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.
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?
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?