Stop trying to avoid the realities of life

David Fleming, Issue 118/07, p15, 01.07.2018
The notion of the “neutral” museum is just about the most dishonest I have ever encountered
Perhaps because he has worked in museums for such a short while, the Victoria and Albert Museum’s director, Tristram Hunt, may be forgiven for so readily dismissing the idea that museums can be vehicles for social justice, as he did last month in the Art Newspaper. He re-expresses the oft-used notion that museums ought to be a “shared space for unsafe ideas” – a term invented by someone in order to suggest that museums may, in fact, be rather edgy places, but in a completely unthreatening way.

Over the years, I have become more impatient with the opponents of museum activism trying to find ways to avoid relevance by hunkering down in the cosy world of restricted access, a world where they feel comfortable, where politics (and real people, with real preoccupations) don’t exist, where controversy is restricted to debates over pottery techniques, a world inhabited by the privileged and by the tourist in search of the next blockbuster exhibition.

I am comforted by the thought that increasing numbers of museum staff have realised that trying to position museums like this is unsustainable, and ultimately irrelevant to most people, most of the time: it’s the 21st century, not the 19th, and museums ought to be stepping up, not stepping back because they think it’s safer to do so.

In fact, it’s not safer to do so any more. Difficult questions are being asked of museums, such as what are they doing with regard to the fact that the world is full of inequalities and with issues such as racism and homophobia: issues from which the traditional museum used to run a mile, yet that are, increasingly, being confronted by the people who now work in museums.

The notion of the “neutral” museum is just about the most dishonest I have ever encountered. That generations of museum people managed to convince the rest of the world that they hold no views about anything, and stand for nothing except neutrality, is quite extraordinary. The world is full of bias and opinion, and museums are part of this, as are novels, history books and the media.

The naivety (at best; at worst, it is entirely duplicitous) of anyone who claims that museums are capable of being neutral about anything, ever, is breathtaking. I encountered this attitude when I worked in Hull Museums in the 1980s. On two separate occasions, it was put to me that exhibitions about the (contemporary) miners’ strike and about the history of council housing in Hull ought to avoid any controversy; which was code, respectively, for “don’t make the police look bad” and “don’t make the council look bad”. This amounted to distorting both stories in order to satisfy the quest for “neutrality” or “impartiality”. Not much “pluralism” there!

My plea is for museums to stop trying to avoid the realities of life through their wistful harking back to the days when they were permitted to do so.

David Fleming is the professor of public history at Liverpool Hope University and the former director of National Museums Liverpool

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