Simon Stephens, Issue 118/07, 01.07.2018
Why we should not be afraid of politics
I recently visited the Museum of Free Derry in Northern Ireland as part of a trip to plan the Museums Association Conference & Exhibition, which is in Belfast on 8-10 November. I had not been to the museum since it was redeveloped last year and it was great to see how the displays have evolved.

In light of current debates about museums as neutral spaces, the approach taken at the Museum of Free Derry is an interesting one. It was created to tell the story of the civil rights movement and specifically how events unfolded on 30 January 1972 when, as an anti-internment march drew to an end, British paratroopers attacked the marchers, shooting dead 13 unarmed civilians and wounding another 18, one of whom subsequently died. This is told from the point of view of those who were most involved in and affected by these events, the local community, and the museum’s home is in the heart of where those events took place.

The Museum of Free Derry is the very opposite of a neutral space, but it has an honesty, truth and sense of place that many other institutions don’t come close to.

The idea that museums are neutral spaces won’t go away and has to be debated further. It seems to me that museums are making decisions all the time, on what they display, who they employ and which organisations they choose to work with, that make it very difficult to see them as objective institutions that somehow sit above politics. How can they remain neutral about issues such as the Windrush scandal, for example?

In past years, Manchester Museum has acquired a refugee’s lifejacket from the Greek island of Lesbos, the Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A) has collected a Jeremy Corbyn t-shirt and the National Museum of Ireland is looking for objects related to the abortion referendum (see p5). This work allows these museums to tell important stories, and the political significance of these objects is at the heart of their power.

Neutrality in museums will be one of the many issues being discussed at our conference in Belfast, where the theme is Dissent: Inspiring Hope, Embracing Change. Speakers from the Museum of Free Derry, National Museum of Ireland, and the V&A will be among the many institutions taking part in these debates. Do come and be part of the discussions.

Simon Stephens, editor, Museums Journal