Action points

Rob Sharp, Issue 116/11, p28-33, 01.11.2016
What are museums doing to address social, political, economic, and environmental issues, asks Rob Sharp
A series of illustrations depict various ways of tackling climate change: locally sourced fruit and vegetables, a reusable shopping bag, cycling to work. Beneath the pictures, captions explain how such practices reduce fossil fuel emissions, pollution and greenhouse gases.

The drawings, featured in this year’s Ten Ways to Make a Difference display at Manchester Museum, offer practical ways for museum visitors to respond conscientiously to climate change. The display is part of the institution’s Climate Control programme, a series of exhibitions and events that took place over the summer and explored how the public might alleviate future climate change. The initiative shows how a museum can take a political stance on a socially important issue.

“I think we definitely didn’t want to tell people what to do,” says David Gelsthorpe, the curator of the Earth Sciences ­collections at the museum and one of the programme’s organisers. “And we didn’t want to overwhelm or depress people. We wanted to pass ownership across. Partly because we felt that lots of places do pledges. We felt it puts visitors’ backs up a bit. We wanted to publicly show that we can provide a forum for people.”

At such a politically charged time, museums have, more than ever, a pressing motive to engage with political and social issues. While institutions differ wildly in their approaches, activism defined in its loosest sense – highlighting a pressing topic of social or political importance, and working to bring about change in that area – is increasingly common. The question of how museums might consider activism will be tackled at the Museums Association’s (MA) November conference in Glasgow, in a session entitled The Museum Activist.

Making a difference

“To me, activism is simply taking action to effect change,” says the session’s chair, the MA’s director Sharon Heal. “We live in a society where discrimination and inequity are still evident, and I think museums can be part of that change. That doesn’t mean waving placards or demonstrating, but it does mean looking at some of the big contemporary issues we face, such as the refugee crisis or the rise of racist attacks since the referendum, and thinking how we can work with our communities and explore our collections to try to make a difference.”

One of the key figures in describing museum work as “activist” has been Richard Sandell, the professor of museum studies at the University of Leicester. He and colleagues in his department strive to promote socially engaged thinking and practice in museums. In 2008, at the inaugural Institute of Museum Ethics conference in New Jersey, Sandell argued for an “activist approach” to museum practice. In his presentation, he defined museums as potential sites of “moral activism concerned with reshaping moral positions” within societies, rather than simply hosting and framing dominant positions already in place.
Speaking today, Sandell thinks that museums can do more to take a stance on issues of social importance.

“Disability is a classic example,” he says. “The idea that museums might reflect cultural diversity is reflected in practice over the last 20 years. But when I have spoken to museum staff around disability, there have been real concerns this was lobbying, or taking the side of a particular group. These are things we should be comfortable taking a stand about. We do it with some groups, why don’t we extend that more fully?”

Over the past two years, Leicester’s Research Centre for Museums and Galleries has been working with four disabled artists, as well as experts in medical history, on a project called Exceptional & Extraordinary. The aim is to stimulate debate about our negative attitudes towards difference, and produce performances in museums around the country to tell stories about difference and disability.

“Museums are public service institutions,” Sandell says. “If you accept that, why don’t you identify contemporary social problems around discrimination and prejudice and ensure the work you do works against those, rather than reinforces them?”

Many museums work to reflect particular social problems, though not always using the term “activism”. But the extent to which they promote their own stance varies.

Manchester Museum has taken a gentle position, not dictating views on climate change, rather inviting the public to ­contribute their own. Climate Control ­contains a consultation process that will feed into a review of ways the city can reduce its carbon emissions; the study will be conducted by the local steering group Manchester: A Certain Future.

“That is integral,” says Gelsthorpe. “It’s something real that’s going to have an impact on how we approach climate change in this region.”

Meanwhile, Alistair Hudson, the director of the Middlesbrough Institute of Modern Art (Mima), says he sees museums as “civic agencies”. “At Mima, we are looking at things that make change happen,” he says. “Rather than showing representations or pictures of activism, social change, critique, we are more interested in being actually involved in doing the things themselves.”

The museum sees itself as the UK headquarters of Arte Útil, which translates roughly as “useful art” or “art as a tool”, a form of creative practice that seeks to use art to solve social problems. Hudson serves as the co-director of the Asociación de Arte Útil with the Cuban artist and activist Tania Bruguera.

The association’s first summit was hosted by Mima in July. Between June and September the museum put on an exhibition exploring migration, under the title If All Relations Were to Reach Equilibrium, Then This Building Would Dissolve. It featured artworks made by Middlesbrough-based asylum seekers.

Hudson is convinced that museums should take a stand on important issues. “I don’t think museums are neutral,” he says. “It’s a slight pretence, tied up with the recent history of art in museums, of some sort of neutral space. This isn’t the reality, because we all know museums and galleries are political footballs. Increasingly, they are the last few genuinely public spaces left. I think we should see them as we would a town hall or civic plaza. They need to be in play in the world as active mechanisms, not seen as some sort of safe zone out of the cut and thrust of daily life.”

Material witness

The People’s History Museum in Manchester does not facilitate activism by others or take its own political stance; instead, its collection consists of activist material, from political posters to banners and trade union sashes. “It’s our subject matter – we try to engage with activists linking the past, present and future, showing when they have made a change,” says Catherine O’Donnell, the museum’s engagement and events officer. “We want to inspire people to take action, without necessarily taking sides.”

Similarly, those behind the Museum of Homelessness, which will launch its public programme in Tate Modern’s Switch House building early next year, take a broader view of activism. Its focus is on broadening the backgrounds of those telling stories about homelessness.

“Our definition of an activist museum isn’t one that lobbies government or campaigns, it’s more the soft-power side of things where museums can equip people with the tools and skills to make change,” says Matt Turtle, the museum’s co-founder.
“We’re trying to put a marginalised voice at the core of what we’re doing and document and reveal invisible histories. The museum is fulfilling a social need from the outset; we’ve started with the people at the heart of the subject and they’ve told us that a Museum of Homelessness should have been created years ago,” says Turtle.

Increasingly, museums are the last public spaces left. I think we should see them as a town hall or civic plaza"

Taking pride

Museums can also take activism outside their walls. Sacha Coward, the community participation producer at Royal Museums Greenwich, coordinated a large group of gallery, museum and heritage professionals to march at June’s Pride Festival in London. When it comes to activism, he says he advocates “socially empowered change-making”.

“When we were deciding to march for Pride we had to have a lot of conversations about why we were doing this. We didn’t think there is necessarily a lack of LGBTQ people working in the museum sector; the question is more how we represent ourselves to the public and in our collections.” He does, however, think that museums have further to go in terms of tackling “hidden histories” – for example, regarding the depiction of same-sex couples in museum exhibits, which might not currently be labelled in a way that is sensitive to LGBTQ history and concerns.

“If you’re talking about how we change collections policies, how we write tags, it’s going to take longer to change the old ethos,” Coward says. “But museum activism doesn’t have to be about aggressive conversations. It’s just about having a conversation.”

Whether museums simply provide a platform for conversation or brand themselves as political organisations with an agenda for social change, the issues are not going away.

“I’m a big fan of the American author Alice Walker,” Sharon Heal concludes, “and her attitude sums it up for me: ‘Activism is the rent I pay for living on the planet.’

“Museums are trusted places with collections that tell the history of humanity. For me, that makes them ideal places to help shape the future of humanity too.”

Sharon Heal will chair a discussion on museum activism on 7 November at the Museums Association Conference in Glasgow