‘Nothing is neutral’ – Reflecting on the Museums Association’s Conference 2017

Chris Garrard, Co-director of Culture Unstained, headed to Manchester last week for this year’s Museums Association Conference. Here are his thoughts on just some of the debates and discussions that took place…

Climate change. The refugee crisis. Social inequality. Brexit. And of course, Trump. In her opening remarks, Director of the Museums Association (MA) Sharon Heal laid out these big social and political themes that would be the backdrop to the discussions and debates that would follow over the subsequent two days of the MA’s annual conference.

It was an unashamedly bold introduction that cited new trends in museums activism and promoted strong civic and democratic values. For example, when reflecting upon the misinformation spread around the Brexit vote, she argued that ‘I think we need to campaign to get our democracy back!’ For the most part, this year’s conference took forward the momentum of these opening remarks, something that also flowed through poet Lemn Sissay’s memorable opening keynote: a splicing of poetry, polemic, musings on his experience working with museums, and peppered with rallying cries to the sector – ‘Creativity is not the monopoly of artists!’

These “activist” energies took different forms across the many panels and sessions that followed, some more outspoken and others more reflective. One of the most powerful interventions though was situated right at the entrance to the conference’s exhibition hall: Museum Detox’s ‘White Privilege Clinic’. Over the two days of the conference, the network’s members guided hundred of delegates – one to one – through a white privilege test, offering space for each participant to reflect on their results and to ask questions. The emotional labour of such a powerful art activism and engagement project must have been huge – but its impact was clear. And the ripples are continuing to spread (check out the video below).

In a session exploring social polarisation post-Brexit, Alistair Hudson (Director of MIMA) and Esme Ward (Head of Learning & Engagement at Manchester Museum and The Whitworth), underscored the role of museums as ‘engines of civic engagement’. Alistair Hudson spoke about activity undertaken by MIMA which rejected ‘the false façade of neutrality’, such as the decision to hang a ‘Refugees Welcome’ banner outside the gallery, while accepting that not everyone in the local community would be supportive of such a statement or, at least not in this manner. In a similar vein, Esme Ward pointed out the importance of museums ‘doing more of our thinking in public’ and recognising that ‘there is nothing neutral [in museums], it is all political’. This desire to be socially engaged and open felt like a marked departure from the more closed and detached approach of the past – but an attitude that some museums still cling to.

In ‘Dissenting Voices’ – a session acting as a forerunner for the theme of next year’s conference in Belfast – Ronan McConnell (Tower Museum), Matt Turtle (Museum of Homelessness) and Jenny Mabbott (People’s History Museum) shared powerful examples of their work that straddle the line of dissent and “political action”. For Ronan McConnell, the act of simply engaging communities with a ‘challenging collection’ on protest/resistance as part of the ‘Speeches, Strikes and Struggles’ project was a bold step. Jenny Mabbott, though, highlighted how the People’s History Museum had shifted from being ‘a museum of campaigns’ to more of a ‘campaigning museum’, as those that worked there became more immersed in the content of their exhibitions and a commitment to the struggles of the communities they collaborate with (e.g. migrant rights). But it was the session’s Chair, Sara Wajid (Head of Interpretation, Birmingham Museums) who made perhaps the most perceptive observation, noting that while ‘museums are engaged in a process of “tidying”, political action is often messy’. It is this reality that many museums are now grappling with as they respond to a rapidly shifting social and political context. What are the narratives that can be woven through – or with – that “messiness”?

An ongoing struggle for the sector is to defend its value and significance not based on purely economic terms, a task that has been made much harder in the face of cuts to government funding. It was a concern that David Fleming (President of the MA) reflected in his comments at the MA’s AGM: ‘The Museums Association offers a vision of museums that is not dominated by commerciality’. In the session ‘Britain, Very Well Alone’, Charles Esche (Director of the Van Abbemuseum) spelt out the broader significance of not allowing commerciality to dominate the work of museums and the wider cultural sector. He described how ‘the colonial matrix of power is still reproducing itself’ and that, today, it is corporations that are largely driving that (neo)colonialism. In such a context, questions of funding, corporate sponsorship and consumption take on a different significance, and how they reflect and intersect with pre-existing systems of power. It was against that backdrop that he argued, ‘museums have an opportunity to tell the story around the decolonial’ – and that there is a need to do so explicitly, acknowledging how colonial origins have shaped many museums.

In some ways, these two threads came together in ‘Beliefs Trump Facts’, a session scrutinising the role of museums in an age of so-called ‘fake news’. The presentation of collections and the role of corporate sponsorship became central themes and therefore Ian Blatchford’s (Director of the Science Museum Group) citing of the Science Museum’s ‘Atmosphere’ exhibition as an effective exhibition on climate change though did seem out of place. (The Guardian reported in 2015 how Shell, who were sponsoring the exhibition, had attempted to influence its content.) Blatchford explained that he had previously highlighted to potential sponsors of the Science Museum that, ‘what you’re buying into is the impartiality and trust [of the Museum]’ and that it was not in either parties interest for this to be undermined. But the admission that a museum’s ‘impartiality and trust’ was up for sale – particularly in this context – felt concerning. The Science Museum is currently partnering with three oil companies – BP, Shell and Statoil – and in doing so, they gain a legitimacy through association with scientific research, despite having spread climate scepticism – or “fake news” – for many years. The journalist Matthew d’Ancona later noted that ‘post-truth is defined by our collusion in the lies’, a statement that took on an interesting resonance.

Nigel Lawson’s ‘Global Warming Policy Foundation’ (an organisation that has previously been funded by Natural History Museum donor, Sir Michael Hintze) was also highlighted in the discussion. But while Lawson’s more colourful spread of climate denial is easier to call out and challenge, the symbolic misinformation created by oil sponsorship is much more insidious. The panel discussed Lawson’s recent appearance on Radio 4’s Today Programme and how it demonstrated the pitfalls of attempting to present a balanced debate when, in reality, there might often be a clear consensus. It raised the question of how to create the space for contrasting views within a controversial debate (such as around homeopathy) but still contextualised by the research and trusted voice that the museum can offer – and also whether there is an ethical responsibility to do so.

It was the broadcaster and journalist Samira Ahmed who made the most incisive comments in this area. She noted that the creation and spreading of fake news is ‘often a backlash of the traditionally powerful’ in the face of a shift in values and attitudes. And while museums can offer the space to host debate, that ‘too often institutions are setting the terms of the debate’. Crucial to this, she highlighted that ‘older white men who think they’re impartial are the biggest problem’ within such institutions, determining which perspectives and voices are heard. It was also a theme David Olusoga picked up in his closing keynote, that ‘in terms of diversity and inclusivity, we [television and museums] have the same problems’.

These conversations and comments all served to underscore the power and value of Museum Detox’s intervention at the conference. Whether it is the ethics of corporate sponsorship or questions around subjectivity, they are debates that unfold in a space shaped both by the social shifts that had been so powerfully outlined by Sharon Heal at the outset, but also by pre-existing systems of privilege that unfold along lines of racism, colonialism and patriarchy. And, while there is a long way to go, there was a clear desire at the 2017 conference to recognise, respond to, and unpack these issues within the museum. There was also a renewed recognition that museums offer valuable spaces to engage the wider public in these conversations, as well as taking a more active role in shaping the shifts we need around social and political issues. As Francesca Martinez (comedian, activist and writer), a keynote speaker at the conference put it: ‘I often think politics follows culture, not the other way…’