The conversation - Museums Association

The conversation

Is there such a thing as self-censorship in museums?
Janet Marstine, Julia Farrington
Dear Julia: UK museums face pressure to self-censor from private and public funders, community groups and government agencies outside the UK. In an effort to anticipate what might offend, museums often risk being overcautious and avoiding difficult but important issues. On the other hand, self-censorship can be an ethical good; imagery created through exploitation of vulnerable individuals is an example. Nonetheless, censorship and self-censorship are often enacted in the name of “protection”, so we must ask who is being protected and why. One challenge is to differentiate between self-censorship and professional editing. When the potential for self-censorship is clear, self-reflective practice and deliberative decision-making, rather than rash or defensive judgement, are essential.

Best wishes, Janet

Dear Janet: A risk-averse museum sees its role as providing an escape from the real world, instead of being part of it. But we could say that a museum has a duty, as part of its service to the public, to provide space precisely to discuss the difficult and important issues in society. In that way, it becomes a question not if, but how, the museum takes on the toughest of subjects, and who has a voice in that discussion. Otherwise, there is a sort of complicity – we know bad things are happening but we had better not talk about them. Is that asking too much of museums?

Best wishes, Julia

Dear Julia: Part of the issue is that we delude ourselves by assuming that institutions in the UK have freedom of speech and that censorship happens “somewhere else” (ie under authoritarian control). Censorship and self-censorship are a spectrum of practice that occur in all cultures. The more confident a society is of its principles, however, the more it can engage in civic discourse that acknowledges the complexities of negotiating censorship. Our institutions are important in fostering this civic discourse. They also need to become more robustly self-reflective about the potential for and implications of self-censorship due to pressures from funders.

Best wishes, Janet

Dear Janet: It’s important that decision-makers ask themselves whether they are self-censoring, and if so, why and how much of a problem it is. Then they could ask colleagues if they are facing similar obstacles. My work started off with cross-sector self-reflection and has identified recurring concerns that can mitigate against taking on difficult issues, such as uncertainty relating to legal rights and responsibilities, dealing with the police, hostile response from the public, potential media/social media storms, risk management and the need for peer support. The Index on Censorship and bodies including What Next?are working on a coordinated programme to respond to these concerns.

Best wishes, Julia

Dear Julia: The MA’s 2015 Code of Ethics champions free speech. Within the context of the revised code, which encourages ethical reflection as essential to everyday museum practice, the Index on Censorship (UK) and the National Coalition against Censorship (US) provide valuable resources for museums and galleries to develop strategies for upholding free speech.

Best wishes, Janet

Dear Janet: There is another form of institutional self-censorship resulting from the sector’s mainly white, middle-class, male leaders. It’s “censorship” because it effectively silences voices falling outside the accepted cannon; and it’s “self-censorship” because it is perpetuated by internal agencies – those with decision-making power can change who makes decisions. Most institutions are diverse in outlook, on paper, but it’s diversity as perceived and validated by a homogenous group of gatekeepers. While this persists, work that makes it into the public space will inevitably be skewed by a monocultural perspective.

Best wishes, Julia

Janet Marstine is the academic director/programme director of art, museum and gallery studies at the University of Leicester, and is a member of the Museums Association ethics committee

Julia Farrington is the associate arts producer at the Index on Censorship

Janet Marstine and Julia Farrington will be speaking at this year’s Museums Association Annual Conference in Glasgow (7-9 November).

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