This morning I saw the front page of the Daily Mail (I’m not going to link to it. Google it if you must) as I walked past a news stand and it made me angry. Nothing new about that. ‘Foreign Lorry Drivers Break The Law’, it yelled in my face. As if no British person has ever used a mobile phone whilst driving. But I guess they weren’t really interested in a story about British criminals.
Increasingly I find myself getting angrier and angrier when I see stories that, to my mind, are xenophobic, islamophobic, homophobic, transphobic. I get angry when I see stories about the appalling increase in racist and homophobic hate crime we are currently experiencing. I get angry about the atmosphere I sense in the UK at the moment that permits unquestioning media and political narratives about the negative impacts of immigration, despite the rafts of evidence to the contrary. I get angry when I see my government building giant walls in other countries, so desperate are they to keep out refugees that have suffered, and are suffering, the most inhuman conditions. I get angry at the dreadful treatment of trans people by the state government in North Carolina. At the moment, to be honest, I just get angry quite a lot.
How fortunate, then, that we have museums and galleries, our national sanctuaries of art and culture to which we can escape, where we can shut out the world at large and appreciate the beauty of better, happier times?
Well, actually, no.
Because museums should be so much more than that. They are places that can tell real people’s stories, challenge pervasive media and political narratives and stand up for the marginalised and less fortunate in society. And we need someone to do that now more than ever, it seems. And museums have the advantage of being able to do that from the very hearts of our communities.
Let’s consider some examples:
Let’s look at the amazing April Ashley: Portrait of a Lady exhibition at the Museum of Liverpool, that brought trans issues into the museum in an exhibition so popular that it was extended and welcomed 930,000 visitors.
Or we could think about the Holocaust memorial sites across Europe (the Buchenwald Memorial, where I once volunteered, for example) that put the tackling of prejudice and hate at the very heart of their educational work, delivering tailored sessions to schools and other groups that focus on these themes from very contemporary perspectives.
What about the Migration Museum Project, an amazing organisation that is seeking to establish a physical museum to tell the story of migration to the UK and highlight all the positive immigration stories that are there to be told.
And how about the recent Stories of A Different Kind and Exceptional and Extraordinary projects here at the University of Leicester that worked with disabled artists to explore how museums can better represent and tell the stories of disabled people and, by doing so, challenge widespread discriminatory practice.
Or maybe we could consider the International Slavery Museum in Liverpool, which plays an active role not just in telling the story of transatlantic slavery, but by exploring issues of contemporary slavery and racism and plays an active role in tackling hate crime in the city.
What all of these examples show us is that museums can take an active stance on contemporary social issues and, more importantly, that they can be effective when they do so. We need to get over the idea that a museum should be neutral and dispassionate. As Nobel Laureate Elie Wiesel (himself once a Concentration Camp prisoner under the Nazi regime) reminded us:
“We must take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented. Sometimes we must interfere. When human lives are endangered, when human dignity is in jeopardy, national borders and sensitivities become irrelevant. Wherever men and women are persecuted because of their race, religion, or political views, that place must – at that moment – become the center of the universe.”
So when I see those news stories, when I hear those media and political narratives, when I witness hatred and bigotry, I take my inspiration from Elie Wiesel. I know that it is unacceptable to stand by, to cross the road, to ignore it. And that, to my mind, applies to the museum as an institution every bit as much as it applies to us all as individuals and communities.
By all means let museums be sanctuaries; sanctuaries from hate, from prejudice and from bigotry. But they can only be that when they accept that they too, like the rest of society, have a role in tackling these issues.
If you are interested in some of the themes of this blog post, you might be interested in our course in Socially Engaged Practice in Museums and Galleries.