Only a decade ago, the concept of museums as spaces for action on social justice, inequality or the climate emergency was far from widely accepted. While cultural institutions have a long tradition of exploring the activism of others, it is only in recent years that many have themselves become vocal on issues of social and political significance.
Today, demands for an end to neutrality across the sector have given rise to a wave of action and, for some, this now extends to challenging government policy.
Announced in May 2021, the Nationality and Borders Bill is intended, among other things, to make provision about nationality, asylum and immigration. If passed, the controversial bill will make it a criminal offence to arrive in the UK without permission, allow the UK to send asylum seekers to a safe third country and grant government the power to strip people of their British citizenship, without notice.
Taking a stand
At the beginning of January, the Museum of Homelessness put its name to an open letter opposing the bill and calling for members of parliament and the public to do the same. Museum co-founder, Jessica Turtle, says the bill will directly affect the Museum of Homelessness’ community and as such, it is only natural that the museum should oppose it.
“We think this is a devastating piece of legislation and we'll do anything that we can, in coalition with others, to stop it,” she says.
Referencing recent campaigns for change across the sector, Turtle believes it is now time to think carefully about how we, as individuals and institutions, confront the issues facing the UK today.
“I think the thing to hold on to in all of this, is that these pieces of legislation will directly affect museum staff, museum audiences and museum communities, so museums are responsible to stand up against them,” she says.
“It’s really, really important that as organisations, we are able to take a stand now, otherwise, we're failing the people that we’re responsible for.”
Tidal wave of change
Founded in 2015, activism has been at the heart of the Museum of Homelessness’ work from its inception. The museum came into existence at a difficult time for people who are homeless, migrants, people of colour, LGBTQ+ people and many others, and so community support for an active museum was high, Turtle says.
“We lobby and campaign around legislation, but we also take direct practical action as needed in serving the community, using museum resources to really support people through what is a very difficult time, politically and socially in the UK,” she says.
Turtle believes that desire for active participation can be seen not just within the Museum of Homelessness’ own community, but from across the industry itself. There is great work happening across the sector, she says, placing us in the midst of a tidal wave of change.
Towards the end of 2021, People’s History Museum (PHM) also began to call for the government to re-think its approach to the Nationality and Borders Bill, adding its voice to the Together With Refugees coalition. In the year ahead, head of collections and engagement, Jenny Mabbott, plans to work closely with the museum’s staff, community and trustees to establish campaigning as a proactive part of their programming.
“We've been talking for a while at PHM about wanting to speak more on issues that are important to us, particularly on the subject matter of our collection,” Mabbott says.
“The Nationality and Borders Bill relates to the work that we've done with communities, so it felt like we just couldn't sit by and say nothing. We are in a fortunate position, in that we're an independent museum and so we're able to take action relatively quickly.”
Discovering the issues communities expect museums to take action on is increasingly important, Mabbott says, both in remaining relevant to existing visitors and in reaching new audiences.
Presented to four institutions that proposed projects deemed to represent museum practice shaped out of ethically informed values, the Museum of Homelessness and People’s History Museum were both recipients of the 2021-22 Activist Museum Award.
“If you look in the last few years, the idea that museums aren't neutral, the idea that museums are active in the social and political world, they're not set apart from that, that has gained greater traction, recognition, and interest,” says Richard Sandell, co-director of the Research Centre for Museums and Galleries at Leicester University and co-author of Museum Activism, which provided the inspiration for the Activist Museum Award.
“And yet, ideas about how you do that work, how you get involved in it, how you navigate often contentious issues are still quite an emerging field. There's some really exciting practice around the world, but it's far from settled and resolved.”
The Activist Museum Award is therefore intended to recognise museums that are undertaking activism in creative ways, whether that be experimental and challenging or more traditional and socially focused, and to draw attention to their practice.
A new age of museums
Museum activism should not be considered an optional or extreme undertaking, Sandell says, but rather an ethical route to the future of museum thinking and practice, which will look different for every institution.
“It doesn't always mean explicit campaigning, it doesn't always mean difficult or contentious work, it's simply being aware that you have a responsibility, an obligation and an opportunity to harness everything that you do, towards benefiting work that has a social good,” Sandell says.
While concerns surrounding funding, workloads or audience reception may mean that more direct forms of activism are not accessible to all institutions, the values that underpin this work are, says Sandell.
“Respecting diversity of opinion, empowering people to have a say, democratic ideals and values, valuing diversity that comes, for example, from immigration or asylum seekers… Museums might not explicitly reference the [government] policy, but they can champion and really live by a set of values.
“It's coming into view, a new age of museums, a new way for them to navigate some of the challenges that they encounter and forge for themselves and communities a more dynamic and collaborative way of being.”