I keep hearing people talk about museums being ‘safe spaces for debate’, and this always makes me feel a little uncomfortable. Is that true? Are they always ‘safe spaces’? Why do we assume that the museum is a ‘safe space’? And who is it a ‘safe space’ for? And what does it say about the museum when it describes itself as a ‘safe space’? These are all things that, in my opinion, we need to think about more critically and more carefully.
In order to consider this a little more, let’s switch away from the museum for a moment and think about another medium that is home to debate and discussion: let’s (somewhat reluctantly) head over ITV’s ‘Good Morning Britain’ (GMB), an early morning television news programme presented by Piers Morgan and Susanna Reid.
A couple of days ago Good Morning Britain tweeted:
“On next we’ll meet the man who claims he can ‘cure’ homosexuality in men. Any thoughts?”.
Well, ‘yes’, I thought as I sat on the bus on my way to work, ‘I do have some thoughts, thank you very much, GMB’. First among them are ‘How dare you give this dangerous, offensive rubbish a platform?’ and secondly, ‘why, once again, do LGBTQ people have to defend their very existence in the face of nasty, dangerous homophobia?’.
Piers and Susanna went on to conduct an interview on live TV with a proponent of gay cure therapy. For those of you that don’t know, gay cure therapy is a widely debunked process through which people claim to be able to turn gay people straight. It’s a process that is cruel, humiliating and dangerous to those that undergo it. It underpins the idea that it is not OK to be gay, that being gay is something that needs to be ‘corrected’ (just think about the language – ‘cure’ – what does that imply about homosexuality?). It challenges the very fundamental right of people to exist as who they are.
“Our item with a doctor who claims to ‘cure’ gay people caused controversy yesterday. Should offensive views not be aired even if challenged?”
My answer to that? No, they should not be aired. Not when they are so fundamentally dangerous and suggest that people’s human rights can be a subject for debate or that the world at large somehow has the right to decide whether someone has the right to exist or not.
Merely giving someone a platform to air such views suggests that those views have a legitimacy. And it is that legitimacy that makes such views so dangerous. Simply by inviting the guest onto the programme, they gave him credibility, they suggested that this is a debate that it is OK to have.
You could say the same of the debate surrounding the current plebiscite on legalising same-sex marriage in Australia – it suggests that it is OK for people to debate and decide whether other people should have equal rights or not.
The point I am trying to make here is that some issues should really not be up for debate. Not on the TV or the radio. Not in the public realm. Not even in a museum.
How, when you give a platform to people who have homophobic, transphobic, misogynistic, racist, (dis)ableist views, can your museum be a safe space for LGBTQ people or women or people of colour or disabled people? Good Morning Britain was certainly not a safe space to be LGBTQ that morning (or indeed the morning before or after, come to that).
These are areas where intolerance is not to be tolerated. By framing museums as ‘safe spaces for debate’ we run the risk of positioning ourselves as a neutral arbiter of discussion, suggesting that all opinions are legitimate. And by doing that, we risk perpetuating exclusion and denying people their fundamental human right to exist as themselves without fear or intimidation.
Now, I’m not for a minute saying that museums can’t be forums for any debate. Of course they can – and usefully so. But they do need to be critical and consider what the impact of those debates might be on others. We should never give a platform to bigotry, to hate, to those who seek to oppress others. We should actively battle such hatred. We should take a stand, we should have an opinion. We should be clear that fundamental rights are not up for debate. By doing that, perhaps museums can genuinely become safe spaces for people who really need them.