MUSEUMS ARE NOT NEUTRAL

By Mike Murawski

Museums have the potential to be relevant, socially-engaged spaces in our communities, acting as agents of positive change.  Yet, too often, they strive to remain “above” the political and social issues that affect our lives — embracing a myth of neutrality.

Well, MUSEUMS ARE NOT NEUTRAL, plain and simple.  Let’s come together and spread this message.

My friend and colleague, LaTanya Autry, and I decided to collaborate to create this t-shirt along with a campaign to spark conversations about the role of museums, while raising funds to support the work of the Southern Poverty Law Center.

We hope you can order a t-shirt, wear it proudly, and talk about the potential of museums to do good work, advocate for human rights, and take a stand against hate. Museums can be agents of positive social change in our communities, and it’s up to us to make this happen together.

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Order your MUSEUMS ARE NOT NEUTRAL t-shirt here!  And help us spread the word.

The profits from each t-shirt purchased go directly to support the critical work of the Southern Poverty Law Center in combating hate, injustice, and discrimination through education, legal services, advocacy, and anti-bias resources.  You can also donate directly to the Southern Poverty Law Center through this link to their Donate page.

Over the next couple of weeks, we’ll also be sharing blog posts and further resources and discussions about museums and neutrality.  Stay tunes for more!

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Header Image: Protest badges from Sheffield’s Social History collection, part of an exhibition entitled “Sheffield: Protest and Activism” curated by Louisa Briggs.  

24 thoughts on “MUSEUMS ARE NOT NEUTRAL”

  1. Hi Mike,
    Thank you for putting together the post. This is maybe the most important issue facing museums.

    Of course, it is a falsehood that there is only one history or one point of view. But to what extent should a museum voice it’s opinion? To me, the question is not if museums are neutral or not, but to what extent a museum is involved in the conversation.

    – Mark

    1. Thanks, Mark. Yes, I agree it’s not only about whether museums are neutral or not. But the false narrative of “neutrality” has been such a barrier for many institutions to be having these conversations. We’re still too frequently getting stuck at whether museums have a role to play when it comes to social and political issues, rather than moving past this and taking action as agents of change. For me, this t-shirt is a statement that “Museums are not neutral,” period — so let’s get past that barrier for good and get into the meaty conversations that recognize the inextricable and complex connections between museums and their social and political contexts. We need to surface this bold statement in a public way, and stop equivocating about the role of museums in society.

      1. Agreed, Mark. For us who whole-heartedly agree with LaTanya and Mike’s statement on neutrality, the questions quickly become to what extent, and when, does a museum express opinion? Which leads to, how are institutional opinions decided?

        Hopefully this internal conversation is happening in each organization. More realistically, I suspect it’s occurring in individual departments (education, programs, curatorial) and it’s less likely that the full museum is in discussion. Recognizing that we aren’t neutral institutions applies to all of our spaces, but the considerations of how, when, and around what topics museums express opinion will differ widely between museums based on community, goals, exhibitions, etc..

        As a profession, there won’t be one solution that fits all institutions, programs, and exhibitions. But, we can actively encourage the internal dialogues each museum needs to have about its role as community member and, more importantly, as cultural leader. How can we encourage all museums to identify their power and actively use it to further their mission?

      2. Great questions, Jessica! And you are exactly right — we need to be having these internal conversations, which can be challenging given the size and complexity of some institutions. It especially has to break outside of Education and community outreach departments. It’s important that we bring together people from all areas of the museum to have open, respectful conversations where we listen, understand each other, and build empathy. And then the conversation needs to be open to members of the community, so that their voice can be heard (that’s so important, but also the most difficult thing to do — however, some museums are doing it so well. Letting our communities in, and allowing them a seat at the table as we reflect on the purpose of our institutions). Museums have a high level of public trust, but I think it’s time we earned in (also making sure we understand “the public” in a more inclusive way).

  2. Hi Mike,
    What is the limit to museum activism? I believe museums cannot directly support political campaigns. What is the limit?

