Museums are not playgrounds for pet political projects

The movement to make museums the focus for work around social justice and human rights can only undermine their main purpose: the curation and display of objects.

Wendy Earle

Topics Books

In 2004, James Cuno, then director of the Art Institute of Chicago, and a number of his colleagues in the American art museum world, called for fresh thinking on how to argue more effectively for public funding that didn’t rely on (often spurious) causal links between the arts and social, economic and educational benefits. In Whose Muse? Art Museums and the Public Trust, they pointed to the problem of a decline in the perceived authority of museums, and a loss of confidence in their value as arbiters and guardians of the world’s artistic achievements.

One of the contributors to that book, James Wood, makes the point that: ‘The public’s trust allows us first and foremost to exercise authority which, in our democracy, public institutions are granted in return for service. However, since the legitimacy of our museums is based first on trust and only indirectly on law, defining the nature of the museum’s authority may help to answer the persistent question: what is it that can elicit trust on the part of the public?’

Wood’s essay goes on to explore the idea of authority, and it is well worth a read. However, here I am referring to the book by way of introducing a more recent publication, Museums, Equality and Social Justice, edited by Richard Sandell, professor of museum studies at Leicester University, and Eithne Nightingale, head of diversity and equality at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum (the V&A). This is one of the latest contributions in a burgeoning field that explores ways of justifying and expanding the role of museums in society. Cuno and his colleagues, for example, were reeling from recent attacks on museums relating to how they acquired many of the objects in their collections – through imperialism and war – and this led them to the observation that ‘people are beginning to wonder about museums and about what and whom we stand for’.

Museums and galleries are popular destinations and have increased their visitor numbers substantially over the past few decades, alongside launching many successful initiatives to reach wider audiences online. Nevertheless, there is now an endemic uncertainty about the value of culture and role of cultural institutions such as museums. If many major collections were built on nefarious practices by the elites that created and governed museums, what can be the basis for the trust in museums and galleries that is implicit in their receipt of taxpayers’ money?

The authors of the essays in Sandell and Nightingale’s book represent a substantial movement within the museum sector that aims to find an answer to this question in the idea of social justice and human rights. This movement is reflected in the prevailing criticism that museums are not sufficiently inclusive of non-white, non-middle-class audiences; the movement’s concerns are expressed in the preoccupation with the museum’s role in social change, a preoccupation which has become increasingly intense over the past 20 years. This is evident in the Museums Association’s current campaign Museums 2020, which aims ‘to create a bold vision for UK museums and their impact – the difference museums can have on individuals, communities, society and the environment’.

Any survey of museum history tells us that the role of museums has never been static. Over the course of time, since they began to be established about 200 years ago, their functions have varied and evolved depending on changing ideological, social, political and economic factors. However, as has been argued elsewhere in spiked (1), the past 15 to 20 years have seen a steady erosion of confidence in what museums have historically become uniquely valued for: the selection and care of objects for viewing and studying.

Over the past few years, a growing investment in promoting the social responsibilities of museums has generated a whole new industry within the museum sector. As Sandell and Nightingale note, the issues of equality and social justice have moved increasingly from the margins to the mainstream of museum work, signalled by a conference at one of Britain’s biggest and most influential museums, the V&A, in 2010.

Museums, Equality and Social Justice is an edited collection of essays based on the V&A conference, aimed primarily at professionals in the museum sector and museums studies course reading lists. There are 37 contributors, mostly museum professionals and academics, mainly from the UK, but also from the US, Australia, Europe, Taiwan and Yemen. The essays exemplify the practices, processes and changes in this new – but increasingly well charted – territory for museums and are largely descriptive, detailing work that has been done to develop this area of museum practice. Divided into three sections, the book maps the steady progress of the social justice agenda ‘from the margins to the core’ (Part I); explores the opportunities and tensions of ‘connecting/competing equalities’ (Part II); and finally considers ‘museums and the good society’ (Part III). Although it reflects various perspectives on the kinds of issues museums should address, its central argument is that ‘social justice’ can and should be central to the mission of museums in the twenty-first century, and this is the issue I want to challenge.

