Dealing with controversial subjects is a sensitive issue

Museums displaying historical objects with contentious stories have to tread carefully
Nicola Sullivan
Museums and galleries’ capacity to respond thoughtfully  to traumatic events and challenging topics has been thoroughly tested in recent times.

But what they react to and how they respond is largely determined by an institution’s organisational structure, mission and values, as well as the items held in its existing collection.
For example, it was appropriate for the Museum of Homelessness (MoH) – an activist and community-focused organisation launched earlier this year – to respond to the devastating fire on 14 June at London’s Grenfell Tower in north Kensington, which at the time of writing had claimed 79 lives. MoH founders, Jess and Matt Turtle attended a protest calling for justice for residents and released a statement and call to action, highlighting the housing issues in London.
“The underlying problem is that the housing stock in London – and increasingly in other cities such as Manchester – is being simply viewed as investment potential rather than people’s homes, and Kensington and Chelsea is no exception,” said the statement.
MoH has also been supporting the Grenfell Tower relief effort and making connections with organisations such as the Radical Housing Network, of which the Grenfell Action Group is a part.

Delicate process

While the museum will add two banners used on one of the demonstrations to its collection, it won’t formally begin to collect objects relating to the tragedy unless the local community wants it to.  “The ask would need to come from them,” says Jess Turtle.
Collecting objects relating to events as they happen can be a challenging and delicate process. It often involves taking risks and getting hold of hard-to-retrieve objects and conveying highly sensitive information.
The Migration Museum Project, which has secured a space in south London, found it challenging to source objects for its first exhibition Call me by my Name: Stories from Calais and beyond, which took place last year.
Aid worker and artist Sarah Savage collected more than 100 lifejackets (many of which were dangerous fakes) that had been abandoned on the beaches of the Greek island of Kos. Even though Savage had collected the lifejackets before a ruling was passed that said all items washed up on Kos’s beaches were the property of the government, she still had difficulties convincing some couriers to ship them.
More recently, Manchester Museum negotiated with the authorities of the Greek island of Lesbos to acquire one lifejacket for its collection. Bryan Sitch, the museum’s deputy head of collections, says it has been working with the Common Cause Foundation on interpretating the migrant crisis, as part of efforts to promote its values of tolerance, understanding and compassion.

To this end, visitors are encouraged to comment on the lifejacket using the hashtag #MMLifeJacket. “All the comments so far have been very sympathetic, saying what a good thing it is for the museum to show objects like this,” says Sitch.  

Connecting up

The museum has also managed to link its historical artefacts with contemporary art, as part of its response to current political debate on the subject of migration.

Syrian-born artist Zahed Taj-Eddin has created an installation called Shabtis: Suspended Truth, which is inspired by the museum’s collection of Egyptian shabti figurines that were placed in tombs as servants for the afterlife. The blue shabti figures appear in unexpected contexts around the museum, with many suspended in the Ancient Worlds gallery space.

“When ancient Egyptians put shabtis in the tomb, they were launching them into eternity in a similar way to how Syrian refugees launch themselves into the sea,” Sitch says.

While some museums can respond to contemporary events fairly quickly, cultural institutions trying to tell controversial or difficult stories relating to established collections can find it takes time to convince stakeholders.

This was the case for the Ditchling Museum of Art + Craft in the planning process for its exhibition Eric Gill: The Body (until 2 September). Featuring more than 80 works by the artist from public and private collections, the exhibition questions whether visitors’ enjoyment of the art is compromised by his sexual abuse of his two teenage daughters. Among the works are some of his daughter Petra that were made at the time of the abuse.  

The museum’s director, Nathaniel Hepburn, used the Museums Association’s Code of Ethics to explain his decision-making around the exhibition. In particular, he referred to three of its principles: to provide and generate accurate information for and with the public; to treat everyone equally, with honesty and respect; and to support freedom of speech and debate.
“I think that by not having the language and not having the confidence to engage proactively with the issues [of sexual abuse], we were censoring our collection,” Hepburn says.

One of the most shocking items on display is an envelope on which Gill has recorded his daughter’s body measurements alongside his own body measurements, including his penis size.

“This is a horrible and upsetting document, and we have chosen to show it within the context of this exhibition,” Hepburn says. “There should not be objects within museum collections that can’t be shown.”

Gill’s depictions of the female form are tempered by works created by sculptor Cathie Pilkington, who acted as co-curator of the exhibition. One such work is Twinkle – a statue of a prepubescent girl that takes centre stage outside the exhibition, a space normally reserved for the work of Gill. “She talks about it as a work that attempts to capture and convey the non-sexual power of young femininity,” says Hepburn.   

Visitor feedback

Audiences are invited to share their views of the exhibition in the reflective space of the reading room, where they are asked to record how they felt about the exhibition; whether they could enjoy the beauty of the work with knowledge of Gill’s biography; and mention the works that most stood out in a positive or negative way.
The museum has also secured funding from Arts Council England to appoint a writer-in-residence, who will use the visitors’ thoughts to produce a final written piece.
The exhibition took two years to put together.

During this time, the museum worked with child sex abuse survivor organisations on the impact the exhibition could have on those who have experienced abuse, as well as the language used in the interpretation. The National Association of People Abused as Children trained staff in how survivors of abuse might experience the exhibition.
Many museums and sites still harbour the ghosts of shameful aspects of the country’s or an individual’s past, most notably colonialism and the slave trade. A petition calling for a Bristol University building named after tobacco baron Henry Overton Wills to be renamed, amid claims he had links to the slave trade, raises an interesting question.

Should cultural institutions rewrite the sometimes unreliable narrative of history as it has been told or let the physical manifestations of it speak for themselves by taking a  more honest approach to interpretation?

Bryan Sitch, Nathaniel Hepburn and Elizabeth Crooke will present a session called The Fearful Object at the Museums Association’s Conference & Exhibition in Manchester, 16-18 November.

Moving tragic artefacts into a public space creates shared remembrance

Insights into the power of contemporary collecting in the wake of high-profile atrocities are gained by looking at cultural projects interpreting conflicts in Northern Ireland.  

A soon-to-be published paper, Memory Politics and Material Culture, written by Elizabeth Crooke, the professor of museum and heritage studies at Ulster University, explores the significance of artefacts displayed at the Museum of Free Derry, which tells the story of Bloody Sunday 30 January 1972, when 13 Catholics participating in an anti-internment march died after being shot by British soldiers. A 14th victim died months later.

“When the bodies of those who lost their lives were returned to their families their blood-stained clothes, and the few things they had in their pockets, became part of the record of what happened that day and a final link with the deceased,” writes Crooke.

Artefacts on display at the museum include clothing the victims wore on the day they were killed, as well as personal items treasured by their families.

Crooke’s paper draws on interviews with three people who loaned objects to the museum. Analysis of these interviews underlines the significance of transferring the objects from the home to the “memorial” museum. “Within the museum, they are part of the collective effort of public and shared remembrance and a means to forge how the events are remembered.”
One such object is the blood-stained coat of 22-year-old victim James Wray. The bullet entry hole through the back of the coat is still marked with the  stickers used during the Saville inquiry – a 12-year investigation that exonerated those who died.

Crooke explains that although the coat is an inanimate object, it “has a spirit or force that gives it charge in contemporary circumstances”.   

In an interview in 2011, James’s brother Liam Wray said: “You can say to people what happened, but you can clearly see the entry bullets at the back of the coat and the horrendous exit wounds on his shoulder and  side. When you see something in its material form, it focuses your attention on that day. In a sense, it keeps the memory of my brother alive.”

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