The notion of a museum adopting an activist role is both recent and controversial. It has proven to be a provocative challenge in the cosy world inhabited by many institutions, in which controversy is restricted to the niceties of object identification and collection management techniques.
It has suited some opponents of activism to portray proponents as lacking in scholarship, as unsuited to working in the museum sector and more suited to being social workers, for example.
That this book has been written is therefore reassuring to those of us who wish for a bigger, more active role for museums, ensuring that they are relevant in the 21st century and part of the debate on how to cope with injustices and with climate breakdown.
The need for museums to don the mantle of champions of attitudinal change and to move on from their traditional role as trustworthy custodians of object collections is pressing, especially as the rest of the world strives to cope with massive change and increasingly views museums as luxuries that society cannot afford.
Proponents of museum activism do not generally advocate abandoning traditional museum skills such as scholarship, so opponents ought, at least in theory, to be able to cope with the challenges of institutions behaving in a 21st-century manner, rather than being rooted in the imperialist and colonial mentalities of the 19th century.
That some of them choose not to do so is craven and duplicitous. But then fooling the public into thinking that museums are neutral places where the truth can be found is what they have excelled at, and some of them find it impossible to adjust to the demands of the modern world.
It is rather invidious to select essays that are especially valuable, because this book’s strength is its range and diversity of approach. Nonetheless, among the key essays is that by Robert Janes and Richard Sandell (Posterity Has Arrived), who describe the “stirring” of the global museum community, and the growth of its awareness, but urge further experimentation.
They define museum activism as practice that is intended to result in political, social and environmental change, which means that the modern museum needs “a radical rethinking”.
The key idea is that museums must move beyond their internal preoccupations and address the world’s big problems. This essay ought to be read in conjunction with the forthcoming book Museums and Social Change: Challenging the Unhelpful Museum, edited by Adele Chynoweth, Bernadette Lynch, Klaus Petersen and Sarah Smed.
Maria Vlachou is as readable as ever in Dividing Issues and Mission-Driven Activism, in which she writes about migration and refugees, while other standouts include articles by Sharon Heal (Museums In the Age of Intolerance) and Jennifer Bergevin (Narratives of Transformation).
The book is a strong collection of essays on activist museum practices around the world and it deserves a wide readership, not just by museum workers, but also by people who are unconvinced by claims that museums are entitled to and worthy of support. If I have any doubts about the future of activism in museums, they are the result of exposure to those who are opposed to the very idea – these people are numerous and powerful.
The world is full of racists, homophobes, misogynists and climate breakdown deniers. They continue to resist the notion that museums can never be, and should stop pretending to be, neutral, and they will sneer at the lefty bias of these essays; the writers need to be on their guard against resistance – both active and passive.
But resistance is rendered far more difficult as a result of the existence of this book. The reference lists are fantastic, as are the facts and figures in the essays, and the case studies. This is a great place to start studying the issue of activism in museums.
David Fleming is the professor of public history at Liverpool Hope University and a former president of the Museums Association