Sandell’s essay at the beginning of the third section represents the main thrust of the book, making a case for putting human rights at the heart of museum practice. He recognises that the ‘idea of human rights’ has widespread support as a principle (making it an attractive, if opportunist, focus for museum work), but in practice, that idea is subject to much contestation. He uses a piece of evaluative research (focusing on a controversial social justice-oriented exhibition at the Glasgow Museum of Modern Art in 2009) to explore ‘how and why museums, typically risk-averse institutions that prefer to avoid controversy, are increasingly taking up human rights as an interpretive frame through which to address and engage visitors in debating diverse contemporary social concerns’.

Although Sandell acknowledges the tensions that can be generated through controversies ignited by exhibitions that challenge ‘normative values’, he believes that museums should become ‘sites of moral activism’ that ‘actively seek to build public and political support for more progressive human rights values’. His chapter at no point refers to the aesthetic qualities of the art on display, but rather focuses on social-justice considerations.

Despite his recognition that ‘human rights’ is a contested concept, Sandell does not interrogate his own interpretation. He acknowledges that claims around the ‘moral universality’ of human rights, ‘naturally held by all human beings regardless of the circumstances in which they live’, have been challenged by cultural relativism. But he argues that museums can play an important role in negotiating the ‘difficult territory between globally framed (often more inclusive and cosmopolitan) understandings of justice and locally inscribed (frequently more exclusive and conservative) rights regimes’.

His own proto-universalist framework appears attractively tolerant. The example he focuses on, of an art exhibition being used to explore issues of lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans-gender (and ultimately inter-gender) rights (LGBTI), celebrates the challenging subversions of normative values posed by the exhibits. However, implicit within his commentary is a lack of tolerance of views that refuse to accept this politicisation of the arts, expressed both in a condemnation of the media for its sensationalising of the exhibition and in a celebration of visitors who expressed support for the exhibition. Thus, he claims museums and galleries can play a role ‘in engendering public support for more progressive conceptions of human rights’.

The very fact that these conceptions are contested belies the claim that we can assume them to be progressive. Moreover, the meaning of ‘rights’ has been stretched to embrace such a variety of claims (from animal rights to cultural rights) that it is no longer clear what the term means. Yet museums are being set up by Sandell as arbiters and guardians of a new moral framework based on ‘progressive’ human rights, without any clear understanding of what that means.

Nevertheless, Sandell seems keen to dismiss the anxieties of conservatives who fear the controversies generated by challenging ‘normative ideas about justice and fairness’. However, the potential consequence of embracing the trend advocated by the authors of this book – albeit while recognising the tensions and difficulties involved – is a further undermining of public trust in museums.

A more balanced approach to the question of whether museums should take up a role in promoting equality and social justice might have taken more seriously the discourses in the media. Not only do these media discourses need to be taken up on the specifics of the issues – like the entitlements of LGBTI individuals – but in terms of whether museums should be engaging at all in these debates at the expense of considering what counts as art or as an historic object worthy of public consideration. Sandell’s essay does not address this issue, and there is no discussion of the aesthetic or historic importance of museum collections in the book – despite this being a major concern of people who question the politicisation of museums. Instead, there is a sense of self-disgust in descriptions of museums as ‘slow-moving, fragmented… traditional… hierarchical…’ and insufficiently ‘exciting… humorous… quirky… inspirational… and popular’. Sandell is also impatient with (the rapidly diminishing) numbers of staff and museum-board trustees who express resistance to the new agenda or vision of museums pursuing a social-justice agenda (2), and of the media which sensationalises museum-generated controversies.

Focusing on equality and social justice will not restore public trust in museums. The obsession with social justice simply complicates what museums represent, and opens them up to a permanent sense of contestation, in which their collections get lost in a wavering and destabilising process of trying to be all things to all people. Advocates of human rights (in their various manifestations) might welcome new opportunities offered by museums to get their messages across. However, many of us who go to galleries and museums to enjoy them for what they are – amazing and intriguing collections of art and artefacts – resent being ambushed by politically charged and dubious messages embedded in the exhibits. There is still a need for a book that provides what Cuno and his colleagues asked for – a fresh and authoritative defence of museum collections.

Museums, Equality and Social Justice, edited by Richard Sandell and Eithne Nightingale, is published by Routledge.

Wendy Earle is impacts and knowledge exchange manager, Birkbeck, University of London and the convenor of Institute of Ideas Arts and Society Forum.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Books


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