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.
Take Lewis Pugh, who recently swam the length of the English Channel to highlight the impact of pollution and climate change, or Colin Kaepernick, one of the first to “take a knee” during the national anthem at NFL games to highlight social and racial injustice in the United States.
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.