Can Museums Be Neutral?

A few months ago, Mike Murawski, in partnership with LaTanya Autry of the Mississippi Museum of Art and The Empathetic Museum, created t-shirts to support a “Museums are not Neutral” campaign. Murawski wrote, “Museums have the potential to be relevant, socially-engaged spaces in our communities.  Yet, too often, they strive to remain “above” the political and social issues that affect our lives — embracing a myth of neutrality.” Anabel Roque Rodriguez, contributing to this topic on the same blog (as well as her own), wrote, “There shouldn’t be a confusion about whether museums need to speak up against any form of misinformation… fight any form of hate in its community, protect the values that embrace the integrity of minorities and discuss which narratives need to be enforced.

Since reading these posts I have been struggling to articulate why this campaign, which advocates for the necessity of social engagement which I agree with in the abstract, becomes problematic as a mandate for museums and a counter to the concept of  museum neutrality. I have come to believe that there are two problems: first, the assumption that museums or any other institutions can be “neutral,” and second, the places that political engagement on a larger scale might take us.

First, the concept of neutrality. Neutrality is defined as “the state of not supporting or helping either side in a conflict, disagreement, etc.; impartiality.” Thus, it implies that there is a conflict, and that the museum explicitly or implicitly refuses to take sides.

Murawski offers us two choices: museums as neutral – “‘above’ the political and social issues that affect our lives” – or museums as “agents of positive change” (quotes are from this post). But in fact, the role of museums is much more complicated than this. Museums implicitly support systems of hierarchy through their funding structure, which makes museums highly dependent upon the support of the 1%, the “winners” in our capitalist system. Racism, sexism, and injustice of many kinds in the contemporary world are entangled in a system which equates merit with money, and confers advantages to the rich that keep them rich. So museums are not neutral, but instead bulwarks of the system that the “Museums are not neutral” campaign asks us to lobby against. As evidence, see recent press about the Sackler Family, or visit the David H. Koch Plaza at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

From left to right: Sackler Center for Arts Education at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum; an artwork presented by the Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art at the Brooklyn Museum, and the Sackler Wing at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The Sacklers made their money through OxyContin.

Is there any evidence that this is a problem? The Sacklers may support major art museums around the world, but do they prevent these art museums from being activists? To think through this I considered the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH), which recently made the commitment to address the issue of climate change, resulting in the loss of board member and multi-million donor David Koch. That they made this decision, knowing that a wealthy board member would resign, is admirable.

But what issues does AMNH not address, and how does this impact how we understand the study of science? Joe Graves of BEACON suggests that “for the most part, the scientific enterprise has aided and abetted social injustice.” How might AMNH examine issues such as the use of data to perpetuate racism and classism in education? Or the impact of racism and sexism on medical research? What other causes might AMNH advocate for? And how might programs and exhibitions on these topics alienate additional board members, such as Richard Gilder, a founder of Club for Growth, a Super PAC that wants to “be seen as the tax cut enforcer in the [Republican] party” and which recently supported candidates Ted Cruz, Rand Paul, and Marco Rubio? Or Roberto A. Mignone, whose company Blue Ridge Capital supported Mitt Romney in 2008, and who is a Director at Teva Pharmaceuticals Industry, which was recently accused of price collusion and “a coordinated scheme to artificially maintain high prices for a generic antibiotic and diabetes drug”?

In truth, AMNH has a remarkable board – internet searches for various board members showed scientific credentials and support of many liberal causes. But even this group, which includes billionaires, hedge fund managers, and investors, has, collectively, a vested interest in the status quo. What decisions do all museums consciously or unconsciously make on a daily basis to keep the powerful and wealthy involved and invested? And when does the lack of an exhibit around the ways “the scientific enterprise has aided and abetted social injustice” equal a non-neutral, implicit support for the status quo?

Climate Change exhibit at the American Museum of Natural History. Photo by Karen Horton, from Flickr.

Now, non-neutrality.
What does it mean to be not neutral? Theoretically, one can engage with an issue without taking a position. But the “Museums are not Neutral” campaign proposes an engagement that is intertwined with advocacy, that “fights” and “protects,” and thus requires taking a position on a subject.

When engaging with “the political and social issues that affect our lives” and advocating against racism and hate, what stances does that entail? I would argue that a deep support of anti-racism must engage with economics as well, and the systemic racism and oppression that is embedded in an economic and political system in which where you live impacts the education you receive. Further, the educational advantages of parents, and their comfort operating in the world of the advantaged, has enormous implications for their children. So in order to “fight any form of hate in its community, protect the values that embrace the integrity of minorities and discuss which narratives need to be enforced” museums would need to tackle many of the systems embedded in our daily lives. Neighborhood demographics. The social safety net and how it operates. Educational testing. Implicit biases held by nearly everyone.

Banksy artwork from Boston. Taken by jiva bludeau, and posted on flickr.

