Sparked by my surprise to see a poll by Museum Next suggesting in the poll questions that a thing as Museum Neutrality exists and could be achieved, I thought I'd share again a few thoughts on the topic.
Unfortunately, the poll and its results hve been deleted since due to the amount of critical responses.
I respect the work Museum Next is doing very much and I do understand that if an article you worked on "backfires" (at least in the opinion of the one who put the labor in) it is not a desirable feeling. That said, I think it's been a lost opportunity to engage in the dialogue why the questions in the study were problematic in the first place, as they shaped massively the outcome of the poll. And why it's so critical to get advice from people from diverse backgrounds who are actually already doing a tremendous work in the field (have a look at LaTanya S. Autry's Social Justice and Museum Resource list and the work she has been doing together with Mike Murawski). In the following I'm continuing with my thoughts separate from the poll and in honor to give Jim at MuseumNext a break. Who knows, maybe he will be able to give more insights on the logistics of his poll on a later occasion (we as an arts community should be able to create safe spaces for discussion).
I've written a few months ago about Museums are not Neutral, just to state again loud and clear where I stand on the subject. The post sparked a huge amount of responses, and I got lots of encouragement but also an incredible amount of hateful mails on why I as a curator should know better that the biggest goal museums should strive for is neutrality.
It seems that people relate neutrality to a wider truth that museums need to protect at whatever cost necessary, even if the cost is producing inaccurate assumptions. The arguments pretending Museum Neutrality exists are connected to a wider narrative where cause and effect lead to problematic assumptions: the narrative that as female artists and artists of color are less represented in museums collections or part of large-scale exhibitions there has to be any truth that they are less qualified; that white male artists are entitled to success and others aren't; it's the same people who say things like "I don't see color" when talking about race; who argue that racism doesn't exist; the same people who believe intersectional feminism isn't needed and we all have the same rights; it's the same people who don't see the consequences certain sponsors do have in museum programming; who don't acknowledge that collectors are not just white men; that museum board members hold a lot of power and need to come from diverse backgrounds; that can't see that the focus on blockbuster exhibitions is not helping to diversify the art world; the same people who just don't acknowledge that museums are businesses that need to run numbers and that we need better mechanisms to protect museum workers against low wages or unpaid labor, hierarchies, misogyny, and racism.
To argue that Museum Neutrality exists and to silence museums means that museums aren't allowed to correct the heteronormative view and deal with colonial heritage. And by museums I mean ALL the people working there. Remember museums are not just buildings but animated through each individual who works there and who is connected to a community and experiences.
Museums need space to experiment, to attract new audiences, being allowed to redefine what a museum can be in the future, to look into the tasks and responsibilities of a museums in being more than just a mere building for displays, and to acknowledge that museums do hold the power to "legitimize" artists. An artist getting finally recognized by an institution is transformative, for the artist, and for the community she belongs to, finally seeing that someone connected to them gets to share stories that might resonate with this particular community.
A lot of the conversations around "Museums need to be Neutral" argue that museums shouldn't advocate against or endorse certain political groups/ opinions etc.. That means that political parties and groups can rent museum spaces or use museums for personal prestige purposes, and force museums to be inclusive spaces when that suits them, that hateful language can be used without consequences, that figures and resulting assumptions are often inaccurate, but that an institution is not allowed to speak up. It comes from a belief, that is sadly often proven to be true, that silence of an institutions keeps donors, board members and sponsors presumably generous and the cash keeps flowing.
Museums are connected to a sense of authority and truth as studies show, museums are more respected than the media (whatever that means, as there are enough journalists out there risking their lives to get us information), institutions are trustworthy and the most respected source for (historical) information. Museums belong to the educational realm and museums being forced to be silent - pretending that neutrality exists - ultimately means to value business over education.
Museums do serve the public, if they can't engage with their visitors in a matter that is aligned with sustainable values, meaning that hate speech and white supremacy (read: Nazis and racism) are condemned - I won't argue again why depriving somebody else of their humanity can never be a ground of discussion - it questions the relevance of museums in the future. There is nothing as relevant and powerful as deliberate care, showing why things matter and to use facts and figures for more kindness and empathy.
Some resources and current cases on why Museums are not neutral (Institutional Neutrality doesn't exist)
- Curator Says MoMA PS1 Wanted Her, Until She Had a Baby (New York Times, July 6, 2018)
Science Museum under pressure to shun big oil sponsorship, by Adam Vaughan (The Guardian, July 4, 2018)
"Stop trying to avoid the realities of life" by David Fleming (Museums Association, July 1, 2018)
Complicating the Narratives by Amanda Ripley (Solutions Journalism Network, June 27, 2018)
The Baltimore Museum Sold Art to Acquire Work by Underrepresented Artists, Julia Halperin (Arnet News, June 26, 2018)
German museums pushed to review colonial-era artifacts ‘blind spot’, by Christine Coester (Handelsblatt Global, May 19, 2018)
Institutional Neutrality Isn’t Reality by Julie Jones (May 1, 2018)
Is There Another Way? – Reflection on Museums, Neutrality and Activism, guest post by Douglas Worts (Blog og the Coalition of Museums for Climate Justice, April 2, 2018
Why in the Age of Trump, I Believe the Art World Must Become a Sanctuary, by Laura Raicovich (Frieze, March 14, 2018)
How should museums respond to Donald Trump? (The Art Newspaper, January 10, 2018)
'An untimely visit': Trump avoids protest at Mississippi Civil Rights Museum by Alan Huffman (The Guardian, December 9, 2017)
The museum will not be decolonised, by Sumaya Kassim (Media Diversified, November 15, 2017)
In an Era of Strife, Museums Collect History as It Happens by Graham Bowley (The New York Times, October 1, 2018).
Valuing Critical Inquiry Skills in Museum Literacy, by Lisa Gilbert (Social Studies Research and Practice, Fall 2016)
Beyond Neutrality, guest post by Sean Kelley ( AAM CENTER FOR THE FUTURE OF MUSEUMS BLOG, August 23, 2016