Sunday, 13 November 2016

Diplomatic silences

Nicola Sturgeon, Scottish First Minister
As the the Web Summit was coming to a close in Lisbon, a day after the results of the American elections became known, the Municipality of Lisbon placed some outdoors that read: “In the free world you can still find a city to live, invest and build your future, making brigdes [sic], not walls. We call it Lisbon”. The outdoors were classified as “anti-Trump” by the opposition, which preferred to think that this was “an abusive interpretation and that [the mayor’s] intention was not to disrespect the democratic choice of the American people, it was not a demonstration of ideological arrogance, it was not an opportunistic precipitation as a result of becoming dazzled with the international attention." In short, the opposition asked for explanations (read the article).

Image taken from the newspaper Expresso.
The Municipality simply answered that the intent was to capture investment. And quite a few people preferred to joke about the spelling mistake on the outdoors. The Scottish First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, gave another kind of answer - intended for her Scottish counterparts in the parliament who criticised her for making her preferences regarding the American presidential candidates public, but equally useful for many more politicians and citizens alike around the world:
“During the campaign, I found so many of President-elect Trump’s comments to be deeply abhorrent. And I never want to be, I am not prepared ever to be a politician that maintains a diplomatic silence in the face of attitudes of racism, sexism, misogyny or intolerance of any kind.” (watch the video)
It stroke me as awkward that professional politicians are criticised by their counterparts for taking a stand for what they believe and defend in the name of those who voted for them (even though the Municipality of Lisbon did not admit taking a stand…). Isn’t this their job? Isn’t this what we should expect of them? And if this is what happens with politicians, what can one expect of the “traditionally neutral and diplomatically silent” cultural organisations?
I do expect a lot. I still expect a lot. The question of “What have we got to do with is?” (see suggested readings in the end) is always present in my thinking and analysis. Because a so-called “diplomatic silence” is as political and deafening as a strong scream.

If we turn to the US, some museums were quick to respond. The Brooklyn Museum invited people to visit this past weekend for free as they search “for a sense of national unity”. One also read in the statement, “We hope that visitors will explore the museum as a great and timely learning resource, especially our newly installed American Art galleries, which embrace an inclusive view of history and recognize the shifting demographics of our richly diverse country.” (read the article). The National Museum of Women in the Arts in Washington was also free this weekend and stated on Facebook: “The National Museum of Women in the Arts will be free to the public all weekend. We hope that visitors will explore NMWA's collection and special exhibitions and engage in discussions about the contributions of women. Please join us for Community Weekend as we champion women through the arts with a renewed commitment.” Simple, clear, discreet, and yet assertive and political.


On this side of the Atlantic, in mid-September, we were being informed that the National Theatre in the UK had “embarked on a major project to tell the story of modern Britain following the vote to leave the European Union”. “I don't believe 17.5 million people are racists or idiots. I categorically don't. I think we've got to listen", the NT director Rufus Norris said at the time (something we should also be thinking about Donald Trump’s voters). “We've got to try to do what little we can to address the complete vote of no confidence in our system”, he added. The theatre is conducting interviews about life in the UK in more than a dozen towns and cities and these stories will then form the basis of future shows. Simple, clear, definitely political (read the article).

Photo taken from the Byzantine Museum's Facebook page,

In other parts of the world, cultural organisations are still following the treacherous path of perceived neutrality by remaining silent. In the beginning of this month, “The State Hermitage Museum: Gateway to History” exhibition opened at the Byzantine Museum in Athens
. On 4 November, the museum shared on Facebook a photo album from the official visit of the Ministers of Foreign Affairs of Greece and Russia. Warm smiles and handshakes, “tea and sympathy”. Ninety likes and 4 shares later, I questioned the museum: “Mr. Lavrov’s government is air striking civilians in Syria (including the children we see on TV and which break our hearts), supporting a dictator. They also invaded a neighboring country and are occupying part of it. Why did the Greek Government and the Byzantine Museum give a chance to the Russian Foreign Minister and his government to appear… civilised?”. My question did not get an answer. It’s partly understandable. Museums are not used to be questioned and take position on such issues – they’re “neutral”… The fact is, though, that this museum proudly shared the same photo album again, a few days later. My comment did not touch a chord, apparently. “Diplomatic silence”, as usual…

Going back to Nicola Sturgeon’s speech in the Scottish Parliament, she said “There is more of an obligation on us now than there perhaps has been on our generation before and this is the time for all of us, no matter how difficult, no matter how controversial or unpopular it may be in certain quarters, to be beacons of hope for these values [of tolerance and respect for diversity and difference].” This is the time for all of us, whether politicians or museum and theatre directors or culture professionals. This is the time.

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