On Museum Neutrality: My Very Personal Take as a Curator

As I wrote recently in my Museums are not neutral piece I think neutrality is a myth, one that believes that neutrality is being above the everyday and safeguarding the truth, without actually acknowledging that neutrality means too that we tolerate narratives that believe they are superior to others and that exclude minorities, spread hate and actually reverse facts. Neutrality means to tolerate the intolerable and there is nothing honorable in this act.

I got a lot of responses concerning the last piece I wrote, lots of kindred spirits reached out (thank you so much for that) but also people who were really opinionated about defending neutrality (the heated discussion shows that such a thing as neutrality just doesn't exist and I'm really grateful for the debate). People tried to explain to me that museums need to set clear parameters about the issues on which they will take sides and that it is not the task of museums to embroil in popular controversies. Others stated that museums are supposed to (just) present the information and let the viewer make any judgement (that one made me want to bite my tongue). And there was actually someone telling me that a film museum, for example, would be hard pressed to eliminate Leni Riefenstahl's innovative camera and editing techniques... Quite frankly, it blows my mind that people think arguing against neutrality means to enforce the politics of censorship. It is not about excluding more people, the whole point is to diversify the arts and to question who gets to tell the stories in which way. I am not worried about Leni Riefenstahl (we can talk about her on a different occasion), I am concerned about communities who feel left out of discussions and barely get to be represented or whose stories get told but it feels like appropriation.

You want to know what I'm talking about? Feminism, colonial history, trans-cultural (migrant) storytelling, black (radical) thinking, LGBTQ rights, mental health issues..., and this list continues. The point is, that if we in the arts want to aspire to a wider truth we need to embrace the fact that vulnerability is the precondition of human contact. We need to nourish a climate that teaches, that if we lower our defense we will not be destroyed; if we admit that we don't know, we are encouraged to learn; if we show emotional empathy it is not a sign of weakness; if we want to engage with others in a meaningful way, we need to make it personal as this is the only truth that usually matters to any individual (as hard and irrational the arguments might sound).

As I stated in the other piece, I really believe that museums are its people: the audience, artists and the employed arts professionals, and this is why I think neutrality is just an excuse to keep the things as they are. While I have the art world in mind when I write down these thoughts, as this is my area of expertise, I do believe it is crucial for museums in general. We talk frequently about diversifying the arts and we need to finally start to talk about why it is so important. It is not just because it looks nice on a piece of paper. Diversification means that we honor that our experiences are different and that we will engage more passionately with experiences that we share. I really believe the private is political and we all develop a value and belief system based on the human experiences we all make throughout life. The colleagues and friends who are close to me and engaged in diverse discussions around feminism, historical memory, migrant storytelling, black radical thinking, postcolonial research or LGBTQ rights, are part of these conversations because of their private circumstances. They did not see themselves represented in the current discussions and wanted to get a fair chance to include their knowledge and discuss the dominant narrative. 

Talking about the myth of neutrality means also that we start to face important questions such as: What does an inclusive, diverse storytelling in museums look like? Who owns the right to tell certain stories without patronizing the discussion? How do we facilitate stories that are not part of our own experiences? How much are we as a museum community willing to rethink what a museum can look like and which tasks and duties it should have in the future? How do we present facts and information to an audience in a time a concept such as "alternative facts" got normalized and is spread very loudly? How do we keep the balance between the personal and public?

So here I am, taking the boldest step on this blog by making it very personal: I tell you what makes me care as a human being and what influenced my curatorial practice:

I am 31 years old and the child of two migrants who needed to leave their countries because of two fascist regimes: Spain and Portugal. They found a save place in Germany, a country that was blooming in the 60s and 70s and in search of workers. A term coined by the search for these kind of laborer was Gastarbeiter, translating into "guest worker" attributing them their place in society as a temporary guest - you know the rights and duties of guests. I grew up as their child, with their belief system of what it means to be an integrated citizen, often questioning the everyday racism I was seeing and experiencing.

I had the privilege to study and nourish my soul with thinkers and writers that I found relevant, I unfortunately didn't see most of them on our course curriculum at the University. Knowledge was the shield that protected me and gave me freedom and confidence to stand up.

When Spain was hit by the financial crisis in 2011, I got deeply engaged in the conversations taking place. It is not just my parents country, my spiritual upbringing was a mixture of cultures, my family's history is rooted in the Spanish historic struggles and the lack of Spanish historic memory dealing with the Franco Regime, and I grew up in another country, Germany, with their own troubling historic legacy. I feel connected to the North of Spain, to Galicia in particular, to the stories of fisherman, the wild Atlantic ocean, to its Celtic roots, and mountainous, green landscape. I am engaged in the conversations of unemployment, corruption, that the politics of the barrios (neighborhood communities) is more trustworthy than the government, the lack of postcolonial awareness and the troubling lack of historic memory concerning the fascist past. I can be engaged in these conversations AND be also engaged in the German everyday, be highly influenced through German thinkers, be present at the discussions and caring deeply about the politics. Migrants do have a divided sense of belonging which makes it sometimes so hard to define a concept as home.

To make it even more complicated, I moved happily at the end of 2015 to Switzerland - it is a privilege to be able to choose the country you want to live in. You get a sense on why the question: Where are you from? has never served me. Some questions are so limited that they simply aren't suited to appreciate the multitudes within us. 

As a women I am often the only one at the table and have been mansplained on various occasions, most annoyingly on topics that are part of my life experience and that I do know more about (remember migrant work ethics and the fear to lack knowledge so you study harder). 

My biography influenced the topics I find relevant up to this day and translates directly into the stories, art practices, and conversations I feel deeply connected with. Diversification of museums means that we embrace a conversation that makes the human experience a connection point and acknowledges the multitude of stories that our communities have experienced and still experience. It means that we honor new approaches, that we understand what has been left out for too long, that we nourish radical empathy. Not being neutral means to care, not just for our own experiences but also to facilitate new encounters with other narratives, and this is why I became a curator.