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Posts Tagged ‘relevance’

Last month, I presented [1] a paper at the Re-Imagining Challenging History conference in Cardiff, Wales. It combined and developed two of the key things I’ve written about a lot on this blog recently: that museums’ silence is never neutral, and that objectivity, as an expression of ‘truth’ (including a ‘material’ truth), does not exist.

 

The paper became an example of when history overtakes us. As I was putting the finishing touches to it, Brexit had just happened. Suddenly, my suggestions in the paper about the negative impact on immigrants of the increasing anti-immigrant rhetoric in British media and politics [2] were superseded by actual xenophobic attacks on EU Citizens, which many argue were enabled by the tone of the EU referendum campaign. The fact that the overwhelming silence in society on this rhetoric was now pierced by outspoken support for EU citizens and a critique of how the campaign had been conducted, all of a sudden seemed to make my arguments in the paper self-evident. Obviously there had been an issue. Obviously museums, society – anyone – should have done more before now. There hadn’t even been a silent majority coming to the rescue just in time. There had only been silence.

 

The world has since moved on, the country seems to have come to terms with what has happened, and we’re back to politics that sees people as mere bargaining chips, and a media obsessed with focusing on what Brexit will do for immigration controls and ‘taking our country back’. In a sad way, perhaps, it has become worthwhile again that I did write the paper.

 

But this time, there is no excuse for museums. Silence is not neutral. If museums are silent, they are supporting the hate, the harassment that is happening now. As key institutions of social and cultural life, museums that are silent are enabling such actions by not opposing them. Opposing them is political, yes. But in remaining silent museums are not apolitical either: they are siding with someone. And it’s not the immigrants.

 

Of course, museums can choose to side with whoever they want. They choose their own values. They just need to stop thinking that others don’t notice. And when consequently those others choose not to visit, museums need to take ownership of the reasons for this, and stop subtly chastising them as ‘hard-to-reach’. They are not hard to reach. Some of them may just find museums’ socio-political messaging hard to swallow [3].

 

Part of that messaging, I would argue, is the way in which history and objects are deployed by museums. I’ve blogged about this several times: In this post I argued that the recourse to history is largely irrelevant and has little, if any impact on contemporary debate, while in this post I suggested that the way museums choose object-narratives avoids engaging with current events. None of this does anything for museums’ impact on society, as envisaged by Museums Change Lives, the British Museum Association’s (MA) vision for museums. It most definitely does not advance society, or support social inclusion, as the MA hoped. In fact, in the paper I suggested that with their current approach, museums in Britain have been allowing, if not promoting certain myths about the nation that cannot be reconciled with current realities. I’m not one for ‘busting’ myths just for the sake of it. However, when myths become a potentially dangerous source of complacency, as I would argue they have become in Britain, then I do think museums must mount a challenge if they are serious about being relevant to contemporary society. Not to preach, or to convert, or to persuade. But to make visible what we may otherwise not choose to see. As far as I’m concerned, anything else is quickly and simply becoming not good enough.

 

You can download the full paper I presented at the conference here: Silence is not neutral and objectivity does not exist.

 

Notes

[1] I presented the paper in absentia via audio recording. Sadly I could no longer attend in person as planned. Shame! It sounded like a great conference that prompted really good conversation, as seen under the conference’s hashtag #challhist.

[2] See for example Nikolaidis, A. 2015. ‘Immigration and the 2015 Election: The Banal, the Racist, and the Unspoken’. In UK Election Analysis 2015: Media, Voters and the Campaign. Early Reflections from Leading UK Academics., edited by D. Jackson and E. Thorsen, 98. Bournemouth: Centre for the Study of Journalism, Culture and Community, Bournemouth University. https://www.psa.ac.uk/sites/default/files/page-files/UK%20Election%20Analysis%202015%20-%20Jackson%20and%20Thorsen%20v1.pdf. For a comparative study of the years 2006 and 2013, see also Balch, A. and Balabanova, E., 2016. ‘Ethics, Politics and Migration: Public Debates on the Free Movement of Romanians and Bulgarians in the UK, 2006 – 2013.’ Politics 36(1), p. 19-35.

[3] In the paper, I juxtaposed museums’ silence on the nastiness of the immigration debate and their enthusiastic support for the commemorations of the First World War. In both narratives, but uncommented by museums, many people will have recognised the same ‘us and them’ binarity. Britain is famously a country where the ‘Great War’ is solemnly commemorated year after year, and any refusal to participate in the accepted mode of reverence and gratitude is generally met with criticism. You can read about one of the  debates about the public wearing of the poppy here, and I would also recommend reading this paper about Britain’s relationship to Remembrance: Basham, V., 2015. ‘Gender, Race Militarism and Remembrance: The Everyday Geopolitics of the Poppy’. Gender, Place and Culture: a journal of feminist geography. Available from: https://ore.exeter.ac.uk/repository/handle/10871/17371. [Accessed 11.06.2016].

 

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Recently, I heard Emma Jane Kirby’s piece on the British Museum’s acquisition of The Lampedusa Cross in October 2015. It highlighted some of the frustrations I have with current approaches to museums and their practice, certainly in the UK, and I’d like to ponder that a bit further in this post.

