A couple of weeks ago on Friday was one of the happiest days in our School calendar: Graduation Day. We love greeting our students and families, dressed up to the nines, complete with gowns and mortar boards, in readiness to be presented with their degrees, for which they have worked so hard. It is a day of great enthusiasm, optimism and happiness.
The same day they proudly walked across the stage to receive their certificates, another man was walking towards a podium with rather more sinister intentions. On the other side of the Atlantic, Donald Trump was being inaugurated as President of the United States of America. He became the most powerful man in the world.
Let’s remind ourselves why this is sinister and worrying…let’s start by remembering how he supports discrimination of Trans people by supporting North Carolina’s appalling anti-Trans HB2 (Bathroom Bill) law, or how he openly mocks people with disabilities. We might think about how he is happy to remove healthcare from millions of vulnerable people, how information about LGBT Rights and climate change disappeared from the Whitehouse website within moments of his inauguration to be replaced with Trump’s ‘America First’ agenda. We might think about the way in which he happily describes Mexican immigrants as rapists, drug dealers, bad hombres. And let’s not forget about his attitude towards women and his boasts of sexual assault.
This weekend, of course, he has pursued his presidential crusade further with his executive order that sought to ban refugees and people from his seven listed countries from entering the United States, and ordered immigration officials to give preference to Christians over and above people of other faiths. This kind of discrimination cannot go unchecked, and it was heartening to see the protests, both at the Women’s Marches the day after his inauguration, and the demonstrations against the immigration ban this weekend.
So what has this got to do with museums? How can and should museums respond to Trump in America – and, indeed, the rise of the far-right in Europe? I’m sure many of you have your own suggestions, but here’s my six-point plan:
- Be welcoming. Show museums are a space for all. Make sure your museum is warm and welcoming, whoever comes through the door. Museum are (largely) public spaces that exist for the benefit of society – all society. Make sure that you actively welcome and encourage visits from marginalised communities and show them your support. We can find tremendous inspiration for this in many museum projects, recently the work with Syrian refugees on Berlin’s Museum Island stands out as an exemplary model.
- Represent. Show and celebrate the diversity of society. Explore your collections and your communities. Tell diverse stories. Museums can influence the way people think. They can help overturn negative and damaging media narratives about marginalised groups, including refugees. Use your museum as a space to tell positive stories that genuinely represent our multicultural communities. The Migration Museum Project stands out here as an organisation committed to telling the positive stories and impacts of migration to the UK, as does New York’s Lower East Side Tenement Museum, which explores the lives and valuable contributions of immigrants to New York City.
- Record, document, collect: Demonstrate the impact of cruel and inhuman treatment. ‘Never Forget’ is something often said about the Holocaust, but we mustn’t allow what is happening now to be forgotten either . This kind of action, discrimination and inhuman treatment of people will generate documents, objects – material culture of all kinds. Museums and archives are ideally placed to collect, record and display what is happening. Start, perhaps, with the placards of the demonstrators or by collecting oral histories of those who now fear for their way of life, and even their lives, under a new regime. Inspiration here could be taken, perhaps, from the V&A’s recent Disobedient Objects exhibition or the new National Museum of African American History and Culture, which is actively collecting and documenting the #BlackLivesMatter movement.
- Be active. Campaign for what is right. Don’t be neutral. We must take sides, we must stand up for what is right. In a previous post (on a similar theme) I quoted Novel Laureate Elie Wiesel, who spoke of how neutrality helps the oppressor, not the oppressed. I could equally have quoted anti-Nazi dissident Dietrich Bonhöffer, when he said “Silence in the face of evil is itself evil…Not to speak is to speak. Not to act is to act”. When you say ‘objective’, ‘dispassionate’ or ‘neutral’, I hear ‘complicit’. Be a campaigning organisation. Explore the Social Justice Alliance for Museums or Federation of International Human Rights Museums websites for inspiration – join them, support them, support colleagues around the world engaging in this work
- Don‘t tolerate intolerance. Do not tolerate discrimination and hate in your organisation. Call it out. Do not give it a platform. You don’t have to tell ‘both sides of a story’ when one of those sides promulgates racism, islamophobia, division or bigotry. ‘No platforming’ is not denying anyone’s freedom of speech, as many have claimed. It is a mechanism through which you can distance yourself from such intolerance and hate. This weekend on Holocaust Memorial Day, the Gedenkstätte Buchenwald, the concentration camp memorial site where I once worked, disinvited the local leader of the extremist Alternative für Deutschland party from its commemorations [in German]. A member of staff, in fact, stopped him at the gate and turned him away. I applaud my former colleagues for this stance.
- Be a place where we can enjoy the best of humanity Museums are places when you can find the very best of people. The very best of our arts, our culture, our heritage. They can tell the story of what it is to be human. They can support our health and wellbeing, can bring happiness and joy, are places where we can relax and connect with those around us (thinking about the New Economics Foundation’s 5 Ways to Wellbeing can help us think about these things in more depth). Make your museum a place that inspires us to be the very best that we can be.
And so, to return to where I started, to our new graduates, going out to form a new career in museums and galleries all over the world, I would say to them that they should be proud of, and celebrate, their achievements, and that through standing true to their values and using those values to guide their work, they can help museum to be places of strength and support, of joy and happiness. But also places of resistance and activism that stand up for that that is morally right. We, at the School of Museum Studies, will always support them in this endeavour.