But let’s just try it for a minute… Let’s imagine what museums would look like if they were, as Anabel Rodriguez proposes, institutions dedicated to “protect[ing] the values that embrace the integrity of minorities and discuss[ing] which narratives need to be enforced.” What would it look like if museums were genuinely advocating for social justice?

They would use exhibits to demonstrate the ongoing impact of racism, sexism, and capitalism on art, science, and history. They would likely consider exhibits a central but not sole mechanism for advocacy, taking these ideas outside the museum walls through programming, PR and marketing, and other outreach initiatives. They might support specific local and national political candidates, and take a stance on issues like gerrymandering or prison sentencing. 

But if this happens, what is a museum? It is no longer an institution dedicated to the collection and care of objects, or the education and engagement of visitors about a field of study. It is a space that uses objects to lobby for social change — in ways that many of us might agree with, but has little to do with our original missions. And it is an institution so closely aligned with one perspective on the world that it aggressively attacks things that many others believe.

This institution will need to financially stay afloat, so it will end up funded by the Warren Buffets and George Soroses of the world (and thank you to those people), so it better be careful about crossing any line that offends them. And these institutions will need to be limited to hundreds, not thousands, because how many Buffets and Soroses are there, really? So whose museum gets to stay open in this new funding climate, and what communities end up with shuttered buildings due to the lack of a financially viable funding model?

Likely, these politicized institutions inspire a wave of new museums (or should I say “museum-like-institutions”) funded by the David Kochs and Ken Hams of the world. Museums, which are now political advocacy organizations, spring up on both sides of the political spectrum, widening the gap within an already divided citizenry.

Please, share some alternate stories. I recognize that this is a depressing narrative, and that a distopic future is easier to imagine than a utopic future. I want to see a different path for politically engaged museums, because we live in a world that needs all citizens to fight for what’s right and just. But museums are not citizens – they are their own special brand of institution, different from anything else – so do they need to remain “neutral”? Fight to gain greater neutrality by finding new systems of funding and support? Is there another way to play an advocacy role without alienating half of the population, and creating a two-party museum system? Or is there a way to find meaning in the work we already do, without added political and social engagement?





18 thoughts on “Can Museums Be Neutral?

  1. Rebecca, thank you for this! Such a thoughtful inquiry into this issue. It seems, like everything else, museum neutrality operates on a spectrum. Every move an institution (that needs funding) ever makes is a choice that is potentially not neutral. I wonder how intentional our museums are being about these choices and who are the gatekeepers?

    • Great question, Jenny! On this same topic I wonder about educators and directors/top administrators in museums, and how much these staff members engage in these questions. Are museum staff all on the same page about “non-neutrality”, or are there internal tensions that many museums are not addressing as well as we should?

  2. First of all, congratulations for your blog. I suscribed some months ago and I enjoy every post.

    I must start saying that, when I read the title of the post, I thought that I was going to read some general topics saying that, of course, museums are not neutral, and we, the professionals of museums, are the saviors of the world. But then I thought: hey, is Rebecah, she deserves a chance. Fortunatelly I did it, and enjoied once more reading you.

    About the topic, I agree that “not to be neutral” is not that easy. When I speak with colleagues about the role of museums in society, I suggest that the best we can do is to show how the narratives are displayed. Hegemonic groups need other counterhegemonic groups to take hold in power, so we have to be carefull not to become their partners. The idea is not to confront different gospels, but to show our community how the people that control the system do it. As you say, taking part of one side we are moving away from the other side, the other have of society. The best we can do (I believe) is to use our tools (heritage and knowledge) so that people reflect in a conscious way on their ideological positions. Maybe they will stay in their positions, maybe change them, but we will be useful if we make them aware of their own thoughts.

    Sorry for my bad English. I hope you can understand anything!

    • Ignacio, your English is not bad at all, and I wish I could write in any other language as well as you write in English!

      I would love to see a museum exhibit that engages visitors of all political persuasions to examine their ideological positions. If you know of any, please share these models!

  3. I am happy to see folks engaging with our #MuseumsAreNotNeutral campaign. However, this post misinterprets our project. It isn’t about “Should museums be neutral?” They aren’t.
    We’re urging colleagues to acknowledge that and to address social realities. This can be done in non-partisan ways as evident by important critical work of the National Museum of African American History and Culture and other institutions.
    I suggest that anyone who wants to know what I mean by #MuseumsAreNotNeutral should read what I have written about it. If they still don’t understand, they can send me a question.

    Both Mike and I have written about our campaign:
    – “Changing the Things I Cannot Accept: Museums Are Not Neutral,” by La Tanya S. Autry, Artstuffmatters blog, October 15, 2017,
    – “Museums Are Not Neutral” by Mike Murawski, Art Museum Teaching blog, August 31, 2017,

    Here are just a few excellent articles and books about this topic –
    – “The Idea of Museum Neutrality: Where Did It Come From,” by Gretchen Jennings, Museum Commons blog, June 26, 2017,
    – “What is Curatorial Activism,” by Maura Reilly, Art News, 11/7/2017,
    – From Storefront to Museum: Tracing the Public History of the Black Museum Movement by Andrea A. Burns, Amherst, MA: University of Massachusetts, 2013
    – Exhibiting Blackness: African Americans and the American Art Museum, Amherst, MA: University of Massachusetts, 2011
    – Mounting Frustration: The Art Museum in the Age of Black Power by Susan E. Cahan, Durham, NC: Duke University, 2016

    La Tanya S. Autry
    #MuseumsAreNotNeutral co-founder

    • Thank you so much for engaging in a dialogue with me about this, La Tanya! It’s a critical conversation for all of us.

