Monday, 16 March 2015

What have we got to do with this? (ii)

Field Museum, Chicago (photographer unknown)
Last December, there was an intense debate among museum professionals in the US regarding the role of museums in the aftermath of the death of black people in police hands in Ferguson, Cleveland and New York. Our American colleagues felt strongly that museums are part of the cultural and educational network that works towards greater cultural and racial understanding. Did they refer specifically to museums with African American collections? Or museums situated in the communities where the events took place? No, they didn’t. “As mediators of culture, all museums should commit to identifying how they can connect to relevant contemporary issues irrespective of collection, focus, or mission.” (read the full statement)

At the time, I agreed with the most cautious position adopted by Rebecca Herz. I find it risky to encourage museums (any institution, really) to act irrespective of their mission, but, as Rebecca put it: “I personally believe that museums should align all actions with their mission, which should relate to collection or focus. And I think that a connection can be found between any collection and contemporary life, but that these connections need to be carefully considered and developed.” (read the post)

As I was following this very interesting discussion taking place on the other side of the Atlantic, on 15 December, an Iranian refugee stormed a Sydney café taking hostages. Sixteen hours later, the police intervened, killing the attacker as well as two of the hostages. Fearing reprisals against members of the Muslim community wearing islamic dress, the people of Sydney offered to ride on public transport with their Muslim neighbours who felt unsafe. I found out about this early in the morning of 16 December, through the Facebook page of the Immigration Museum. The museum shared the article of the Guardian and joined the rest of the Australians, taking a stand against prejudice and violence.

Taking a stand is not something simple, especially for an institution (as opposed to an individual). It’s not a decision that can or should be taken hastily, a response to the moment. It must be a “natural” move, the result of a conscious, structured and sustained policy of civic / political intervention, in accordance to the institution’s mission. It is also a great responsibility.

Last month, three young Muslims were murdered in their home in North Carolina, USA. At a time where newspapers were reporting that the motives of the attacker were still not known, the Arab American National Museum shared its heartbreak on its Facebook page regarding the loss of the three young people, thus implying that this was a racial crime. I thought it was too soon, I thought they were jumping into assumptions and that this was neither responsible nor helpful. I asked the museum if it made a statement for every murder in the US. Other people (not the museum) answered that the victims were Arab Americans, so the museum was right to react. I rephrased and asked if the museum made a statement for every Arab American murdered, if it assumed that the murder of every Arab American was a racial crime. I think that museums shouldn’t be jumping neither into conclusions nor into statements.

More recently, in Portugal, the Museu Nacional de Arte Antiga published a statement regarding the destruction of archaeological treasures of the Mosul Museum by ISIS militants. It was a good surprise, as this museum, like most Portuguese museums, are not used to taking a stand publicly. One might argue that this was not exactly a political statement and that it was a rather “safe” matter for the museum; it might be. It also came at a time when specialists were still trying to figure out if the objects destroyed were the originals or copies; so it rather looked like a hasty reaction. I am more interested, though, in understanding if this was a one-time reaction or the first act in a concrete, long-term policy of acknowledging and assuming the museum’s civil-political-cultural responsibilities. It would be great if it was the latter, time will tell.

Still on this blog

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