Addressing the issue

Sharon Heal, 08.09.2015
Museums should do more to reflect contemporary concerns
It feels like the world has turned upside down. In just a few days, rightwing newspapers have gone from bemoaning and demonising asylum seekers to campaigning for extra resources and organising crisis appeals.

The images of a dead child on a beach and his father’s desperate tale of flight and attempts to find shelter for his family are heart-wrenching, as are the stories of the thousands who marched through Hungary trying to reach a place of safety.

It immediately made me wonder what, if anything, museums in those countries and here in the UK are doing to highlight this issue?

There are many museums that deal with the Holocaust, either in permanent or temporary exhibitions, and some that touch on genocide and other atrocities.

These are difficult subjects but ones that most people accept should be studied, remembered and commemorated if they are to be understood and not repeated.

But we often find it more difficult to reflect on and represent more recent events, especially those that are close to home, in our museums. The lens of history – even a decade or so – makes us feel more comfortable.

I live in the East End of London and was affected by the flight to Syria of three girls from a school not far from the one my own teenage daughter attends.

It is shocking to me that these girls could feel so disenfranchised and disengaged that they would choose to join the Islamic State in Syria. And it made me question what museums are doing to work with families and schools where children are in danger of being attracted to fundamentalist and extremist ideologies.

The Museum of Childhood is in Bethnal Green close to where these young girls went to school and lived. The Ragged School Museum, which tells the story of bringing free education to the poverty stricken families of the East End, is just a stones throw away. And 19 Princelet Street, an historic house in Spitalfields that aims to tell stories of migration, would be well-placed to tell to deal with this sensitive subject if only it were open more often.

You might argue that it’s not the business of museums to tackle subjects as difficult and contested as fundamentalism and migration. However I think that many are well placed to host discussions and debates on these issues and they can provide precisely the historical context that is needed.


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Craig Middleton
MA Member
Public Programs Officer, History SA
10.09.2015, 00:25
I think this is a spot-on argument. I work for History SA in South Australia and among our other museums we manage the Migration Museum (the first of its kind in the world). Our subject matter can be seen as political by nature. We are by no means a political museum but more a museum of those who people South Australia and with that comes challenging stories. It is not out of the realm of possibility for museums to actively participate in contemporary issues, and challenging issues at that.