Taking a stand: Politics and Museums

Politics is one of those topics that never fails to get people heated up. In many ways, it is one of the most important things to discuss, yet people often shy away from talking politics from fear of upsetting others. It could be a family member at a holiday gathering you’re worried about upsetting, or it could be a complete stranger soap-boxing on the street who you would rather not engage.

Women's March in London 2017 with the National Gallery in the background

Women’s March in London 2017 with the National Gallery in the background

With everything that’s been going on in the world recently, I’m not surprised that I have seen tweets like this quite a bit recently.

Someone I very much admire posted similar sentiments on Facebook.

https://www.facebook.com/plugins/post.php?href=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.facebook.com%2Fpermalink.php%3Fstory_fbid%3D1846664068934886%26id%3D100007739319266&width=500

And Robin Clarke, from the University of Leicester’s Museum Studies programme wrote a powerful post on what museums can do in the face of hate.  Personally, I enjoy that many of Robin’s points touch upon the same themes as the Kids in Museums Manifesto.

The counters to these points run as follows: museums should be neutral and not abandon a ‘necessarily apolitical’ standpoint.

Neutrality is a political stance. Just ask Switzerland. Neutrality is a small step away from silence. Silence can be deafening. Museums have a powerful voice, and should use it. Here are a couple of my favourite recent examples…

The Wellcome Collection have used their collection to take a stand, to reflect on the news and inject a bit of humour into the bleakness. The US Holocaust Museum did nothing more than set out the early warning signs of fascism. I can’t say how long that display has been up, but the fact that these resonate so loudly today tells us that museums help us to make sense of what is going on around us. 

The importance of that cannot be understated.

Already, museums are collecting placards from recent marches, preserving the protests as pieces of history. We don’t need hindsight to recognise that these movements are important; we can see that now. In the US, the Smithsonian are busy collecting

and in the UK, Museums and Archives are calling out for signs as well. This is nothing new. In 2011, the Museum of London collected signs from a protest against public spending cuts. Looking even further back, how many museums have artefacts relating to women’s suffrage? Anti-slavery movements? LGBT rights?

The first points that Robin and Kids in Museums mention is The Welcome. Yes, this is important enough to be capitalised. Museums are public spaces,  spaces for everyone, so how can this be best shown? Through action. Robin points to Berlin’s Museum Island’s approach to refugees. With the rise of Islamophobia, museums can reach out to their local Muslim community, let them know that the bile in the tabloids isn’t how people feel.

Invite them in. Be that safe haven. We all need one. Museums can help make things a bit less rubbish.

Museums are inherently political because people are inherently political and museums are about people. Museums are not just depositories for old stuff. Everything in them is charged with meaning that reflects who we are. Let us make sure we like who they show.

 

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