As a new definition of ‘museum’ goes to a vote, we ask people in the know what they hope museums in the future will be like
What makes a museum, a museum? According to a controversial new definition by the International Council of Museums (ICOM), 21st-century museums are “democratising, inclusive, and polyphonic spaces for critical dialogue”, whose aim is to “contribute to human dignity and social justice, global equality, and planetary wellbeing.”
Published in July, the 99-word definition was criticised for being too long, “a statement of fashionable values”, “a word salad”, “ideological.” Given that the wording has stayed virtually the same for the past 50 years, it seems fair that it might need revision. But ultimately, how it will actually affect museums will depend on the people who run them. ICOM’s ambitions could fall flat if the new definition is but a case of “woke-washing”, whereby museums use language linked to social justice without genuinely committing to the movements they invoke.
What can museums do to be more inclusive? Can they be a force for good? (But also: why should they?) While the government seems to be inching closer to chaos by the day, could museums indulge us with a semblance of a future?
Tomorrow, thousands of members of the International Council of Museums (ICOM) are due to meet in Japan to formally ratify a controversial new definition. Ahead of this, we asked creatives, researchers, and activists to share their hopeful visions and ideas on how museums could enact them.
“(The new definition) could be helpful because it acknowledges the fact that museums are not politically neutral,” says Danny Chivers, a member of BP or not BP?, a campaign group that fights fossil fuel funding of arts and culture. “For all the attempts museums make to say: ‘Oh, we’re just presenting objects, artefacts,’ every single decision they make is them taking a political stance and has political consequences.”
“For all the attempts museums make to say: ‘Oh, we’re just presenting objects, artefacts,’ every single decision they make is them taking a political stance and has political consequences” – Danny Chivers
Museums and cultural institutions have come under increased public scrutiny recently over their connections to corporations. In the last year, the National Portrait Gallery and the Tate cut ties with the Sacklers, a billionaire family accused of making profit from the US opioid crisis whose name we see on so many museum, library, and hospital walls. Furious backlash – famously organised by photographer Nan Goldin – led the Sackler Trust to freeze donations to all UK institutions in March. London’s Design Museum came under fire in 2018 for hosting a reception for an arms dealer. Then there is BP, the oil company who still funds major cultural organisations, including the British Museum.
“The British Museum is making a clear statement that it doesn’t care about the negative impact of the fossil fuel industry,” says Chivers. “In this moment of climate emergency, to be actively promoting a fossil fuel company goes against any values that these institutions already claim to hold around caring about culture and preservation.”
Though BP’s sponsorship provides less than 1 per cent of the British Museum’s budget, links to fossil fuel companies make it impossible for museums to engage honestly in the climate change conversation. Tate’s declaration of climate emergency in July would have been seen as grotesque hypocrisy had the museum not cut ties with BP three years ago.
It’s also faintly ironic that BP money enables exhibitions of artefacts from those same communities that the fossil fuel business jeopardises across the world. In February, campaigners protested a British Museum exhibition of ancient Iraqi objects, claiming it allowed BP to “whitewash” its involvement in the aftermath of the 2003 invasion.
As museums revise their sponsorships, they are also forced to consider which narratives they spotlight and which narratives they leave out of their gallery spaces. In the UK, museum collections of non-western artefacts have largely been formed through imperial expansion. Yet, how those objects were unearthed and the ways in which museums were complicit in the colonial project often remain obscured.
“What if all museums that have colonialist artefacts did commit to returning those most culturally sensitive artefacts?” Chivers wonders. Last year, French President Macron moved in that direction when he pledged for the “permanent or temporary” return of African heritage held in France.
To repatriate objects is one thing. Another is the call to correct the inaccurate history museums have created of the people from whom their collections were taken. “There is this great, rich history of people’s lives, grassroots struggles, and resistance that happened in British history, but we don’t see it,” says Chivers. “The whole history is told by the victors. We tend to see the grand, and the impressive, and the things that were built by kings and princes and powerful governments. What if there was a museum that told the story of Britain not just from the perspective of kings and queens?”
This is exactly what Dr Mirjam Brusius is doing through “A 100 Histories of 100 Worlds in one Object”, a project which shows that there is never one version of history. Focusing on one item at a time, it aims to present objects as seen by people who once used them, based on the premise that any knowledge, not just expertise, is valuable.
“What if there was a museum that told the story of Britain not just from the perspective of kings and queens?” – Danny Chivers
For Brusius, the erasure of history also affects how people of different backgrounds can relate to museum objects. “Many visitors, including those who do not visit museums because they feel socially excluded, will have difficulties perceiving them as ‘shared objects’ that gain currency today and in the future,” she says. Curator Miranda Lowe, from BAME network MuseumDetox, agrees: “Misrepresentation of the past is problematic because it alienates non-white audiences.” Enabling a nuanced, multi-layered understanding of history that acknowledges colonial violence would not only be truthful but also make museums relevant to more people.
Relevance, when it comes to art museums, has mostly been framed in terms of representation. In places like London and New York, this conversation has been possible thanks to collectives such as Queerdirect, an LGBTQI+ artist network started in 2017. “I think museums have already come such a long way in the last seven years to develop more socially progressive programming and to be inclusionary of all demographics,” says founder Gaby Sahhar. MoMA, for example, has closed until the end of October to conduct a $400 million makeover that will “bring more voices and perspectives” to how the story of modern and contemporary art is presented.
Still, the move towards fairer representation is not without criticism. “Museums can often fall into the trap of just tick-boxing to ensure future funding. In time, this can end up being damaging to LGBTQ+ artists,” Sahhar says. “Museums need to work with queer artists outside of Pride months and incorporate them within programs all year round.”
But even when collections speak to everybody, museums fail at providing an inclusive environment, as shown by last month’s news that visitors in wheelchairs could not access parts of the Olafur Eliasson exhibition at Tate Modern.
Though museums remain among the most trusted public institutions in the UK, whether there is a real possibility of change will depend on who you ask. A professor told The Art Newspaper recently that French museums would not be capable of corresponding to the new definition considering the number of colonial artefacts they collect. The British Museum has maintained it could not refuse BP sponsorship citing cuts to public funding. Some of the artists and activists I spoke to think it is a matter of “taking more risks” and “not being afraid”. Others still have little hope in radicalising museum spaces. Liv Wynter, an artist who resigned from her residency at the Tate to protest what she sees as an unsatisfactory approach to diversity and sexual harassment said, “the labour that is going into correcting them would perhaps be better spent rebuilding new forms”.
A new definition might not reflect the present reality, but it could provide a language to hold museums accountable. “All we can do,” Wynter adds, “is continue to put pressure on them and spotlight how comfortable they are with surrounding themselves with scumbags in exchange for money.”