Why Tristram Hunt is wrong about museums and social justice

David Fleming, 13.06.2018
Museums can no longer get away with pretending politics and people don't exist
Perhaps because he has worked in museums for such a short while, Tristram Hunt may be forgiven for so readily dismissing the idea that museums can be vehicles for social justice. 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 quest 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 anymore: questions, difficult ones, are being asked of museums - like what are they doing with regard to the fact that the world is full of inequalities and with issues like racism and homophobia: issues from which the traditional museum used to run a mile, yet which 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, just 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.

Comments

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Shannen Lang
Learning and Administration Officer, Peace Museum
21.06.2018, 13:23
On behalf of Rev Clive Barrett, Chair of Trustees at The Peace Museum;
I suspect that many people who describe themselves as “not political” are essentially conservative (small c), comfortable with the status quo and regarding arguments for fundamental change - i.e. politics - as a threat. From such a perspective, museums affirm the past that has produced the present, and are part of an “apolitical” heritage industry.

That position itself is, however, political. It can permeate every aspect of museum life from
collections policy - which artefacts are valued and collected, and which are not - to interpretation, and education programmes. The understanding of a weapon, for example, when viewed from the handle end (as if carried by a soldier, a user) is very different to that when it is viewed from the receiver’s end (the victim’s perspective).

At the Peace Museum, Bradford, we are very clear that we do not, as an institution, support any political party or political policy, but we unashamedly tell the stories of people who do. We collect artefacts relating to peace, tell previously-unknown stories of war-resisters and peace-makers, and invite our audience to consider their own attitudes to issues of conflict and violence.

Of course this is political (small p), and we acknowledge that, but no more so than a regimental museum or stately home would be, albeit implicitly.

The challenge for all of us associated with museums is to recognise the wider context of the society and the underlying values and assumptions which produced the artefacts in our collections. Who did not share those values, and who questioned those assumptions?

Affirming the past, includes affirmation of its vibrant civil society, as therein lies the inspiration for new generations to build a more just and peaceful future.