    I don’t know the answer. Seems important to understand the limits.
    – Mark

    1. Good question, Mark. We have to be sure to understand that being socially responsible, standing against hate, and advocating for human rights is not the same as being partisan or supporting political campaigns. Non-profit institutions are not permitted to specifically support political candidates if they want to consider themselves tax exempt (although the guidelines here are complex, too much so for a short comment response). I definitely see some institutions and museum professionals being afraid of “choosing sides” or “alienating some audiences” based on politics, but we should not be afraid to be responsible, responsive, and relevant in ways that are broader and bigger than political candidates or campaigns. I have a lot of thoughts on this topic — it’s an important conversation to have. I hope this can open up an exchange about this question, and that others can chime in. I’m just one perspective (and a white male one at that).

  3. I suppose this might be true for museums in places where the political winds have a hint of blue to them… it is not the case here. I could protest the agenda of the Trump administration, argue against the destruction of the IMLS, the NEH, etc. I could weigh in against the glorification of Confederate leaders. However, the side you are asking me to choose is a side opposite the very conservative community within which we operate. No museum can operate without support from the community, and that is precisely the position I would be in.
    Before you make an all-encompassing statement like “Museums Are Not Neutral”, think about the repercussions of that. There are more museums in rural Texas that in practically every other state (the whole state). To sign up to be an activist brands me a liberal. *Poof* There goes all my supporters and donors. Volunteers? They’ll split, guaranteed. And my job? *Poof*
    Nice sentiment, frankly. It’s not that I don’t really want to. I can’t. But I understand your position, and the position of most museum folks with a voice (and museum associations). You folks seem to speak from the position of the urban museum professional. Maybe that message works for you, but it’ll kill us out here.

    1. Douglas, thank you for sharing your perspective! It’s really important to hear as many voices as possible in this conversation.

      My apologies if it seems a bit one-sided or focused too much on urban museums. The issues I’m striving to see engaged in museums are not protesting against a presidential administration, not about the glorification of Confederate leaders, or not about policy-based political initiatives (although supporting the NEH, NEA, and IMLS should be receiving support in rural communities, since they fund so many small museums, arts organizations, theatres, and education programs in rural communities. IMLS funds rural libraries in Texas to get internet access and social services to those in need, distance learning programs, and important homeschooling resources. But that’s another debate for another day). At a basic level, I’m interested in us museum professionals understanding (and questioning) the assumptions and biases we hold and that inform our decisions every day, which often lead to museums that aim to be “neutral” as a way of avoiding complexities and the thorny issues of history, culture, science, and artistic expression. These complexities are laid bare for most cities in this country, but they still exist in rural communities even if we don’t hear about them as regularly (I am from Missouri and have family in rural Iowa and Missouri, so the deep complexities of rural America are not completely foreign to me, even if I currently live and work in Portland, Oregon). I agree that museums must receive the support of their communities, and I always hope we define our “communities” as broadly and inclusive as possible. And that we strive to be reflective of our communities and relevant to their lived experiences, histories, and stories. Have you been able to diversify your audience in Brenham (looks like about 30-40% people of color), and involve African American and Latino communities in your exhibitions and programs? How does a rural heritage museum become a space for dialogues about immigration, labor, water, etc. that represents and recognizes multiple perspectives? Can a broader community gain a sense of ownership over these types of smaller museums and heritage sites? How can rural museums be more inclusive of people with disabilities, people living with dementia, and people of all ages without getting “too political”? Advocating for human rights, respectful dialogue, and empathy should not be defined as political, although I realize we live in a time when these things have become political.
      I’m interested in continuing this exchange (online or offline), since I recognize the gaps here for museums operating in rural or conservative communities. I think this is an important part of the conversation, and I want to hear more so I can be challenged, think critically about these issues, and keep adapting my ideas. Thank you for your willingness to post your thoughts.

    2. Just a couple of thoughts on this point – not being “neutral” does not necessarily equate to progressive viewpoints or positions. Reflecting your local character and community values is a non-neutral position. In addition, it can be argued that choosing to say nothing in the face of inequality/racism etc. (and I’m not saying you do…) is not “neutral” but actually choosing a position (somewhat akin to the idea of a lie of omission). The act of claiming to be neutral could be seen as a statement of support. Look at how white supremacists responded to Trump’s weak condemnation – they interpreted it as an endorsement.

      I think the key for much of this is to create a space for dialog, and to reflect reality and “truth” as best as the institution can – which means things like not denying climate change (or being “neutral” and pretending it isn’t happening), not pretending the Civil War wasn’t about slavery, and not pretending that prejudice and hatred is a central theme in our histories. It does mean convening difficult conversations – and listening to voices we disagree with.

