21st-century museums use the material culture of the past and present to encourage discussion and debate, right? To share ideas and open up conversations. So why then, does the new Museums Association ‘Manifesto for Tolerance and Inclusion’ (February 2017) respond to the US Travel Ban by adopting an unequivocally pro-immigration stance?
Bear with me…
If museums and other cultural organisations are serious about inclusion, we have to recognise that last year 52% of our potential UK audience voted to sever ties with our European neighbours in order (so the argument went) to halt inward migration. The seismic shock of discovering that progressives are suddenly in a minority cannot be assuaged by simply shouting our liberal values ever louder above the voices of those who have genuine, if to us misdirected, concerns. Of course we need to do this too, now more than ever. But culture has a deeper and more powerful role as well.
It’s of all our responsibility to challenge prejudice and ignorance – and it matters how we do this. If we become organisations that promote a particular, liberal viewpoint only, we’ll do little to include the 52% of people that felt so ignored that they voted to overturn decades of progress, however flawed.
Perhaps we should invite contemporary rightwing populist viewpoints, hateful as they are to many of us, into museums, galleries, theatres. Explore with empathy. Look objectively, in the same way that we now talk about the origins rather than the causes of Europe’s lurch to the political right in the 1930s. Or perhaps even in the same way that psychology brings thoughts into the open, where they can be comprehended, challenged, addressed. If museums seek to understand history, including the history that is happening now, surely we have to open up and not close down debate?
And yet there remains a tension between head and heart, between intellectual ideal and lived experience. The challenge is how to admit these conversations safely and without causing harm. No-one entering a cultural space (or indeed any public space) should feel less valued, attacked or afraid as a person. In our pursuit of knowledge and understanding we have to remain true to our most humane values.
And on a personal note, as someone who grew up amid 1980s Section 28-sanctioned hatred, I wish just one trusted person or authority, perhaps at school, or even at sixth form college, had declared themselves against the dominant bigotry and ignorance, as the Museums Association has now done. Only when we feel safe and valued – all of us – can we begin the process of understanding, let alone creating, a diverse and exciting culture.