Museums and Political Debate, Or: Why I Need You To Take A Stance

Over recent months, living as an immigrant in Britain [1], I have gone through a process that leaves me feeling increasingly alienated from museums and heritage sites in this country. In still-used museum discourse terms, I’m probably becoming one of the ‘hard-to-reach’.

I feel let down by British museums. You see, these days, I daily feel in the firing line. Today, I am the other, the unwanted, even the enemy, if we go by some of the language used in the increasingly hostile discourse on immigration [2]. The UK Independence Party may have tried to soften the suggestion that upon a British exit from the EU people like myself will be deported (yellow stars anyone?), but when Radio 4 [3] not only fails to question the implications of such a notion, but actually appears to defend it, it’s no longer something I can ignore. This has become personal. This is my future that’s been threatened. This is my presence in this country that is being criticised, misrepresented and undervalued.

And while all this is going on, the First World War-dominated outputs from many museums are also spinning an inward looking narrative of ‘Britain’s just war’ against an enemy, and ‘heroes’ that will ‘not be forgotten’. Suddenly, I find myself thinking that I really don’t care to see yet another exhibition telling me the story of Britain’s sacrifices and battles. That’s not because I am no longer interested in Britain’s war stories, or British history in general. Rather, in combination with the current public discourse on immigration this has become the extension of an exclusive story that makes me uncomfortable. I neither feel safe at the prospect of visiting such exhibitions, nor happy.

If nothing else, I would have liked to see balanced stories that show the not-so-glorious aspects of history, to give a counter-weight to the current portrayals of Britain as a country once again under threat, fighting against injustice – this time from the EU and its migrants. But really, if British museums and heritage sites are serious about policy aspirations of mutual understanding, integration, and diversity, or even just the Museum Association’s vision that museums change lives, then they should be taking a stance. I’ve previously blogged that I think museums have a moral obligation to be the final line of defence, to hold a mirror up to society as a challenge to be better, and to be humble in the face of the tragedies its actions have caused in the past. Well, I think the time to hold up that mirror is now.

Crucially, that’s not a mirror that reflects me. I don’t need, nor am I interested in, an exhibition or programme about Germany. I don’t live in Britain to connect with Germany. I’m here because I want to live in Britain. If I’m beginning to be less inclined to visit museums and heritage sites here it’s not because they don’t ‘relate’ to my being German. Frankly, my heritage isn’t the issue here. The issue is a social and political environment that is casting me out, and which appears to be uncritically, if not intentionally, supported by museum and heritage narratives. That’s the problem. And I suspect that my experience as an immigrant at the moment, which leads me to feel this way, pales into utter insignificance compared to the experience of those who maybe were born here, but who happen to not be white, or straight, or middle-class, or well-educated, or whatever else classes one as ‘hard-to-reach’. Maybe their experience too is that it’s society as a whole that misrepresents them and turns them into ‘the other’, and they simply don’t care to get yet more of this by coming to a museum or heritage site. The exclusion does not lie in an excluded narrative about ‘the other’. The exclusion is the exclusion of a challenge to the mainstream, of a critical perspective not on the other, but the ‘majority’, and quite probably the very structure of the museum itself. I quite agree with the MA’s vision for museums to have an impact on social change: changing this societal context will tackle ‘exclusion’. Let’s get to it.


[1] Now here’s a label I never felt had any relevance for me. I was always simply a person who had moved from where she was born to elsewhere. And always because ‘elsewhere’ was a place I loved and wanted to spend more time in.
[2] A month ago a cabinet minister (!) talked about British towns being ‘under siege’ from immigrants, and ‘swamped’. He had to tone down his language, but ironically not over the siege part, but over ‘swamped’. ‘Under pressure’ was the expression sanctioned by Downing Street. It’s really not any better in my ears.
[3] For those of you not living in the UK: Radio 4 is the ‘serious’, publicly funded news outlet of the UK. For the US, think NPR. For Germany, think Deutschlandfunk. So having them not question the other side of this coin to me is nothing short of astonishing. I want my TV license money back that funds these guys. Which by the way is just one of the many (financial, as that is all that seems to count these days) contributions I make to British society. Just sayin’.  Because no-one else is.