  4. great dialogue Mike .. Australia is in the middle of a very important debate about recognition of LGTI marriage, also recognition of our (my) 1st nations peops.. our Art museums regularly address the above issues featuring highly political race agendas..this has been true for 30 years ..see NGA ‘Don’t leave me this way’in the 1980s,& incl regular shows about individuals in main stream,and dedicated indigenous galleries within most State Galleries vis AGNSW,MCA Sydney – Gordon Bennett. FYI there is an important indigenous art issues happening within the ANG re the survey of Albert Namajira 7 the ANG not being able to put out a catalog (or any printed material related to the artist ) because the copyright owner (heritage press won’t respond to any correspondence Yikes .involves the Fed minister for the arts .. watch that space

  5. People are not neutral, so the museums that are directed and staffed by them can not be either. We all come to our work with our own ideas, prejudicious and agendas.

    But I think the political situation in the United States makes this conversation harder to have, because it is assumed that not being neutral means fighting the Trump agenda.

    While it’s easy to be distracted by the circus in Washington, there are issues which museums can approach with an activist attitude without it being a red v blue argument.

    I spotted a news piece earlier today talking about Hookworm in the drinking water in Alabama ( http://bit.ly/2j0febd ). A disease that is more commonly found in the third world, but is thriving in the South.

    To me this seems like a perfect example of something that science centers in the effected States could pick up on and look to build programming around to educate and effect change.

    Having clean drinking water in the richest country in the world would surely appeal to both a liberal and a ‘Make America Great Again’ agenda, yet a museum addressing this subject could be described as an activist.

    I don’t think there is a one size fits all approach, but we should all think about our relevance to our communities.

    To me looking at an issue like clean drinking water is more interesting than yet another Bodyworks, Dinosaur or Lego exhibition and while my kids would most certainly disagree, making space for these more challenging issues (alongside the stuff that pays the bills) will make connections with our communities that will not happen otherwise.

    Research that we carried out at MuseumNext earlier this year ( http://bit.ly/2oJ9LmM ) shows that this is particularly true of teenage / millennial audiences who do have an interest in issues based exhibitions.

    So being seen to take an issue on a subject could grow your audiences.

    Jim

    1. Again, a nice sentiment, but not realistic here. I have a very short stack of issues I can speak out for/against. Anything else is made out to be exactly a red/blue issue. When we were in the middle of a drought, a drought so severe that private wells began to go dry, I took exception oh-so-casually at a meeting. My head was pinched off immediately in the name of government overreach. So yeah… a hookworm problem in the water could absolutely be turned into a partisan issue. Saying otherwise is like suggesting the NEH or IMLS couldn’t possibly be resented here because some of those funds have come down to little old rural Brenham. You bet they can, and they are. From the position of many here, that’s still called “Obama Money”. That’s big government. It doesn’t matter that the Nancy Carol Roberts Library benefits from IMLS support, or that Blinn receives NEH grants. It’s big government, and that’s BAD. It’s oh so bad. Ask anyone here how it is actively ruining their lives, and they will happily explain. Scum grows in every toilet in town because there aren’t as many “evil government chemicals” in our water. Insidious government bastards, how dare they mess with God’s own water. The very idea.

      Most importantly, everyone has bias. No one can avoid that. We all have our particular brand of lenses. That’s got squat one to do with being neutral. I’m so biased I can’t see straight. But break out your watches and dip your do in chocolate, boys! I’m Switzerland, I tell you what.
      Unless it’s about church. Right, I can’t be neutral about church stuff. But that goes without being said, huh?

      1. Someone pointed out I seemed to have left out a phrase.

        In a meeting, I took casual exception to people watering their lawns, and to the city for watering their landscaping during the drought.

