Thursday, 8 December 2016

Unwilling actors in centre stage

The New Americans Museum. Panel vandalised.
(image taken from the museum's Facebook page)

Not surprisingly, after the elections, the Tenement Museum in New York, a museum that tells America’s urban immigrant story has seen an “unprecedented number” of negative comments by visitors about immigrants.  It’s not an isolated incident. Other museums, such as the Idaho Black History Museum or The New Americans Museum, recently suffered racially charged vandalism on their premises.

Beware politicians who bring out the worst in us, one might think. But one might also add, beware museums which fail to see the politics in what they do. This was what I thought when reading the first paragraph in Zach Aaron’s (a Tenement Museum board member) response to the negative comments from visitors:

“As a trustee of the Lower East Side Tenement Museum, I am proud of our 28-year history of celebrating the lives and cultures of immigrants — what brings us together as Americans, not what divides us. This is an apolitical mission; from the museum’s founding, we have neither endorsed a single candidate for public office nor taken a position on legislation.” (read full text)

Migration and migration policies are deeply political. How can a museum involved in telling this story can state that its mission is “apolitical”? Why would they choose, considering their subject matter, not to take part in the public debate when legislation is discussed? And after analysing the election results, does it make sense for any museum to stick to “what brings us together as Americans” and not to acknowledge and discuss divisions in American society and their reasons?

Why is it that museums do what they do? Why do they collect and preserve and study objects? In a recent ICOM Europe conference, which took place in Lisbon and discussed the role and purpose of national museums, the importance of sharing knowledge was over-emphasised. But what kind of knowledge do we share and how? Considering recent political developments in Britain, France, The Netherlands, Poland, Hungary, Austria, to name a few, how can one evaluate the sharing of knowledge museums in those countries (and in any other country, for that matter) have been doing? Considering the atrocities taking place at this moment in Syria, Yemen or Myanmar - atrocities seen so many times before which made us vow repeatedly “never again” -, should we conclude that museums have failed their mission?

It’s not only up to museums to build a better world, of course. They´ll never do it alone, still, they cannot continue pretending that they are set apart from society (and politics) and haven’t got a role to play. So, I believe that there are two things that should be more thoroughly discussed in the museum field:

First, although the museums’ political role is more and more intensely discussed today, its acknowledgment by the wider museum field seems to be more urgent than ever. Museums cannot go on living the illusion of “neutrality”. It has become more than obvious, considering the examples mentioned above, that, even if they wish to stay in their cocoon and put forward a romanticised version of world (human) history, reality catches up with them and drags them on stage. At the same time, an effort needs to me made in order to distinguish “political” from “partisan” (the misunderstanding becomes clear in the Tenement Museum’s response, but it’s generalised, even among political scientists - read Political Science Call to Action), so that museums may draw a coherent and responsible line of action. One that will also be clear and conscientious enough, in order to be able to resist possible attempts of partisan exploitation. Not an easy task, not at all, but certainly a necessary one.

The other point I believe deserves more attention is dissent and conflict. It does make sense to celebrate what brings us together, by also acknowledging our diversity. Still, we must also acknowledge that this is not a peaceful and straightforward process. As we must acknowledge that engaging people with opposing views in a dialogue – especially one taking place in a museum - is not the easiest task. Most people, when feeling that their views might be challenged, do not wish to engage in a conversation. It’s natural and expected. So, going back to sharing knowledge and fulfilling a mission, shouldn’t museums reflect more on what they have been doing so far and how? Have they been sharing anodyne stories? Have they been engaging only with the “converted”? Is there anything they can do to take the discussion further and involve those with different views? Is it in any way possible?

Questions are piling up. The suggested readings that follow help push our thinking further.

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