Rebecca Atkinson

The myth of the apolitical museum

Rebecca Atkinson, 17.10.2012
How can museums respond to contemporary issues and politics?
In Liverpool last week, delegates and speakers from museums across the world gathered for the third Federation of International Human Rights Museums conference.

It’s an achievement that the conference took place at all. The organiser, National Museums Liverpool (NML), was unsure it would be able to afford the event in 2012 until its chairman Phil Redmond stepped in and guaranteed he would underwrite all the costs.

The tone for the day was set by NML director David Fleming in his opening address, the Political Museum.

Fleming argued that it is hypocritical for museums to claim they are apolitical – all the basic tasks associated with running a museum are loaded with meaning and human bias, so there is no such thing as an unmediated display, he said.

“The myth of apolitical museums is perpetuated by self-serving elite that want the museum to be theirs,” Fleming said. “The issue isn’t whether it’s right or wrong to be political – the issue is that all museums are, so why do people pretend they are not.”

He said that the political museum has a duty to represent all sections of society, to challenge standard narratives of history and to confront and exorcise the “dark side of the national past”.

This raises the question of how museums respond to contemporary issues – including political ones.

Gilles Herbert, vice president of museum practice at the Canadian Museum for Human Rights, Winnipeg, Canada, said that exhibitions at the museum, which is due to open in 2014, won’t be permanent or presented as historical because “the stories they tell aren’t over”.

And Henrike Zentgraf, curator at the Memorium Nuremberg Trials, in Germany, said her organisation’s challenge was how to cross from history to the present – particularly dealing with the legacy of the Nuremberg Trials as the basis for international criminal justice.

For example, when Muammar Gaddafi was captured by the Libyan National Liberation Army this time last year, the memorium was forced to discuss international politics.

Zentgraf said there may be a limit to how involved in politics museums can get: “A Libyan television reporter asked what our advice was to people in Libya… We get asked our personal opinion about conflicts like Libya, and our problem is how to update ourselves as news is so fast moving.”

Richard Benjamin, head of Liverpool’s International Slavery Museum, which hosted the conference, gave another example of the relationship between politics and museums.

In Liverpool’s recent mayoral elections, the National Front candidate called in his manifesto for council funding for Pride and African music festivals to be stopped – and for the Slavery Museum to be closed down.

Museums can’t distance themselves from politics. They should use their collections, knowledge and spaces to make connections with real people and real events that characterise society – even if that means taking a political stand.


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Jonathan Gammond
MA Member
18.10.2012, 23:12
Historians have been challenging standard narratives of history for ages - whether that has been a political act or a more disinterested quest for truth has depended on each individual concerned. How long ago was it that Sir Herbert Butterfield confined the whig view of history to the dustbin? Most museums probably shy away from being seen as 'political' because too often that could be seen as being 'party political' with all the problems that would bring in its wake. Not least the fact that a) there is no majority view and b) politics swings from right to left and back again. Meanwhile, museums are no doubt political organisations. However, I could just as easily describe my choice of breakfast as political: do i opt for breakfast cereals made by Kelloggs or Nestle, pretend to be continental by having a croissant and (ideally fair trade) coffee or do i sit down at the kitchen table for an old fashioned English fry up. We haven't even considered the great divide between the free range egg or organic rare breed pork and the battery hen or danish bacon. Politics it gets everywhere!!
17.10.2012, 23:22
Anyone interested in looking at an openly "political" exhibition might like to visit the 'Britain in Palestine' exhibition on the British Mandate for Palestine which I curated and has just opened at the Brunei Gallery, SOAS, London. I raised the funds for this project from private trusts and donors so that this important and controversial episode in Britain's colonial past could be represented in a public space.