Friday 11 September 2020

Our "tea and sympathy" values

In November 2016, a photo of the smiling director of the Byzantine and Christian Museum
 in Athens, Aikaterini Dellaporta,  next to Russian Minister of Foreign Affairs, Sergey Lavrov, provoked in me a deep discomfort. It was the inauguration of the exhibition “Hermitage: Gate in History”. I expressed my discomfort by sharing its causes on the museum’s Facebook page:

Mr. Lavrov’s government is air striking civilians in Syria (including the children we see on TV and which break our hearts), supporting a dictator. They also invaded a neighbouring country and are occupying part of it. Why did the Greek Government and the Byzantine Museum give a chance to the Russian Foreign Minister and his government to appear… civilised? 

There was no answer, not even from the funs who had liked and shared the museum’s post and who often come to the defence of their favourite organisations. They may have thought “What does one thing have to do with the other?”. Civic responsibility lies both with institutions and individual citizens, though.

In 2019, the fact that the Benaki Museum in Athens presented the exhibition “Roads of Arabia: Archaeological Treasures from Saudi Arabia”, which enjoyed the support of the Saudi Commission for Tourism and Heritage (a governmental organisation), was another source of discomfort for me. When in April of that year I read in the Guardian about the execution of 37 people (36 were beheaded and 1 was crucified), not only did I comment on Twitter, but I also e-mailed the museum. Assuming that these and previous practices of the Saudi regime were not unknown to them, aware that these exhibitions serve as public relations for their sponsors, I asked what the museum’s position was in face of this barbarity and what were the points that they had considered positive in that collaboration.

After some insistence due to the absence of a response, the museum’s academic director, George Manginis, answered, firstly thanking me for sharing with them my thoughts on the administration of justice in Saudi Arabia. This introduction set, according to my perception, an ironic tone regarding the whole email - it was more than clear, of course, that this was not the main intent of my getting in touch with them or the essence of my questioning.

The Benaki Museum academic director went on to inform me that the mission of museums is to present the multiple manifestations of world culture by promoting mutual understanding; he recognised an important role in the work of the Saudi Committee for Tourism and Cultural Heritage in educating the Saudi public and promoting pre-Islamic and Islamic archaeology and art outside their country’s borders; he added that the exhibition also aimed at enhancing cultural education within the friendly country through a special reading of archaeological material with emphasis on the Hellenistic tradition; he concluded that the museum team was convinced that the exhibition and publication "Roads of Arabia" had succeeded in “expanding the range of knowledge about Saudi Arabia in Greece and opening another channel of communication between the two countries, which for decades maintain excellent diplomatic relations”. One might ask, what kind of knowledge regarding Saudi Arabia? And what kind of channel of communication, communication of what?

These previous experiences came back to my mind when I read the declarations of two British and one French museums when questioned about the ethics of their collaboration with state-owned companies in China, considering the extensive record of human rights abuses by the government. According to The Art Newspaper:

They say that sharing their collections and expertise in this way “can help to foster tolerance and curiosity” (Pompidou); “generates greater understanding between global cultures and communities” (V&A), and helps “increase Chinese people’s access to the possibilities of international art” (Tate). 

“Mutual understanding”, “tolerance”, “knowledge”: key words (buzz words) in many museums’ rhetoric when questioned about their political and social role. Despite this rhetoric, though, their practice and exhibitions rarely prove it to be a true or conscious objective. After all, how does describing objects (which is what many museums basically do) promote any of these values and principles? How does diplomatic silence in the face of barbarity benefit people living under brutal regimes? How does it improve their lives? How does it make other people, in other countries, develop a more critical thinking regarding politics and their civic responsibilities? As I had questioned the Benaki Museum,

What culture (or barbarity), what knowledge (or ignorance) do you promote by accepting money from a harsh islamist regime? And most importantly, since when does culture have nothing to do with the administration of justice?

It was not the case of the Benaki Museum exhibition, but one should not also ignore the financial benefits for the museums collaborating, for instance, with the Chinese government, especially at a moment when things are quite tough on that aspect.

Serge Lasvignes, Emmanuel Macron and West Bund chairman Fong Shizhong
at the inauguration of the Centre Pompidou West Bund. Photo:
 Hector Retamal/Pool via Reuters

Referring once again to the article in The Art Newspaper, Human Rights Watch executive director, Kenneth Roth, argues that the quiet diplomacy favoured by Western politicians in China “does nothing to shame a government that seeks acceptance as a legitimate and respected member of the international community. Instead, the photo-ops of smiling officials combined with the public silence on human rights signal to the world - and to the people of China - that the VIP visitor is indifferent to Beijing’s repression.” 

This is not only about the role of politicians, of course. On this blog, we have written extensively on the political role of cultural organisations. Desmond Tutu’s words - If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor” – should echo in each one of us, both as individual citizens and as culture professionals, especially those leading cultural organisations. And we should be aware that, nowadays, many people in our societies expect us to position ourselves, expect us to take a stand – the most recent example being that of cultural organisations in the US in the face of the Black Lives Matter movement (and proven with data by Colleen Dilenschneider in the case of MoMA taking a stand against the American President’s so-called “Muslim ban” in 2017 - read here).

This also becomes evident through concrete references in The Art Newspaper article. Geoffrey Nice (a British prosecutor who chaired the China Tribunal in London, an independent panel set up to investigate evidence that the Chinese state is removing organs from Falun Gong prisoners while still alive) delivered his final judgment in June 2019, saying:

Governments and any who interact in any substantial way with the PRC including…educational establishments [and] arts establishments should now recognise that they are...interacting with a criminal state.

Chinese dissident artist Ai Weiwei was also quoted saying:

Any state or organisation, business or culture alike, involved with a state with such an extremely poor record on human rights, with divisive ideas about those most important values such as free speech, becomes a part of this power. If you do not question that power you become complicit.

Kerstin Mogull, the managing director of Tate, and Bao Shuyi, the vice general manager 
of Lujiazui Group signed a Memorandum of Understanding as part of the development 
of Shanghai’s Pudong Museum of Art in June 2019. Photo: Tate © Ben Fisher

Taking a stand, assuming a political role, is not easy for cultural organisations. There are many factors and relations that need to be considered, weighed, balanced. That said, silence cannot be an option. Especially when, all too often, silence relates to personal benefits (staying in a position) or financial benefits. Is this living up to the values we say embrace and promote? 

More on this blog

Are we with the bees or with the wolves?

From silence to a hashtag to taking a stand

I can’t breath 

Diplomatic silences 

Are we failing?

‘Just' a museum, 'just' an artist?

Theultimate measure   

Being “just”

Broken clay pots  

What have we got to do with this?

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


No comments: