Free to speak?

Alistair Brown, 02.11.2016
What does censorship look like in museums today?
Does censorship exist in museums today? The word "censorship" conjures up images of Soviet repression, dictators and despots. But experience tells us that we must remain vigilant to instances of censorship in the UK – even in the museum sector.

History and art remain battlegrounds in debates on identity, politics and the limits of public acceptability. By their very nature, museums and galleries find themselves in the middle of these debates – and that’s a good thing. Something would surely be wrong if museums and galleries weren’t breaking new and sometimes controversial ground in their research and programming.

But pushing limits and upsetting accepted norms can provoke backlash. Sometimes this comes from outside the museum. The Barbican’s 2014 decision to put on the performance Exhibit B, which dealt with the cultural legacy of slavery, was met with fierce protests from those who saw it as promoting racist views, and was subsequently shut down by the police.

However, it’s far more common for museums to experience a form of self-censorship. Decisions are made internally, often before an exhibition or event sees the light of day, which prevent valid work from being taken forward. I recently came across the case of a council manager who stopped a museum from engaging with German counterparts on a WWI remembrance and reconciliation project.
 
Other instances of self-censorship are more complex. Curators must ask difficult questions when dealing with the legacies of artists who would be deemed criminals were they alive today.

Nathaniel Hepburn, the director of the Ditchling Museum of Art and Craft, currently chooses not to disclose in the museum's displays the sexual abuse carried out by institution's most celebrated artist, Eric Gill. Is this, too, a form of self-censorship? Or is it part and parcel of the curator’s role as a gatekeeper of information?
 
Censorship is difficult territory. But undoubtedly there is a sort of risk-aversion present in both managers and curatorial staff which can prevent museums from dealing honestly with their audiences. That’s an impulse that we should be wary of, as curators find themselves unable to foster debate, encourage a range of different views and present exciting new work because of the fear of causing offence.
 
I’ll be discussing these issues with Nathaniel Hepburn, Julia Farrington of the Index on Censorship and Janet Marstine of Leicester University at the MA conference in Glasgow at the session Free to Speak: Confronting Censorship and Controversy on Monday 7 November at 3pm in the Lomond Room at the SECC.

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