Museums Are Not Neutral

We live in a time where people mourn their dead, fear crawls into daily life and one headline leads to another. A certain narrative seems predominant these days trying to make us believe that we are divided by more than we have in common - depriving us of our humanity. There is no question whether museums can be part of these dialogues. They can, in fact, they have to and their museum policy resembles the questions of our time. The core of every institution is its people: the arts professionals employed there, artists and their own narrations their bringing, and, of course, the public. How could we not embrace the dialogue when people come together? And aren't museums exactly a space for encounter, for getting acquainted with familiar problems that we engage with, or with unfamiliar things that spark our curiosity and of course with narrations we find problematic, and where silence is no longer an option.

I find myself often in passionate conversations about, whether museums are (still) relevant and/ or that museums should be neutral. Let me state loud and clear, that museums have never been neutral. An important part of a museum is to state facts. There shouldn't be a confusion about whether museums need to speak up against any form of misinformation, lack to state the sources, fight any form of hate in its community, protect the values that embrace the integrity of minorities and discuss which narratives need to be enforced.

And still, I do find myself in arguments that if museums use public money they should not have any political opinion; that museums are temples of knowledge and need to keep their neutrality as they are above the everyday; that art in general cannot change anything...; What these people don't acknowledge is the fact that museums have evolved from a temple of muses and knowledge that preserved the purity of the genius of a few (usually straight white men) to huge and central figures in the cultural and economic life of a city. There is no doubt that museums enrich the cultural economy of cities and become leading tourist attractions. As soon as there is money involved interests come into conflict (Sponsorship does matter!).

The range of visibility of big museums and museum brands like the Guggenheim, Tate or Louvre is different than the one of more regional or local museums. Nevertheless, museums cannot act outside the circumstances of the time they are in. If we want them to freely act as pillars of our cultural dialogues we need to carefully talk about their sensitivity to political decisions, censorship and the financial economy.

I sometimes do get the impression that the people who argue so passionately that museums need to keep their neutral role are afraid to endanger the purity of the art temple and that art might suddenly be complicated and relevant, and actually be open to engage with the whole public and not just with a few who are able to decipher the art code. And there is indeed the danger that if museums do take a stand, they might get instrumentalized by politics, be more sensitive to suffer financial cut backs and they risk not being "liked" by everybody anymore (has there ever been an illusion that we are?). A clear language might not be common in a world in which we talk in PR statements and a so called thought leader constructed a concept that we actually refer to as "alternative facts". But if museums, who deal with history and the contemporary, choose neutrality they choose silence and as history has shown us in many examples: Silence means complicity with the demons of their times.
 

If we want to engage critically with history and with our present times we need to engage with these questions:

  • If our definition on the neutrality of museums is based on (hetero)normative standards, shouldn't museums engage with what and who states the "norm"?
  • There should be no doubt that commemorative culture is highly political. Which narrative gets valued in our historical thinking? Who gets publicly commemorated and space or monuments to enforce the narrative?
  • How can museums engage with their communities without turning into dispassionate agents?
  • How can museums take a stand and still try to be sensitive to the future discussions without limiting themselves to the possible outcome? Museums can’t dictate what people are going to think or how they’re going to respond and react.
  • How much freedom of expression are institutions willing to give to all of their employees?
  • How can a code of ethics concerning the limits of museums neutrality look like? An ICOM Code of Ethics for Museums does exist but it does not contain concrete parts on museum neutrality and resulting conflicts. Keywords such as diversity, equality and community engagement are never free of political implications.

What you've just read is my opinion and I hope that more people will join this conversation. I'd love to hear from you. Have a look at the hashtag #MuseumsAreNotNeutral and make yourself heard. 

Mike Murawski created together with LaTanya Autry this t-shirt along with a campaign to spark conversations about the role of museums, while raising funds to support the work of the Southern Poverty Law Center.
 

Here are a few examples from museum and cultural organization  that actually inspired this blog post:

Europe

Beat Hächler spoke at MuseumNext USA in 2016 about the Transformation of the Swiss Alpine Museum’ and how they try to engage in contemporary dialogues even though they are a local museum with a very specific focus.

Europe/ Russia

The curation of the European Biennale Manifesta is always accompanied with various political decisions and local problems. The 10th edition took place in St. Petersburg during a highly political time and with boycotts from artists who did not want to engage in the curatorial decisions of Manifesta. They published a highly interesting journal on the curatorial practices and the editorial reads as following: "Caught up in the confused dynamics of political turmoil, the conditions hold us hostage unless we somehow manage to change them. Yet if we accept and internalize the imperatives of power not to address “complicated issues,” we will most likely end up ignoring the elephants in the room. One of these elephants is the MANIFESTA 10 Biennial in St. Petersburg, which has taken place amidst the authoritarian political turn in Russia. While the editorial team of this journal is certainly concerned with the exhibition and the debates it has provoked, it must be said very emphatically that MANIFESTA in St. Petersburg is certainly not the only recent event to present its producers with difficult circumstances. How do we describe the difference between our various complications, and do they really add up to something like a global turn? Furthermore, how can we continue our various engagements, despite the overwhelming pressure to boycott, withdraw, and resign?"

United States

There are many examples on the Anne Frank Center's Twitter feed

anne frank.png

 

  • I was very irritated about the opinion pieces of in the NYPost Playing politics with the Holocaust Museum
     
  • "Here at Eastern State Penitentiary we are rewriting our mission statement to remove the word “neutral.”We believe that the bedrock value that many of us brought into this field—that museums should strive for neutrality—has held us back more than it has helped us. Neutrality is, after all, in the eye of the beholder. At Eastern State, more often than not, the word provided us an excuse for simply avoiding thorny issues of race, poverty and policy that we weren’t ready to address."
     - Sean Kelley, Beyond Neutrality (2016)
  • Gretchen Jennings reflected on the Museum commons page in her post the Idea of Museum Neutrality: Where Did it Come From?

  • The Limits of Neutrality: A Message From The Natural History Museum

  •  Suse Anderson alias Museumgeek wrote a few years ago about the The Political Museum Professional

  • "We are professional conservators.  We abide by our Code of Ethics and Guidelines for Practice. We preserve objects for future generations. We are doing the right thing. We have the privilege of an unfettered access to objects and collections, with the authority to change or even erase a previous intervention on an object with the sweep of a cotton swab, the stoke of a brush, or an adjustment on a pressure-washer. It is precisely because we can claim this kind of authority, privilege, and power that we must re-examine the very core of who we are, what we do, and why we work.  It is precisely because we have the ability and authority to maintain, change or erase histories, stories, memories and identities through our interventions on objects, sites and collections that we must re-engage with three key questions: Who are we? Whoseobjects are we conserving? Why does conservation matter?"
    Race, Diversity, and Politics in Conservation: Our 21st century Crisis - Sanchita Balachandran

  • "Art and culture constitute fundamental dimensions of human life, and they are shot through with ethical complications. Taking art seriously requires taking ethics seriously; not just through potted codes of conduct, but sustained and critical research. Just as the US National Institutes of Health have a department of bioethics, the Smithsonian, as a predominantly government-funded institution, should have a department that focuses on exploring the ethics of art and culture; other leading museums should follow suit. Such a move might open these institutions to new lines of criticism concerning their collections, practices, and histories, but it would also promise new avenues for manifesting the commitment to the importance of art that they claim as their mission."
    Erich Hatala Matthes for Apollo Magazine on Why museums need their own ethics departments