Friday 10 February 2017

What if it was here?

Harvard Books created a special section on its shelves in response to a Trump spokeswoman's reference to a massacre that never happened (image taken from the Harvard Books Instagram account)

I must admit that it is with great emotion and admiration that I see American cultural organisations taking a (political) stand and criticising their President’s policies. Some rather mild in their reactions, others quite affirmative and outspoken (see here), it is nevertheless a great lesson for us all and very probably the proof that cultural organisations are anything but neutral, they are actually inevitably political.

The first reactions came on the weekend right after the election, with museums such as the Brooklyn Museum and the National Museum of Women in the Arts reminding people where they stand, what are the principles and values they defend (see our November post). It was, nevertheless, after the new President’s inauguration and after he signed his first executive orders, that reactions intensified and became more institutional.

The action that caught most media attention was that of MoMA protesting the “Muslim ban” by substituting some works on its walls by those made by artists from the seven Muslim-majority nations affected by the ban (read in The New York Times). The gesture was received with great enthusiasm by many people, some of them stating that this is exactly why they support the museum, others deciding to renew their membership, etc. There were, of course, occasional accusations that the museum is serving a political agenda instead of being about art, which were countered by others, saying that this is exactly what art is about (check the discussion on MoMA’s Facebook page and image on Twitter).

But there was more. Apart from the official statements of a number of professional associations of the cultural field (read on Museums and Migration blog), we had a protest concert from the Seattle Symphony, Music Beyond Borders: Voices from the Seven, which presented music by and with musicians from the seven banned countries. It was a very determined and emotional call, to which the community responded overwhelmingly. Some days before, another orchestra, the Budapest Festival Orchestra, had to stand up for one of its musicians with a dual nationality who could be denied entry in the US. The orchestra conductor, Ivan Fischer, “a voice for tolerance and inclusion as his native Hungary has embraced nationalist and staunchly anti-immigrant policies”, stated that “I will never allow anybody to single out a musician in my orchestra and disadvantage that person because of their origin, skin color, religion or any other factor.” (read in The New York Times).

The Seattle Symphony concert "Music Beyond Borders" (image taken from the Seattle Symphony Twitter account)

Another very significant gesture was that of five American theatres moving swiftly in order to include in their programming the play “Building the wall”, written in one week by award-winning playwright Robert Schenkkan. "We no longer live in a world that is business as usual - Trump has made that very clear”, Schenkkan said, “and if theatre is going to remain relevant, we must become faster to respond. We cannot hope to be useful if we can't respond until 18 months after the fact.” The artistic director of the Fountain Theater, Stephen Sachs, explained his decision: "We had our season in place, with another production planned, but as soon as I read the script I knew we had to move fast. It's a raw, passionate warning cry, and I knew we had to be bold and make this statement." (read in The New York Times).

As I, enthusiastically, follow these developments taking place in a Democracy on the other side of the Atlantic, there is a constant question at the back of my head: What about us? When I shared on Facebook an article on How museums can stand up to Trump and discriminatory policies, written by Robin Clarke from the University of Leicester, a colleague asked me: “Do we know how to do this in Portugal?”. Indeed, do we know? Are we doing it? In Portugal, in Greece, in Hungary and all over Europe?

It was precisely at that moment that Nicole Deufel published Heritage Resistance on her blog. And it starts like this: “It is great to see American museums, national heritage organisations and professional organisations mount a resistance against the divisive and dangerous policies of the new Trump Administration. And it is great that museums and heritage professionals as well as institutions elsewhere discuss these same issues and show solidarity. However, we must ensure that for those of us outside the United States this doesn’t become mere tokenism. Trump’s immigration ban mustn’t become another Lampedusa Cross. It is all too easy to make grand gestures across the ocean while ignoring what is happening in front of our own gates.”

Image taken from Museums and Heritage website.
And this is exactly the issue here. Our interest in US politics and the way our colleagues are dealing with them at this moment may be understandably justified by the fact that American politics affect everyone’s life, they affect the globe. But the entry ban is not something unprecedented, is it? We saw it at the Hungarian border in September 2015; we saw it when the EU signed its agreement with the Turkish government in March 2016; we saw it in the announcement that the UK government would build a wall in Calais to block refugees in September 2016; we saw it at the dismantling of The Jungle in Calais in October 2016; we now see it again in the announcement of the British government that it won’t take in any more child refugees or that of the Austrian government planning to deploy troops to stop refugees. We even see it in the decision of the British Parliament to reject an amendment that would have protected the right of 3,3 million EU citizens to remain in the country after it exits the European Union (and this is probably the only thing we or our relatives or friends will feel in our own skin).

What’s different about the American Muslim ban? Nothing really. The title of this posts asks “What if it was here?”, but the truth is IT IS here. It’s all around us. How have we reacted to it? What have we done about it? I don’t mean to say that nothing is happening in Europe and that everyone is sleeping the sleep of the innocent. If there is something I learnt from co-managing the blog Museums and Migration is how much is being done by many individuals and institutions in the cultural field. But it’s high time we made it loud and institutional. What is different about the American Muslim ban is that our colleagues over there have got no doubts about their role in this and they’re openly, loudly assuming their responsibilities. This is what’s different.

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