7 thoughts on “Museums and Political Debate, Or: Why I Need You To Take A Stance

  1. You wrote a very thoughtful and provocative blog article, Nicole. It reminds me of our recent activity in the U.S. with a Colorado school district that did not want any negative aspects of history taught, only uplifting stories. Students in that district rebelled and want more fair and honest treatment of history. Knowing that our treatment of indigenous people, immigrants and minorities has often been misdirected or even disgraceful is important. How else do improve, learn from our mistakes? Museums and other heritage sites should also be revealing balanced and diverse views that help us understand where we have been. Tim Merriman

    1. Thank you, Tim, for your comment, and sharing the experience with the Colorado school. I am encouraged hearing that the students rebelled – although it also doesn’t surprise me: young people are often so much more tuned-in, open-minded, and insightful than older people are. I agree that a fair and honest treatment may be painful, but it’s the only way for societies, and even humankind as a whole, to move forward, and as you say, improve. I like your expression, ‘understand where we have been’. That’s what it’s about. The past does shape us, it teaches us, but it does not confine us – not if we take it on board, learn, and move on, striving to be someone better.
      Thanks again! Nicole

  2. So much of what you say here I agree with. I was born in Britain, but I too have felt like ‘the other’ / ‘outsider’ for different reasons I guess but nevertheless I share your feelings here….

    I have been in the past week to 4 different museums in different parts of the country on research trips, all of these had some kind of display about the First World War, and each one read similarly about the ‘sacrifice’ made by British servicemen. I not only long for a more balanced and inclusive representation of this subject (and actually all subjects) but

  3. I also look forward to the end of this round of commemorative exhibitions. I have no problem with First World War exhibitions, but I think there should have been a little more joined up thinking around the country and of course beyond in exactly how this history should be shared…

    As for UKIP and co. Although I know the big parties don’t want to truly acknowledge the terrifying fact that many people actually agree with their policies and are not just making a protest vote, I still believe and it is my experience that most people in this country do not support the kind of position taken by UKIP. I also believe that many of the people who do support it are doing so out of misunderstanding and ignorance of the facts, which is exactly why the ‘mirror needs to be held up to society’ and museums are in a unique, and trusted position to do this, but we’re not… we are spouting the same stories, the same (unbalanced) history…

    1. Hi Adam,

      As always, thanks for your comments and food for thought. On one hand, I appreciate that there is the pressure for every local (and national) museum to do something on the First World War (don’t we know it), and coming up with narratives that challenge the usual notion of sacrifice and heroes might take some persuading of decision makers. But it can be done. What is more though, I am also beginning to wonder whether there is more truth to the suggestion that heritage is a manipulative discourse – something that I’ve always rejected, because it’s not been my experience of the way individuals relate to heritage. In other words, as every museum seems to churn out the same ‘interpretation’ of the war, ignoring aspects of history such as detention camps that arguably one would expect a history museum to cover – is this a mechanism of manipulation? Are they doing it unthinkingly/unawares/because it’s just simpler? And what is the role of HLF in this? I digress, but these are big and important questions which I think the sector (rather than academics sort of on the outside) need to discuss.

      As for UKIP, yes, there are thankfully many in Britain who are as appalled by their position as you and I are. At the same time, though, the public discourse does not reflect this – by this I mean the things that the other political parties put out and what one sees in the media. In the absence of mass demonstrations against this (and really, it seems that even Labour voters are courted with anti-immigration rhethoric) museums really need to step up to fill the void. Address the ignorance and misunderstanding of facts, as this, as you rightly say, will for many be at the root of their endorsement of this current sentiment. Doesn’t seem too difficult to do?

      Again, thanks for the comment!

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