The Museum of Neoliberalism opened last year at the former WAR Gallery in south-east London. On the edge of the Leegate shopping centre is, it’s surrounded by a mix of housing, shops selling discounted homewares, cafes, a bar, community projects, charity shops, a dojo and yoga studio. Although the museum is open “indefinitely” (subject to the Covid-19 lockdown), the site is owned by developers and scheduled for demolition in the coming years.
The introductory panel to the museum, which faces the main road, explains that “this is just a modest prototype that imagines what a future museum of neoliberalism might look like”. It also offers a glimpse of what museums might be if they were able to truly shed all aspirations of neutrality.
The Museum of Neoliberalism is the creation of Darren Cullen and Gavin Grindon. Cullen is an artist whose satirical work and ad-hacking has earned him notoriety in the tabloids. Grindon teaches art history and curating at the University of Essex, and co-curated the Disobedient Objects exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A) in 2014-15. The pair met working on street artist Banksy’s 2015 pop-up satirical theme park in Weston-super-Mare, Dismaland. The Museum of Neoliberalism was crowdsourced, and opened at The World Transformed political festival last September, before moving to Cullen’s gallery in Lee.
The museum was created in response to the idea of a Thatcher Museum, which Museums Journal covered in 2013 and has yet to come to fruition. The Museum of Neoliberalism is not a museum of unity; it’s not about representing both sides, or balance, and might not bring fractured communities together. The museum forcefully illustrates its points, using objects as evidence of an ideology its founders find morally reprehensible.
Inside the museum, you can see how effectively Grindon’s experience working with the V&A is combined with Cullen’s skills with parodying political advertisements and commercial messaging. The museum looks like many museums do; the typefaces, font sizes, text length, wall colours and lighting are all steeped in the interpretation guidelines of major museums.
Most of the objects are presented in a series of remarkable dioramas, some with moving parts, bringing the objects and their contemporary contexts to life. This adds flair to the “ordinary” contemporary objects on display, such as a display about NHS costs styled as a “gameshow”, which features hand sanitiser, air freshener, a padlock and a lightbulb.
There are only a handful of digital display elements: a single video, and a display in the museum’s front window with iPhones and iPod Touches. One of these was showing an error message when I visited, which I thought was part of the display about obsolescence – but, apparently, the tech was just difficult to fix.
The wall text addresses major themes, making connections between food banks, free-market ideology and the violence used to establish such philosophy. The themes on the walls are well matched with objects and a variety of display techniques including a striking animated diorama of an Amazon “fulfilment centre” (put together with help from engineer Tim Hunkin, the brains behind the Novelty Automation “satirical amusement arcade” in London).
This display includes one of the museum’s key objects: a bottle of urine. Provided by an Amazon warehouse employee, it is evidence of the unsafe and gruelling working conditions of “pickers” in the company’s warehouses. The bottle is displayed with a Motorola wrist-mounted computer terminal used by Amazon to instruct workers what to pack next. The clunky computer is shown on a mannequin’s limb, which has been painted to show the damage the terminal could do to the wearer’s body.
The challenge of representing an ideology through material culture is that sometimes there isn’t a tangible object available. If conventional museum curators can’t source an object to illustrate a point, then often that’s the end of the story. However, artists have the capacity to create or recreate their own objects. This has been done to good effect a handful of times here. For instance, a cross-section of Grenfell Tower wall and cladding has been recreated, although this isn’t acknowledged in the label. The museum also includes some examples of Cullen’s spoof toys, such as a model Virgin Pendolino train set with a toilet that really talks.
At times, it’s quite hard to unpick the real from the unreal in the Museum of Neoliberalism. During my visit, I found myself googling “sponsored scout badges” and “Teen Boss magazine” because I could barely believe my eyes.
Although it’s a small museum, Cullen and Grindon have not over-filled the space. It isn’t cramped, and it clearly conveys the vision of a larger exhibition. It’s so effective that it’s a little surprising to turn a corner and see the gift shop, as well as Cullen’s studio workshop behind the museum. Physical access around the space is good – the museum is step free.
There’s no seating or visitor toilets, but the massive Sainsbury’s nearby is part of the community toilet scheme. The space is well lit but there’s no audioguide or large-print guide on offer. Entry is free but visitors should book tickets online to ensure the museum will be open when they visit, and be advised that it's not open in the mornings.
It’s a space that shows the power of presenting contemporary objects as part of an argument, where individuals are free of sign-off, stakeholders and sponsors.
Cullen is upfront about the uncertainty of the museum’s closing date, which depends on when developers evict the tenants from the building. He expects it to be open throughout 2020 and probably beyond. Lewisham shopping centre, a mile or so down the road, is now home to the Migration Museum, and in February Lewisham was announced as the Borough of Culture for 2021 (now shifted to 2022 because of the Covid-19 outbreak). The market will decide whether this museum will still be here by then.
Ellie Miles is the documentary curator at London Transport Museum in London