 

Just a quick background to the cross first: On 3rd October 2013, a boat carrying refugees sank before the coast of the Italian island of Lampedusa. Only about 150 of the over 500 refugees onboard could be rescued. A local carpenter met some of the survivors in his church, and feeling helpless in the face of their suffering, he made crosses for them from the wreckage of their boat. He continued to make crosses, and the BM commissioned one of them. He then donated it to the museum.

 

In the radio piece (see also the BM’s press release), the curator notes that the museum ‘ is a reflection of the society around us.’ However, this emerges as a fairly one-dimensional reflection. Again the curator: ‘…refugees and migrants have nothing, they’re kind of invisible in the record.’ The cross, therefore, is first a record, and predominantly of refugees. And what it records is a very narrow aspect of refugees’ experiences. The press release describes the cross as a record of ‘the terrible tragedies that have befallen refugees/migrants as they seek to cross from Africa into Europe.’ This then is the main story that the cross can tell, and which is why the museum had to collect it. The curator said, ‘…that is the most important thing about the museum, that we tell stories about all people in all parts of the world’. The interpretation (or ‘curator’s comments’) on the Collection online entry only adds to the above that the cross stands witness to the kindness of the people of the small island of Lampedusa who have done what they can for the refugees and migrants who arrive on their shores’.

 

I haven’t yet seen how the cross is displayed and interpreted at the BM. Judging from the visitor reactions in the radio piece, it’s along the lines of the above. And the above to me is an example of how museums prune the contemporary relevance of objects and miss an opportunity to actually contribute to what moves and changes today’s world in this very moment. The BM press release in fact suggests that the real purpose of collecting the cross lies in the future. The curator said it’s ‘to make sure in 200 years’ time…our descendents can make an exhibition to show what happens now.

 

There are a few things here that deeply unsettle me. Firstly, as I live in this present that appears set to tear Europe apart and lead, as far as I can see, most likely to another war, I’m really not that concerned about anyone’s ability to make an exhibition about this period in the future. If that’s really all that museums are about, then they do nothing for our present.

 

Secondly, the stories that we’re geared up to ‘pass down to future generations’, of tragic refugees and helpful locals, also present a worryingly sanitised picture of what’s going on at the moment. I wonder, in collecting the cross, are we actually trying to make ourselves feel and look better? The curator expressed her hope for how the object would be perceived in the future like this: ‘…the children and grand-children of people caught up in these desperate migrations, and their children and grand-children will know that we did notice what was happening, that we did care, and that we did try to reflect the crisis, the desperation, but also the hope in the collection that we make for the future.’

 

In this story, we can identify with the helpful people of Lampedusa, and express our sadness for the plight of the victim-refugees. In reality, however, we are all collectively engaged in writing a parallel story right now, one that maybe doesn’t make us look as good: About an Italy unable to maintain the Mare Nostrum rescue operation it launched precisely in response to the Lampedusa disaster, because an unhelpful Europe refused to support it. About Britons’ attitudes toward refugees that are among the least welcoming in Europe. About Germany, where over one million refugees arrived in 2015, now wondering whether she can integrate successfully the old and new arrivals from sometimes very different cultural backgrounds.

 

Why are these stories not mentioned? Are they not what represents the real depth of the Lampedusa Cross, and its relevance today? Is it good enough for museums today to ignore these issues of the present and defer critical engagement and judgment to the future? Is it good enough for museums to declare that they reflect contemporary society while knowingly excluding other stories that are equally associated with an object, but far less comfortable? Can we hide behind justifications of immediate material connections?

 

The carpenter that made the Lampedusa Cross appears to have hoped that having it in the British Museum would make a difference in the current crisis. According to the curator he wondered, ‘…is this enough then to break down the wall in the hearts of people who are still indifferent to this crisis?’

 

The way the cross is viewed and discussed at the moment I would have to say: It’s unlikely.

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In her latest blog post ‘Following up on Ferguson’, Gretchen Jennings mentions that several museum people told her that they had been specifically forbidden from answering visitor questions or commenting on social media about Ferguson [1]. Having worked in local authority museums in the UK and knowing from my work here as a consultant the constraints that many organisations work under politically, I expect that this is in fact the case for most museums. In the UK, it will not be Ferguson that museums are forbidden to engage with, but you can take your pick of any of the pressing issues that we are facing over here and which will no doubt be deemed ‘too hot’ by decision makers.

Contrast this with the drive to make museums more ‘democratic’, with ‘co-production’ and ‘community engagement’, with ‘audience development’ and ‘Museums Change Lives’. These are all eminently worthy and truly important initiatives. But are we deluding ourselves by not facing up to a fundamental hypocrisy here? If Ferguson, to stick with the American example, is on communities’ minds, then what on earth are we doing avoiding the issue? I am beginning to wonder whether museums are becoming irrelevant even as they’re trying, at least nominally, to become more people-focused. Here are a few questions that I’ve been asking myself:

Is this really what museums are for?
A couple of weeks ago, the UK Museums Association (MA) published case studies for its Museums Change Lives campaign [2]. And what these museums have done is all great: the Tank Museum has taught young offenders engineering and basic skills qualifications; Colchester and Ipswich Museum Service have engaged homeless people, and Glasgow Museums have created memory walls off-site to help people with dementia. But is this really what museums are for? Aren’t there other organisations, dare I suggest perhaps even the state, who should be tackling the underlying issues here? And what about actually discussing these issues? Who is asking the question about what makes young people so disillusioned that they just don’t seem to care anymore? Why do we live in one of the wealthiest nations on earth, and yet people have to go to foodbanks?