      First, I should note that I am really responding most closely to Anabel Roque Rodriguez’s post, which is one of the posts in this series on the Art Museum Teaching blog, although not one you list here. Anabel wrote “The question is whether institutions who deal with primary sources, historical and contemporary narratives and a culture that decides which discourses get public attention should engage in neutrality? My opinion is that Museums are not neutral” and later “There shouldn’t be a confusion about whether museums need to speak up against any form of misinformation, lack to state the sources, fight any form of hate in its community, protect the values that embrace the integrity of minorities and discuss which narratives need to be enforced.” So while I agree with you (and Anabel) that museums are not and cannot be neutral, there is a larger question being posed about how and whether museums should embrace non-neutrality through taking what is essentially a political stance.

      I do acknowledge social realities, and want very much to address them in my museum, as I do in my daily life. I am not convinced that this can be done in a non-partisan way, and I have not seen any compelling argument to the contrary. I would love to hear how partisan engagement can lead museums down a path that results in something positive – as you can see from my post, when I tried this thought experiment, it led me to a partisan divide.

      I would add that I love Reilly’s article on Curatorial Activism – thank you so much for calling my attention to that! It addresses my “thought experiment” question by offering a type of activism that is important and non-partisan. But is this type of curatorial activism, which is about inclusion, sufficient?

  4. Hi Rebecca, I shared your post with my colleagues and here are some thoughts in response:

    Your post raises a good question about how to walk this line [non-neutral vs. neutral], however the interesting part is not if we should walk it, but how we navigate that grey space.
    – The post seems to assume that museums as a monolithic entity and so seeks a monolithic answer. Answers make a whole lot more sense when considered institution by institution, and lots of right answers emerge.
    – The post also assumes that our default setting is reaching everyone and that moving away from that will lead to a more skewed visitorship. Most Americans don’t currently visit museums.
    – The inability to work on everything simultaneously is not a reason to avoid working on something.
    Our institutions will continue to be complicit in some forms of harm as we seek to address others. Our efforts will always be imperfect and demanding to only engage in perfection will lead us to either hide our heads or take extreme binary positions.

    Museums in and of themselves are not an innate good, and can be a harm. (There are museums in the world that support really damaging non-neutral views.) Museums are a tool of self-improvement for society, democracy’s YMCA. But they are a tool, and their survival should not be prioritized above their use. If they aren’t doing good they should change. Or go away. Museums can do good and should and will stick around.

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  6. Rebecca, brilliant as always!
    I would argue though that before going into the extreme of political and social justice action. Many museums could revisit their collections and narratives attached to to them from a decolonizing, non-patriarchal perspective. Let’s just question first are lack of multiple perspectives and how we use our power, there are plenty of people doing social justice that will benefit by museums not taking on the work but being place where we Can learn and about injustices and multiple perspectives.

  7. Thank you, Rebecca, for this post. I’ve struggled to respond because I needed time to read through all the great links that have been posted in the blog and also by people responding. I’m still reading and finding more resources.

    I continue to be inspired by what’s happening with the Museums Are Not Neutral campaign. As a practitioner, I’m most excited to read about what other institutions are doing. There has been some innovative work going on—some recent realignments, but other museums that have been doing this work for some time. One of the commenters mentioned local solutions, and that holds true in my experience. At times, trying to look at the field as a whole can be a mixed bag. Yet that’s exactly what we need to do in order to raise the larger concerns about how museums are supported and what narratives they uphold.

    I’d suggest anyone interested in critical dialogue to take a look at what Sites of Conscience is doing. After years practicing inquiry, the brief encounter I had with their model changed my entire perspective. They’ve been working in historic sites and museums for years, and I imagine more and more art museums will take part in the training as this important conversation grows in our field.

    I do think it is possible to both support a movement and instigate a critical discussion about it. The question’s wording of “Can museums be neutral?” caused some issues (I think Rebecca acknowledged this on Twitter already). It’s clear from the article Rebecca does not think museums are neutral, or can be. We need to engage in dialogue with one another about how this work can be challenging, how taking a principled stance can lead to conversations that some (fairly or not) consider political. The post was essentially trying to get at the question of what happens when museums start dismantling the power structures/hierarchy that have been in place often since their inception as an organization.

    Many programmers initiating change are going to get questions about funding from others at their institutions. I know there are people out there who can speak to how they answer these questions and push forward in their own work. I’ll be looking around for these conversations and would love links if anyone has any.

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