Aamer Anwar addresses the MA Conference

Anwar: government wants to wipe miners' stories out of history

Geraldine Kendall, 08.11.2012
Human rights lawyer fears impact of cuts on social justice in museums
The work done by museums to improve social justice and equality is being threatened by government cuts, said human rights lawyer Aamer Anwar.

In a keynote speech at the Museums Association's conference in Edinburgh, Anwar said he was concerned at how museums that document the lives and civil rights struggles of minorities and working class people, such as the People’s History Museum and the National Coal Mining Museum for England, were being hit by cuts.

“The Tory government might well have put miners on the dole but it seems to me they now want to wipe them out of history,” said Anwar.

Anwar described the impact museums could have when they moved beyond neutrality and actively engaged with communities.

Of the International Museum of Slavery in his home city of Liverpool, he said: “That, for me, is a museum that was built with a mission, tied in with a community.

“At its heart was a rage that racists still walk the streets of Liverpool and the rest of the country, and that African and Caribbean people still live in poverty... It is hard to put into words actually what that museum meant for people in the community.”

Anwar highlighted the museum sector’s central role in linking parallels of the past to the present and challenging the hypocrisy apparent in historical narratives, citing how the reluctance of world leaders to offer refuge to Jewish people during world war two and their indifference to the genocide was shown up in the Imperial War Museum’s Holocaust exhibition.

Anwar also applauded museums for their progress in representing and engaging with diverse audiences: “Growing up I had a tendency to think of museums as the realm of middle classes and white people. That was what posh people did – Asian people were excluded.”

He was “surprised and moved”, he said, when he revisited museums with his one-year-old son and saw the work they were doing to reach out to communities.

“We need to shout from the rooftops that museums and art must be open to everyone,” he said. “It’s not a question of value for money.”

“If we can stick the Tories in a museum, that would be a positive result,” he added.