A brave new world?

Nat Edwards, Issue 116/11, 01.11.2016
Real engagement and real self-awareness will require museums to take some brave new steps
Do you remember 2015? It was the International Year of Light. Across the cultural landscape, it was a year of ascendancy for progressive, liberal values. In the US, the Senate approval of same-sex marriage led historians to declare the generation-long Culture War finally over. Ireland followed suit in May. In the UK (where same-sex marriage was already legal, apart from in Northern Ireland), museum workers were looking forward to Changing Lives, promoting diversity, co-creation and engagement. With one eye on social media, another on the Paris climate change conference, and keeping an ear out for the new Bowie album, we could perhaps be forgiven for feeling just a little self-satisfied at being aligned and in tune.

Then something happened – 2016 has felt less like a progression from the previous year and more as if some sort of Bizarro hidden hand has taken a set of cosmic scissors to the calendar to create a random and increasingly distressing collage. In this new and surreal landscape, museums and other cultural organisations are left trying to make sense of it all. A review of the many reports that have been published since the EU referendum could be summarised by paraphrasing Bill S Preston, Esquire, as he looks at the hell of Bill and Ted’s Bogus Journey – “We got totally lied to by our Twitter feeds, man.”

It seems as if no sooner had we put Lazarus on the turntable, than some hooligan had viciously scraped the needle across it, leaving our ears ringing with white noise. Brexit. Trump. A resurgence of racist attacks and abuse. Popular nationalism on the march. The ineffectual managerialism of the Cameron administration replaced by a return to unabashed nastiness.

The identity crisis of Labour. Ukip. Dramatic new alignments as old political enemies find themselves circling the wagons against a population that is rejecting them as the bugbear of this new age – the Metropolitan Elite. For many working in the cultural and heritage sectors, it has seemed as if they too were being driven firmly into that wagon circle – somehow out of alignment with the communities that they seek to serve.

That’s the thing. The seeming randomness of 2016 hasn’t been down to the malign influence of a handful of halfwits – as if somehow the combined buffoonery of Trump, Farage and Johnson could amount to anything – but through the actions of
many ordinary, rational people. Incredibly, perhaps, they have been prepared to forgive misogynists, bigots and nincompoops of every shade in order to somehow serve notice on professional politicians, experts and other members of the loosely defined Cultural Elite.

Are we really part of that elite? Certainly, for anyone trying to scrape along on the average museum wage, life doesn’t feel like it. However, lots of the communities with whom we have been working to engage seem to be kicking back against the pluralist, progressive multiculturalism that has underpinned much museum practice.

Museums need to get to grips with the new world. We need to take a deep dive into the real consequences of Brexit and the new political landscape – for our governance and operations, and for our duties of service to our communities. We need to ask some searching questions about whether our own agendas have been as progressive as we had hoped. We need the critical and ethical fortitude to recognise and reject what has become hollow, and to embrace a progressive agenda with real substance. We need the courage to engage more deeply and more meaningfully with communities that appear to have taken a step back from us – and to give them a voice. There are hateful alternatives waiting in the shadows if we don’t.

Real engagement and real self-awareness will require museums to take some brave new steps. But that’s what makes working in them worthwhile.

As Bowie said: “I don’t know where I’m going from here, but I promise it won’t be boring.”


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Francesco Marrella
Project Co-ordinator
15.11.2016, 13:46
The new brave step forward for museums should be to finally fully recognise their political role in society.
Museums are nowadays becoming more and more an institution which collect, help to shape, and respond to communities' needs.
Is now time for cultural institutions to start being involved in political discussions, particularly when these touch key topics like cultural identity, social inclusion, progress.