ones that were already keeping away?), but it will give great comfort to others. And it doesn’t mean that other opinions may not be discussed. The question is can museums gracefully handle the criticism for the stand they have taken? Can they be really democratic?

    • Jim Richardson

      Thanks so much for your insightful comment Maria.

      I think that institutions who have visibly stood up and protested will actually get a boost to their visitors from like minded people who have been impressed by their stance. my question really was, is this just preaching to the choir and alienating a whole section of society to achieve it.

      But, I think you raise an important point in mentioning the comfort and support felt by those people under attack by the ‘muslim ban’ because cultural institutions did so visibly protest. It’s a great observation and these institutions being visible in the discussion does clearly show that they are safe places for a section of society under attack, which is brillaint.

      It’s a complex puzzle. Thanks again for adding to the conversation.

      • mvlachou

        Thank you for your answer, Jim. It is indeed a big puzzle. The question of “preaching to the converted” is constantly on my mind. We are preparing a publication in Portugal (to come out in June), for which we are interviewing a number of organisations internationally, and we keep asking them this question. It’s essential. But, as you said, among the people who will feel comforted, there will surely be some who did not have a relationship with specific institutions before. Now they´ll know that these institutions see them, acknowledge their existence and care about them.

  • #thedisobedientmuseum

    ‘Museums’ aren’t just one thing. There’s a huge diversity in museum types, as well as aims, agendas, purposes, constituencies, etc. And museums are never not political. They are part of a political world and context (and history) regardless of their governance or funding structures. Similarly, ‘protest’ is a term that covers a range of different actors and actions (including inaction, actually). It is useful to think about the different roles museums play in different contexts – as (i) the subject of activism (e.g protest against a museum exhibition or practice); (ii) the site of activism (e.g protest at a museum against a government decision about funding cuts for the cultural sector – here the museum ‘stands in’ for government); and also in some cases as institutions working in support of activism (examples are given in the above article). A more recent phenomenon is the creation of museums as an outcome of activism (eg. National Museum of the American Indian, National Museum of African American History and Culture). It’s great that this topic is getting lots of attention now 🙂 Kylie Message, author of Museums and Social Activism: Engaged Protest (Routledge 2014).

    • Jim Richardson

      Thanks Kylie for your thoughtful response.

      You’re right about the diversity of the sector and I have massively simplified things above.

      Thanks too for sharing the name of your book, I’m going to try and get a copy now.