Why museums can’t be scared of politics

Sharon Heal, 26.09.18

Museum activism matters. So what's stopping us?

Small p or big P?

No, this is not a reference to the recent headline grabbing revelations about the president of the United States. 

But it is linked to a subject that I’ve been thinking a lot about: museum activism – what form it might take and why it matters.

When you look around there’s all sorts of issues that we and our communities might want to campaign on, and lots of different ways of doing it. 

Activism can be quiet, collective, individual or in your face – but whatever form it takes I think museums can be a home for it. 

Last year I was asked to write a chapter for a forthcoming book on museum activism edited by Robert Janes and Richard Sandell. In order to inform my thinking I interviewed lots of people who are working in and with museums across the UK to try to understand what is happening on the ground. 

Often it’s easier to think about activism through the lens of our traditional practice, especially when it centres on collections. Lots of museums in the UK collected placards and ephemera from the anti-Trump demonstrations, for example, and more recently museums in Ireland collected from campaigns on both sides of the abortion referendum. 

Which is great – but it’s not what you collect; it’s what you do with it that counts. Take the Trump blimp – museums scrambled to collect it, but are any going after the Sadiq Khan blimp too? Putting them side by side would form the basis of a brilliant conversation about sexism, body image and the role of politicians in public life. 

So what stops us being activists in our museums?

Resources and capacity are two reasons, but fear can stop us as well. Often when museums campaign, or when the campaign comes to the museum, we are told that we can’t engage because we can’t be seen to be “political”. 

I would absolutely agree that museums shouldn’t be partisan, or affiliated to political parties – politics with a big “P”. 

But taking part in discussions and immersing our institutions in the stuff of everyday life – the stuff that matters to our communities – is critical. Politics with a small “p” is everywhere around us, from which newspaper we choose to read, to what we buy, and at which supermarket. Each of these decisions has ramifications beyond the personal sphere. 

There’s a rapid pace of change outside of our institutions, and we are in a unique position to facilitate conversations with our communities. Our collections give us the historical lens, we are accessible to the public, and we are trusted. Let’s use that to make positive change. 


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29.09.2018, 07:12
Back in 2009 after completing a postgrad in Collections Management funded by REM I applied for the Museum Associations Diversification Grant. I come from a low income background. I hadn't completed my undergrad due to contracting PTSD in 1999. I came from a violent home.

I successfully got to the final stage of the process, in which two copies of the application were required. One for the MA office which requested details of why I considered myself diverse. The other to the selection panel which was supposed to be confidential of any personal detail.

However, the subject area I wanted to pursue was the link between violence and mental health. Specifically visual depictions of the neuro-physiological states of trauma (art history is littered with them) I therefore felt it appropriate to put my condition on the panel application.

To the MAs' credit, although I was not selected for the positions available (over experience in part) I was considered for funding regardless. In the event the courses I looked at to accommodate my topic were deemed too left of field for the sector.

In October 2015, NICE published a report stating 80% of all mental health sufferers had experienced violence to varying degrees. Yet we still conceptualise it as 'of the mind'. Every year society incredulously seems to ask why at an alarming rate we see young people, especially girls, self harming and with eating disorders. The thing which infuriates me is that the professional trauma community have done the research. It exists. It is simply not disseminated on a wide enough scale.

I am writing this the day after Dr Ford gave her testimony against Mr Kavanaugh. President Trump tweeted an all too familiar rejoinder, to paraphrase 'Why did she take so long to come forward if it such a big deal?'

Where is the trauma community in this worldwide MeToo movement? And where are museums? Bessel Van Der Kolk, a pioneer of trauma research classed trauma as the health time bomb of our time.

Francis Bacon is often cited as the greatest painter of his time. Female artists get the usual trope of only creating from within their own experience. Bacon was a man certainly but a gay man. One who was viciously beaten for it. We seem to air brush that bit. We also seem oblique on the very obvious reason he didn't start painting until he was 40. Why did he wait so long to come forward?