Is it really about collections?
In her post, Gretchen also mentions that several colleagues had commented that museums should always be first and foremost about mission and collections [3]. I know I keep writing this on this blog, but I really feel that in light of this continued insistence on the importance above all of material collections one has to keep saying it: collections are dead. And let’s face it: the majority of local history museums are full of stuff that’s neither local [4] nor particularly interesting [5]. By focusing our energies, resources, and our professional self-concept primarily on collections, we spectacularly fail to actually connect with what makes our communities go around. Yes, good practice is to find the angle that will ‘connect’ ‘the public’ with our collections. But like it or not, you will always and forever be limited by what that collection item is if that is how you set the parameters of your ‘connection’ with your community. And they just might genuinely not care, because when it’s between debating what can be done about institutional racism that rakes their lives, and talking to you about their cultural connections to an African kora, they might just deem the former far more relevant and pressing than the latter.

Are we too self-absorbed?
At the start of this year, the MA wondered what was around the corner for museums. This was the day before Charlie Hebdo, but many months after Ferguson and UKIP’s victories in Britain. And around the corner were concerns about budget cuts, the impact of the election on culture policy, and tucked away at the bottom, the current consultation on a new code of ethics [6]. Now, obviously budget cuts have an impact. Without money you won’t do much. But it does seem to me that certainly in the UK the focus has been on cuts, and relaying the impact of cuts, and gathering evidence of why cuts in museum budgets are wrong because museums contribute to society – see the Museums Change Lives case studies. And that’s all valid, but when there are people leaving our societies to join terrorists on the other side of the world, and a political climate sweeps the country in which the Prime Minister suggests that Britain would be a ‘better, stronger country’ if there were fewer migrants, then museums talking primarily about cuts in their budgets just sound a bit out of touch.

However, the question does, I suppose, come back to what service museums are meant to bring to society. Is it engaging the ‘hard to reach’ with collections? Is it using collections to support the health agenda? Or:

Should museums be something different altogether?

Last week I was struck by Richard Wendorf’s description of museums as ‘the chapels and cathedrals of an increasingly secularised society” in his comment on the MA website. Setting aside the Christian and religious connotations, and the inherent elevation of collections as objects of reverence [7], I did feel it expressed well a need that does exist in a secular society for a space that is special, that does hold society’s respect, and that does provide sanctuary to discuss, debate, grieve and celebrate together in safety. One could argue that perhaps there are many institutions that could provide this space: the local community centre perhaps, or the library, or maybe just even the town square. Like many others have done, however, I too would argue that if there is any relevance and purpose left for museums, then this is it. There is a need for places where we can encounter, share and further develop our collective memories and our collective aspirations – in many ways, museums are already set up as that. I think if museums really are serious about reflecting their communities, and providing a service to them, then we need this radical rethink that builds on and expands what museums are – both from museum professionals, but also crucially from decision makers. Museums need the political autonomy to explore and respond to the issues that are of concern to their communities. There cannot be any external, or internal censorship. If we are serious about being of service and use to our community, then this is what we need to do. Museums may well survive, drawing on the same white, educated, over 55 audience that lobbies for their funding as they’ve done for decades. But should they?

Notes

[1] You’ll know all about Ferguson, no doubt, but just in case you might want to read this. And for museum responses, check out Twitter #museumsrespondtoferguson.

[2] That’s the ‘MA’s vision for the impact museums can have on individuals, communities and society’ (see link).

[3] The joint statement by museum bloggers on Ferguson suggested otherwise: ‘As mediators of culture, all museums should commit to identifying how they can connect to relevant contemporary issues irrespective of collection, focus, or mission.’

[4] How many ethnographic collections are there in local history museums just because a notable citizen brought these back. Let’s not probe too deeply into where and how they got those items in the first place, or ask those ethical questions whether they should be on show at all.

[5] My colleague Adam Ditchburn has eloquently said it in August last year in this post: “I get that the ‘Coming of the Railways’ was a big deal, but for goodness sake, let it go, or tell me something new about it, or ask me to tell you something, just don’t make me read another panel about it.”

[6] I dismissed this at the time, assuming that it would be concerned only with acquisition and particularly disposal, as it seemed this is all that’s been in the MA news over recent months. However, laudably, the code of ethics does raise questions about museums’ role in society, and public access etc. Well worth responding to! You’ve got until Friday this week (13th Feb).

[7] I can’t embrace either of these – I think all religions at times in their history have a questionable track record of giving and deserving respect, and I’ve already made it clear that I do not hold objects in particular esteem for their own sake.

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