Monday 14 January 2013

Guest post: "The political museum", by David Fleming (UK)

David Fleming is a museum professional I greatly admire and respect and he has deeply influenced my thinking on the role of museums. Some years ago, Josie Appleton criticised his option of coming into museums because this was his way of trying to change the world by saying “An admirable aim, of course, but maybe Fleming should have become a politician or a social worker rather than a museum director.” [in Watson, E. (ed), Museums and their Communities, p116]. I, personally, am glad David came into museums and actually became a museum director. And it is with great pleasure that we publish in this blog a shortened version of his speech The Political Museum, given at the INTERCOM Conference in Sydney last November. The complete version may be found at the end of this text.  mv 

Photo taken from the website of National Museums Liverpool

1.   Introduction – the myth of neutrality

It is a tradition in museums that we are, or should be, apolitical, by which I mean that museums should not involve ourselves in the power relationships that characterise society. It’s not our job to get embroiled in the world of real people, real events, controversy and opinion. What we ought to do is use our knowledge and expertise to assemble and care for our collections, and to present them in a neutral fashion for public benefit, floating on a cloud of scholarly virtue, hovering well above the mundane realities of human life. In fact, to keep doing what many museums have attempted to do for most of the time since they were set up.

It is, of course, the height of hypocrisy, and, indeed, is utterly vacuous, to claim that museums have ever been ‘neutral’ about anything. All the basic tasks that we undertake - researching, collecting, presenting, interpreting – are loaded with meaning and bias, and always have been; these tasks are the museum’s methods of serving up to the public what the people running the museum wish the public to see. Museums are social constructs, and politics is a cornerstone of social activity – you can’t have one without the other. No matter what type of museum, no matter what it contains, decisions have been made by someone about what to research, what to preserve, what to collect, what to present, how to interpret; and decisions have been made about what not to do, what not to research, what not to preserve, what not to collect, what not to present, what not to interpret.

I’m not altogether certain why some museum people, and others, have seen such value in portraying ourselves as disinterestedly pursuing knowledge, as though by doing so we avoid the risk of becoming political. The issue isn’t “is it right or wrong for museums to be political?” but “all museums are political, why do some pretend that they’re not?”.

2. The political museum in action

a) Old Model

After their conquest of Greece in the 2nd century BC, the Romans used triumphal display of objects to show the superiority of Roman to Greek culture. This was a technique continued throughout the ages, by the Christian Church, by Charlemagne, by the Venetian Republic, by Napoleon, by the Nazis, and by many others – in all these instances any aesthetic appreciation of the objects displayed was probably subservient to the political power message. Some of the great museums of Western Europe are particularly good examples of the Old Model Political Museum, with their displays of imperial plunder and their casual assumption of European superiority over other peoples. The political nature of such museums has been revealed in the justifications for the existence of “universal” museums, a concept which came to renewed prominence in 2003 with the Declaration on the Importance and Value of Universal Museums by the directors of a self-selected group of big European and US museums. The Old Model Political Museum is best characterised by its stealth. It is political, but it pretends it isn’t – it pretends that it is merely orthodox and truthful. It is a museum that would thrive in George Orwell’s Oceania.

b) New Model

Photo taken from the website of Tuol Sleng Memorial Museum.
Today, the New Model Political Museum is overt and campaigning, in particular in the fields of human rights and national identity: The National Museum of Australia (Canberra), The Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongawera (Wellington, New Zealand), District Six Museum (Cape Town, South Africa), Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum (Phnom Penh, Cambodia), Museum of Genocide Victims (Vilnius, Lithuania), Museum of the Occupation of Latvi (Riga, Latvia), The Museum of the Romanian Peasant (Bucharest, Romania), The Vietnam War Remnants Museum (Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam), DDR Museum (Berlin, Germany), to mention a few. There are lots more museums of the type that seeks actively to redress a situation where power politics have left some people disadvantaged at best, oppressed and victimised at worst.

A couple of weeks ago I received this email from the Director of the Memorial Resistance Museum in Santo Domingo: “I just created a new petition and I hope you can sign. It's called: We are fighting for the right to the truth and justice for the victims of the dictatorship of Trujillo.”

I went to the website and found the following: “We ask the General Attorney of the Dominican Republic, Mr. Francisco Dominguez Brito, to enforce the laws and the international treaties on human rights, defend the rights of young people and Dominican children to truth, defend the right to justice for the more than 50 thousand victims of the dictatorship of Trujillo, the survivors and the relatives of the victims. We demand the fulfilment of the decision of the Dominican courts, that protect us from the vindication of the regime and the figure of the dictator, and for a Commission of Truth.”

This is the political museum in full flow.

In conclusion, there is a gap between the active, campaigning museums that we have been looking at, and those that go about their political business more discreetly, but the gap is superficial. I would argue that most museums are political, and it is naïve or dishonest to pretend otherwise. We shouldn’t regret this, as though there is a better, neutral state somewhere to which we should aspire – it is human nature to be political, and thank goodness it is.

David Fleming´s full keynote speech may be found here. The Museum of Liverpool, one of the museums under David´s direction, was awarded last month the Council of Europe Museum Prize for 2013 by the Committee on Culture, Science, Education and Media of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE). PACE said “The Museum of Liverpool provides an exemplary recognition of human rights in museum practice." (read here)

Further readings
Places of encounter, by Maria Vlachou
Silent and apolitical?, by Maria Vlachou

Check also:

David Fleming became Director of National Museums Liverpool in 2001. He has overseen a radical change management process that has resulted in Liverpool audiences rising from around 700,000 per year to 3.5 million, at the same time increasing markedly in diversity. He has advised a number of governments, museums and municipal authorities, both nationally and internationally, on national museum strategy, project management, exhibition design and museum governance. He has published extensively on museums and lectured on museum management and leadership, social inclusion, city history museums and human rights museums in more than 30 countries. He is Founding President of the Federation of International Human Rights Museums (FIHRM), Vice-Chair of the European Museum Forum, and Chairman of ICOM’s Finance and Resources Committee. He is a past President of the UK Museums Association and has served on several UK Government committees and task forces.

1 comment:

Ines Fialho Brandao said...

Inspiring words.
I admit I enjoyed the museums riff on gangnam style in support of ai weiwei and censored artists everywhere:
(AI sponsored video with Anish Kapoor)