Call to arms

Geraldine Kendall Adams, 28.11.2016
We’re past the point of staying silent. Now's the time to stand and fight
I’ve learnt a lot of new terminology in the three weeks since Donald Trump won the US presidential election (apparently white supremacists and neo-Nazis are now simply members of the “alt-right”). The best word I’ve heard so far, though, is ”kakistocracy”, a brilliantly succinct Greek term for “government by the worst, least qualified or most unscrupulous citizens”.

On both sides of the Atlantic it appears we’ve entered a new age of kakistocracy – although I suppose there is consolation in the fact that, for now at least, Britain’s kakistocrats are merely incompetent, venal, mean-spirited and stupid, rather than the barefaced fascists that have been unexpectedly thrust upon our American friends.

Sorry, I’m probably being a bit too political here. But if so I’ve taken my cue from the Museums Association (MA) members’ meeting at the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich the other day. Against the wider backdrop of upheaval and uncertainty, this meeting was more of a call to action than any other I’ve been to.

The MA’s president David Fleming opened with an ominous warning. The past six years of austerity have been gradually eating away at the museum sector, particularly local authority museums, and Fleming warned that 2017 is likely to be the year when the real impact of those cuts comes home to roost. It could be the endgame for many museums, as councils run out of options. We’ve already seen some early warning signs in places like Lancashire, Kirklees and Walsall, which have slashed their museum provision to the bone. Councils are just starting to publish their budget plans for next year – it won’t be long before we find out where the axe will fall next.
But one message came through loud and clear at the meeting: the museum sector must not go down without a fight. The MA’s director Sharon Heal spoke about the new direction that the MA’s key policy vision, Museums Change Lives (MCL), will take next year. In the coming months, MCL will transform into much more of a campaign, reaching outside the sector to demonstrate to funders, stakeholders and the public the immensely valuable social impact work museums are doing, and the MA will be compiling extensive evidence to show how relevant and important museums are to people’s lives.
But there’s a responsibility on us as individuals too. Two speakers from the meeting gave particularly memorable examples of the actions they had taken, off their own backs, to instigate change. The first of these, Sacha Coward from Royal Museums Greenwich, spoke about how he had set up an LGBT network at the museum, which has had a big impact on the museum’s public programming.

Coward urged museums not to think of LGBT histories as “hidden” – it’s not as if they’re concealed on purpose, he said, they’re just unfound. LGBT people have always existed – but museums now need to start telling their stories as a normal part of everyday life rather than a niche corner of the human experience. It’s changing the way people think about issues like this that has helped to break so much ground on LGBT rights in the past 30 years - but there is still a lot of progress to be made, and so much museums can do to play their part.

There’s a bit of a battle going on at the moment between those who see museums as neutral civic spaces and those who believe they should take a more active role in fighting for social justice – but when you see the impact museums can have when they do take a more proactive stance, it becomes very difficult to argue that they shouldn’t.

Coward was also the driving force behind the first ever contingent of museum professionals to represent the sector collectively at Pride London in June this year. I was there that day marching under the MA’s banner and it was an incredibly happy feeling to come together as a sector to celebrate diversity and progress. But if that march was a celebration, another took place recently that was much more of an expression of anger and protest.

Sara Wajid, the MA’s outgoing rep for London who’s about to start a new job at Birmingham Museums Trust, represented the MA earlier this month at a 2,000-strong demo organised by public service unions to fight against local government cuts to museums, galleries and libraries.

Wajid made an interesting point about the march – there was huge representation from library professionals, but less so from the museum world. Are we, as a sector, doing enough to make our voices heard, and our protests known on this issue? Perhaps museums have been a little reluctant to raise their heads above the parapet so far, worried about scaring off funders and politicians, or seeming ungrateful for any small bit of money thrown their way. Or perhaps, as Wajid said, people are too polite to bring their own politics to work.  

This may have been understandable in the old days, but the world has changed and I think we’re past the point of staying silent now – not just on cuts, but on every other issue we care about. It’s easy to feel helpless and small in the face of world events. In the space of a few short months, reality has shifted and the future many of us hoped lay ahead seems to have taken a wrong turning down a dark, unmapped path.

But we have enormous power to make a difference, both as institutions and as individuals, and we should never forget it. Now is not the time to be neutral. Why not get political? It's time to stand up and fight the kakistocracy.


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29.11.2016, 17:15
The MA publicised details of Pride London march ahead of the time and this may have helped to bolster the numbers participating alongside Sacha on the day, this is good and welcome. It's really important that museums play their part for promoting equality, fair representation and education. However as far as I can see, not much was done by the MA to publicise and promote the recent march and rally against the slash and burn cuts crippling museums. I only found out about it the day before through a circular from my local trades union council. I hope this article about kakistocracies may be a signal of more urgency, and perhaps closer alliance with those who organised the march, to help in the fight back on this and the many national and international issues that concern us