Monday, 30 November 2015

The museum is a person: some post-NEMO thoughts

How do we get more involved? How do we take a stand? Aren’t we going to alienate some people if they classify the museum as ‘leftist’ or ‘rightist’, like newspapers? How far can we go? What are the limits? These are some of the questions I had the opportunity to discuss with colleagues attending NEMO’s annual reference, following my talk Are we failing? 

My first thought was: Don´t we always take a stand? Don’t we constantly decide what the narrative will be? What will be included, what will be left out? Can we honestly say that we are neutral? Although some members (many members) of the public don’t question our options and accept our narrative as ‘real’, as an absolute truth, does it mean we should pretend it is and not question ourselves?
Having said that, I believe that the first step in taking a stand is acknowledging what is happening around us, sharing our community’s concerns and creating a space in museums where these concerns, thoughts and ideas may be debated. In my view, a museum that provides this space is a museum that wishes to be involved.
An example that comes to mind and links these first two points is the exhibition Phantom Home, by Palestinian artist Ahlam Shibli, which was presented at Jeu de Paume in 2013. The exhibition was about the ways Palestinian society preserves the presence of the “martyrs”. The museum was somewhat ‘neutral’ in the way it promoted the exhibition. There was no reference to the Israel-Palestine conflict and nowhere were “martyrs” referred to as “suicide bombers”. There was even less mention that those who are seen as “martyrs” from one side are often seen as “terrorists” by the other. This supposed neutrality didn’t work, of course. The opening of the exhibition was followed by bomb threats, protests and a temporary closure. In the aftermath, Jeu de Paume organized a series of debates to discuss the “martyrs” / “terrorists” debate. Were they naïve or just trying to defend the museum’s ‘neutrality’? (you can read more on the post I wrote at the time)

Beyond this neutral framework, I wouldn’t mind seeing a museum taking sides, defending a given position with openness. But would this mean it is not open to dialogue? Does this mean that opposite views may not be debated in its walls? Does it mean the museum is always right? Does it mean it cannot change its mind? This is not the message that museums - and all of us as citizens, professionals, friends, parents or teachers – are trying to voice. Our message is that, in a civilized society, different views may exist, must be respected and they may develop or even change, if they can be discussed. And a museum can be the ideal space for this discussion to take place.

My last point is that I believe that this whole discussion might become a clearer if we see the museum as a person. Every person has an identity, related to their vision, values, principles, priorities, ways of feeling, being and doing. We relate to a person when we appreciate and value who they are. We might not relate to a person when we don’t share their values or do not appreciate their way of doing things. It might be difficult, for instance, to relate to someone we feel is not transparent; to someone who is not coherent; to someone who acts opportunistically or who constantly remains silent when their interests are at stake.

So when a colleague asked me “How can we decide when to (re)act?” How can we define the limits?”, I answered that maybe we need to envision the museum as a person and take decisions according to who we are, being faithful to our identity, our values and principles. We might not always be right, but, just like a person, we can admit to that and rethink our response. Wouldn’t this be more honest and true?

The example that comes to mind is the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington. This museum claims to be committed in the prevention of genocide. On a number of occasions, it has issued statements regarding the persecution of different peoples, with the exception of Palestine. During the assault on Gaza in July 2014, it issued a statement regarding rising antisemitism (read the statement), as if the phenomenon had re-emerged in a social and political vacuum, as if the phenomenon had re-emerged in a social and political vacuum. More recently, they issued a statement with regards Syrian refugees inviting “public figures and citizens to avoid condemning today’s refugees as a group” (read the statement). But what about the Palestinian refugees and those leaving on occupied land, who are collectively (mis)treated and “punished” by the Israeli State and a number of Israeli citizens as if they were all terrorists or lesser human beings? No statement from the museum on this. So this museum chooses to remain silent regarding a specific case of persecution. Is this museum trustworthy? Are its values and actions coherent? Do I wish to relate to it? For me, this is one of my favorite museums, but now I am less and less interested in what it has to say.

So, going back to the question of “What if we alienate people who might classify us as leftists or rightists?” this is a risk, but a risk worth taking. I believe we have more to lose, in terms of our relationship with the society, if we insist on remaining irrelevant in the name of ‘neutrality’ or if we compromise our intellectual honesty, by taking a stand, sharing our views and inviting people to discuss them.

The first day at the NEMO annual conference ended with an interview with Wim Pijbes, the Director of Rijksmuseum. Wim’s photo was projected on the screen with the text “The museum is a person”. I smiled. Indeed it is: for better or for worse.

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