Tools of the museum activist

Chris Garrard, 07.12.2016
With society shifting, now's the time to talk tactics
Museum activism is becoming a rich field of diverse tactics for change. Whether it is staff advocating from within the museum, or creative campaigners arriving unannounced, we all take our cue from the museum and the values that can be discovered through engaging with its collection.

In recent years, members of the Art Not Oil coalition have given theatrical performances, created art installations and organised exhibitions inside oil-sponsored spaces, inspired by collections while also making an institutional critique.

Museums often provide a focal point for activists due to their symbolic status in society, and for those groups that are underrepresented in the political process, museums can provide important recognition of their identities.

Last month, LGBTQ+ activists called for the creation of a dedicated gay and trans rights museum by touring significant sites around London with symbolic pink filing cabinets. Those filing cabinets signified that the history of gay rights is largely still invisible and gathers dust in archives.

The LGBT network at Royal Museums Greenwich, and the influence it has had over the events programme there, is perhaps the logical complement to their call, as it has demonstrated how LGBT histories can be made visible within museums.

If museum activists are to catalyse bigger shifts in society, we need to understand how our campaigns are connected and work to build relationships of solidarity that will increase our impact.

Art Not Oil’s campaign against oil sponsorship of cultural institutions has deepened with the backing of the PCS Union, building upon a shared understanding that government funding cuts are a key pressure that has pushed forward privatisation, impacted staff and forced fundraisers to contemplate sponsors that we consider to be unethical.

We should resist the urge to mark activism out as something specialist though. A museum engages in a form of activism by simply refusing to be a neutral civic space. For example, involving staff in developing or renewing ethics policies should not be a bureaucratic process but a means of exploring how values can be embodied at all levels of the museum’s work.

Two years ago, the Victoria and Albert Museum hosted Disobedient Objects, a bold exhibition that explored a range of tools and tactics that have emerged from political activism. Featured in that exhibition was a handkerchief that had been embroidered by a Mexican activist with the words of her friend, the human rights defender Letty Hidalgo. Those words were a poignant message from Letty to her son Roy, who was forcibly disappeared in 2011.

When Letty visited the UK a few months ago to have the handkerchief returned to her, she was able to give talks, meet other campaigners and join peaceful demonstrations. That simple act of returning the handkerchief had, in some respects, also become a form of activism.

Now, in the face of growing xenophobia, political instability and environmental crisis, we need to ask how museums can play a transformative role in society and not settle for “best practice”.

Prior to his role at the British Museum, Hartwig Fischer was director at the Dresden State Art Collections. When supporters of the far-right Pegida movement reacted angrily to “Dresden for all” being projected on the museums façade, he “consciously took the decision not to remain neutral”.

Fischer made speeches to citizens’ groups opposing Pegida and persuaded the government to let the museum hang large banners outside its building featuring the words: “Works from Five Continents. A House Full of Foreigners.” Fischer’s strong commitment to the values of his institution led him to undertake these bolder forms of activism.

And in October, Museum Detox, a collective that is “bored of the handwringing in our industry,” also decided to take bolder action. They held a flash-mob in the Museum of London for people of colour working in the sector, highlighting how museums and galleries still fail to attract non-white audiences. Their willingness to take this action has already catalysed an important debate around inclusion and representation.

At the Museums Association’s AGM this year, Sharon Heal emphasised that museums make up a “values-based sector”. With the range of tools and tactics growing, museum activism is what will help to promote and put those values into practice in new ways.

And if we continue to work more collaboratively in our campaigns, we can also build those joined-up strategies that will bring about the bigger social shifts we want to see.

Chris Garrard is a composer and campaigns on ethical sponsorship with Culture Unstained, a member group of the Art Not Oil coalition