        When I reread my post, it reads very negative. Truthfully, I feel negatively about a lot of these issues frequently. What I don’t mean to do is sound argumentative. I respect your position, and I don’t believe you folks to be wrong. I just honestly think most actively vocal museum leaders really aren’t speaking from a platform we can identify with. It’s very easy to suggest an ideal course of action from a remote position. It’s far harder to be sympathetic to suggestions when our reality differs so much from yours. I wasn’t always in this position. I am not from this rural community. I’m from San Antonio, born and raised. I have worked at large, well-funded urban museums for most of my career. My ideas and plans were always respected and my peers shared most of my personal convictions. I worked at the Witte, at Auschwitz, at the Imperial War Museum, the British Museum, the Spanish Governor’s Palace… there are more on the list before I came to Brenham. Ideas and programs I always assumed were easy to sell became very hard here. It took years to sell the board on accreditation (still years from seeing that happen, but at least I’m working on it). It took years to get the board to agree that institutional partners were a good thing. Adopting policy documents to cover diversity, acquisitions, even house style were all tough. I am a very accomplished politician by this point, as that is how I got all of this done. I do not regret it, but it very challenging. Not in a “oh boy! This is gonna be a challenge to rise to!”, but in a “gee. What a pain in the neck. Wait, that’s a broken neck. Why did I get a Phd in this?!” sort of way.
        I’ve spent five years trying to gather the forces of these rural museums into some kind of solidarity of purpose, and instead keep bouncing off the cagey, insular “this is our museum, we don’t want to share” sort of attitude. I’m not done, not by a long shot. And I’ve had victories, make no mistake. Contemporary art is now generally accepted here, for example. Speaking truth to power in issues associated with segregation and our dark past has been a tough but successful endeavour. We have a long way to go yet. It is unlikely to get to the summit I’ve been aiming for. I’m still pretty young. Who knows?
        Regardless, my previous (and also long-winded) posts don’t express my regard for the time you took to put your own thoughts down in this forum, in an attempt to lend a hand. I’m so often the oh-so-careful diplomat, I relished the opportunity to fly off the handle and lay it all out for my colleagues. So here I go, it all boils down to this: We are the forgotten, ignored, misunderstood, and under-appreciated museums of the rural conservative United States. Everyone thinks we don’t know what we’re doing, that we are all unpaid retired volunteers. We must constantly prove ourselves to our own colleagues, because they assume we are a dump in an abandoned strip center.

  6. Museums have never been neutral. Putting politics aside, you can look at what they chose to collect. Artifacts that favored white culture and aesthetics were collected and by doing so they made a statement about what and who was of value in our country. Only recently are museums looking to expand their collections to better reflect their communities. So museums have never been neutral and now there seems to be a call for neutrality because of politics. There are certain values that we hold as a country that have nothing to do with our voting preference and should be upheld by museums.

    1. Well, apparently our national values are up for interpretation, aren’t they? I would be willing to wager your interpretation of those values differs wildly from people here. Words like freedom, equality, and justice have different meaning in Austin compared to Brenham. I challenge you to dispute that.
      You can assume my neutral stance (which has been in place long before the current federal administration was put in place) is the product of political correctness, but I have a responsibility to respect everyone in the community. And I do that. I can only do that if I’m neutral. If I was in Austin or San Antone, maybe I’d feel different, but I’m not. Just try to imagine who might come to this museum if I took sides. I’d be drawing from 40% of the population instead of 100%.
      I find it ludicrous you use the archaic antiquarian age of collecting as leverage to suggest we should not be neutral. Since the end of segregation, museums have tried much harder to ride the center of the road by diversifying every part of our operations. We are to be fair, judicious, and yes… NEUTRAL. As neutral as you can be. When you know you have bias, it get easier. Try it.

      1. I agree that those values will have different meanings in different parts of the country, you should interpret them in relation to your community. Think about the civil war. For the 200 anniversary there were dozens of exhibits commemorating the events. This was because the interpretation in MO would be different from the interpretation in VA and NY. Facts are one size fits all. Interpretation is not.

  7. Mike, this is such an important dialogue, thank you. I follow you and LaTanya and know how much you are contributing to museum education, and museums overall. I also completely appreciate Douglas speaking honestly with his informed perspective. . . from the small rural museum, that’s important to hear. I think museumists can agree that this is a tough discussion, fraught with consequences, internally, externally .and so for me it’s one I have to face. At this point in time, in our civic discourse in the US, whatever I say/don’t say, do/don’t do, is “not neutral” whatever disclaimer I might give. I have heard the conviction that museums have to be objective, and my immediate response is that such an assumption is partisan and then. . .it’s no matter, it’s a distraction, there is and isn’t validity in objectivity and this can be argued endlessly. For me, it is enough that this critique has been expressed. I don’t feel museums have anything to gain by pursuing objectivity for its own sake. Our institutions are about what was selected out and saved from the past for those of us in the present as well as the future: these objects, memories, narratives and their context that speak of who we are and who we aspire to be. I really struggle with the idea of objectivity as a desired end. It is clear that some of us, not all, feel that they don’t belong in museums. Some of us, not all, feel that there is nothing in our museums that tells their story. If someone tells me that, who am I to argue? Am I telling them that it’s their fault, not mine, that they don’t feel welcome or find relevance in my museum? Aren’t I the professional, the one working in the field–shouldn’t it be incumbent on me to change up more than the audience? Difficult, of course. Impossible– I don’t think so. I have learned that I am at my best when I am open to other possibilities, still informed by my knowledge and experience that I bring to the table along with others. I wish I always acted that way, but it’s another story. (It’s easy for me to become enchanted with my expertise but I try to catch myself).

