The museum activist

Sharon Heal, 31.01.2017
How you can take action with your organisation
At the Museums Association we’ve been thinking and talking about activism for some time now and at the turn of the year I outlined some values and behaviours I’d like to see a little more of in museums in 2017.

The themes were bravery, passion, empathy and activism. Of course we all knew we had a Trump administration ahead – but perhaps there were some lingering doubts about just how intolerant it would be.

Unfortunately the last few days have proved the optimists wrong. But I have been heartened by the many responses from colleagues around the world who are asking what museums can do in these challenging times.

I know Twitter can be an echo chamber, and there’s a danger of tweeting to the converted, but there was a wonderful and very fast paced debate on #museumshour earlier this week in response to the question about how we might respond to the Muslim ban (really don’t quibble, if it sounds like a ban, smells like a ban and looks like a ban – then it is a ban).

I hope I don’t have to rehearse the reasons why Trump’s executive order is wrong: prejudice, bigotry, racism, discrimination etc; but the question of what, if anything, museums and the people who work in them should do is interesting.

There’s a great blog by Robin Clarke at the School of Museum Studies which has suggestions about how museums can represent diverse communities, be welcoming and inclusive spaces, and record and document protest. So far so easy.

But he also argues that we need to be activists, and this is where some people who work in museums might start shifting uneasily from one foot to the other.

But what does activism mean? I think activism can be found in many small, disruptive and nuanced acts as well as the more overt and traditional forms of protest.

Ultimately it means not settling for the status quo and wanting and trying to make a difference.

I know it’s sometimes difficult to find a voice in hierarchical and bureaucratic organisations. So here’s a starter for ten that we could all sign up to: 19-25 June is Refugee Week, organised by the Refugee Council. This year the theme is Different Pasts, Shared Future. For museum activists, what could be more fitting than that?


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Robin Clarke
Distance Learning Academic Manager, School of Museum Studies, University of Leicester
31.01.2017, 19:01
Thanks for the plug, Sharon .

I agree, activism can be small acts, sometimes as simple as expressing an opinion, challenging the concept of neutrality in the museum (or any other organisation for that matter), supporting an organisation or a cause. As you say, trying to make a difference, trying to make the world a slightly better place. And with what we've witnessed over the last few days, I'd also agree that Refugee Week is a great place to start.