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Should Museums be Places for Political Dialogue?

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Museums are social hubs. Often, they are filled with people hoping to gain an insight into centuries worth of history and scientific development. To see what they can discover by gawping at the eclectic mix of stuffed animals snuggled next to local archaeological finds. However, despite the quaint perceptions of museums, museums have the potential to do much more. Museums have the potential to grab us, make us consider new perspectives and even they have the possibility to challenge our political opinions. It is therefore important to explore such potential and the benefits of museums becoming places of political dialogue. Though, equally there are limitations to this, and also navigating the transition to becoming a place for political dialogue will require changes within how museums currently work.

Museums and politics

There are plenty of reasons for museums becoming places for political dialogue. Despite the romantic perceptions of the museum, this traditional perception has already fractured. The Museum Association (a professional organisation representing museum professionals in the UK) set up a campaign in 2013, Museums Change Lives. One of its aims is to encourage museums to become places for political dialogue. From these initial foundations, the project has gone further, as there is now an annual award, Best Museums Change Lives, specifically to reward museums for encouraging political dialogue.

Though, even if this wasn’t the case, the hand of museums is being forced. Activism generally is forcing society to change. The discourse surrounding issues like the Black Lives Matter movement, is requiring people to show affirmative support for issues rather than just merely say they are willing to change. Therefore, museums are no different to other organisations because ‘activism is changing the way we act and react as a society.’ Museums so must contribute to political dialogue of they wish to survive in a world being shaped by activism.

Equally, despite the external pressures on museums, they should become places for political dialogue because they offer a way to deal with serious political issues. Museums across the country are already showing this potential. The Museum of Free Derry and Siege Museum brings together young people from different backgrounds in Northern Ireland to promote dialogue between their communities. Something which has a ripple effect on their broader communities. Equally, the National Justice Museum has been running ‘Choices and Consequences: A Knife Prevention Programme’ which is focused on helping to prevent knife crime and has engaged 1,281 participants so far.

Yet, it is important to note that museums are not perfect and so there is a limit on their potential to become places for political dialogue.

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Museum controversies

Firstly, museums have been historically apathetic towards their own political controversies. The British Museum is the prime example of this because it has continually refused to address the controversy of the objects it holds. This includes, but is not limited to the Parthenon Sculptures, the Benin Bronzes and the Rosetta Stone. These are just a few – the extent of the controversial objects held by the museum has led to an external source offering a ‘stolen goods tour.’

Taking the Parthenon Sculptures for example, successive calls for litigation have resulted in nothing. The sculptures remain in the museum and the heated debates continue all the while, the museum buries its head in the sand, citing the British Museum Act 1963 as the reason for not bugging. Yet, what this shows is that if one of the most important museums in the UK cannot show anything other than apathy towards their own political controversies, what does that mean for other museums? Well, it does not paint a bright picture for museums being places for political dialogue.

The dark pasts of museums

Similarly, whilst museums may be unsuitable places for political dialogue because of their inability to handle their own controversies, similarly it is important to consider museums own dark pasts. Many museums were initially founded to be ‘a showcase for their owners’ sophistication’ rather than places for learning and enabling culture to be accessed by a multitude of people. Additionally, the establishment of museum was dominated by ‘white, wealthy people’, so the purpose behind museums is troubled as it focused on this section of society only. As such, how could organisations which were not founded diversely, be places for facilitating political discussion when their history is not indicative of that.

Alongside the apathy and the history, is an engrained behaviour towards politics generally.  Most museums have entrenched behaviours and procedures. For example, Pedro Gadanho provided details of how he had to ‘go against the machine’ of the MOMA just to get leaflets for an exhibition. Though, it often goes further than this, the links between the British Museum and Bp have long been a source of controversy. The fossil fuel company have been ‘one of the British Museum’s longest standing partners’, a relationship which started all the way back in 1996 and the current partnership ends in 2022. As recently as February 2020, this link was called out by the PCS Union who stated that the British Museum ‘owes it to its staff, its visitors and its future to play responsible role in the greatest challenge facing society’ and should therefore stop links with the company.

These harrowing arguments for the reasons why museums should not become places of political dialogue show the limitations surrounding museums becoming places of political dialogue. Yet, with subtle changes, museums could navigate this but only if diverse political opinion is put at the heart of any developments because in order to facilitate discussion a variety of voices must be heard. This will also crucially come from diversity within the museums themselves but also for example, taking objects in a collection and presenting them in a way which looks at how different historians have approached the object and its history. Also, showing how an object got to that museum is crucial within this political dialogue because it acknowledges the ongoing repatriation debates.

Additionally, in order to navigate the museum becoming a place for political dialogue, we as museum visitors must change our mindsets towards visiting museums. For us, museums must no longer be just a place for having a gentle wonder around but rather a place to be challenged. A place to ponder upon what we think we know.

Maybe one day we’ll learn a little more at our museums than some history.  

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