    Thanks to all readers of my comments for indulging me and allowing me to express some thoughts and feelings swirling around in my head and heart. Thanks to any of you who will take issue with me about what I have written–tell me what I don’t know, and let me think about it! I assume, (yes) that museum professionals can have respectful exchanges of divergent and strong opinions. I know it takes courage on the part of my museum colleagues who are POC to do so, more than me, and I want to listen and learn from you.

  8. Douglas,
    Thank you for voicing your point of view on the issue of “Museum are not Neutral”. Your comments and point of view are very helpful.

    To be honest, I am scared that museums could easily become a battle ground. As museum professionals, we need to maintain an objective view, or museums could become partisan.

    I understand that objectivity is a falsehood, but it is one that we should all strive for, an objective view of Art, History, Science, and Education.

    I understand that museums are not neutral, a museum in one part of the country will have a different point of view from a museum in a different part of the country.

    Museums as community organizations, shouldn’t we present the “objective” view of our community through our own moral lens? Striving to be as inclusive as possible? To me inclusive and objective are linked, we need to be inclusive to better understand an objective and neutral point of view.

    For me, the goal of objectivity is the burden and joy of working in museums.

    1. Feel free to assume we are not neutral. As if you’ve even set foot in our gallery. Those of us that try, that is. Some of us don’t try, and I find that rather convenient. I can demonstrate how we remain objective, and neutral (for those who stretch out some kind of distinction). Museums do not typically go through the hoops we go through. So yeah… we are neutral. And we are objective. We do better than try. We get very, very close. To the point I can defend anything and everything in our gallery. To anyone.
      And that is the most inclusive thing we could ever do. We are trusted to tell the truth, to lay it out bare. You can hear it all in our content, and hear why we represent the things we say as truth. We do this with bibliographies, historiographies, hard evidence, and (in the case of art exhibitions) a clear policy of independent and outside contemporary art curation. You can’t get more inclusive than that. The truth belongs to everyone, whether they like it or not. Whether they get mad, or not. This seems to go against what I’ve said in earlier posts, but we can clearly defend our decisions and content. We do not mirror state curriculum, for example. Their content is not defensible, not by a long shot. Most museums can’t either. I’d love to see the exhibition files for some of the other museums in this state (or other states). I guarantee they don’t go as far as I think they are ethically obligated to go. I know they don’t, because they don’t have time or resources enough to do it. The big boys might. Maybe. Unless an exhibit is independently curated by an expert on the subject. That might not be enough, depends on the expert and how they document their research.
      We see eye to eye on some things, though I reject your moral compass. There are many stories that would curl John Q Public’s toes, stories that run contrary to our modern ideal of a just and equitable society. History is mean like that. I don’t pretend it isn’t. I will still put it on the wall, as long as I can definitively and without question, demonstrate the veracity of our content. Besides, if I accept the notion of a moral lens/compass with regard to content, who’s compass do I use? Mine? Yours? I have a big committee to check me. Not “check” as in verify. “Check” as in hockey. That works for me.

  9. Mike,
    Thank you for encouraging this dialogue. I believe you are correct, “Museums are Not Neutral”, but they should strive for Neutrality. Seeing it as comparing journalism to a commentary. Journalism strives for objectivity and “Label advocacy and commentary” http://www.spj.org/ethicscode.asp. A museum strives to uphold a “journalistic integrity” allowing curators and artists space for commentary.

    Using Andres Serrano as an example, the museum remains “neutral” on the religious issue, while defending the curators and artists right to communicate their opinion.
    http://glasstire.com/2017/06/25/protestors-gathered-yesterday-against-the-station-museums-andres-serrano-exhibition/

    – Mark

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