Building a ‘Museum of Dissent’

Lisa Kennedy and Donata Miller suggest five ways museums can be sites for dissent

July 5, 2019 · 4 min read
Zineb Sedira’s Une Génération de femmes, from Bodies of Colour: Breaking with stereotypes in the wallpaper collection

The so-called neutrality of museums is being increasingly challenged, due to their inherent political nature. We set up Museum of Dissent because we believe that there is power in personal and corporate museum dissent. We encourage all museum workers, visitors (and Red Pepper readers) to consider small actions that will help to initiate positive social change.

1. Understand what dissent means

Museums need to be mindful of the difference between displaying acts of dissent and actively implementing acts of dissent against the status quo. The former does not automatically equate to a museum enacting dissent from within. Bodies of Colour: Breaking with stereotypes in the wallpaper collection, at the Whitworth Art Gallery, was a good example of this approach. On gallery labels and online guides, the curatorial team stated that they believe in challenging racist representations in the collection while also acknowledging that they do not all agree on how this should be done. Recognising the challenge is a step towards exploring how dissentful practice can promote active change.

2. Encourage critique

In order to change embedded behaviour, attitudes and structural norms via dissent, encouraging and embracing critique (internal and external) is a necessity. A number of museums provide internal ‘alternative’ tours of their collections, such as the African heritage and LGBT tours held at the V&A. Yet many museums refuse to engage with external projects such as Ancestors Work and Uncomfortable Art Tours, passing up opportunities to make links with critical friends.

3. Informing the present by examining the past

We acknowledge who are, and who has been included and excluded from conversations about what museums collect and display, and their roles in society. A diversity of people, experience and expertise is crucial for informing approaches towards enacting dissent. The Tate’s BAME network provide a good example of this in their online reinterpretation of the institution’s collection, A Walk Through British Art.

4. Interrogate norms

Norms are socially acceptable attitudes, behaviours or standards that are perceived as typical and thus expected within our institutions. Norms within museums can range from how non-western objects are displayed (largely via an ethnographic lens) to the increasing low-paid positions in the sector. Initiatives such as Cards for Inclusion, produced by Unlimited, can challenge people in the arts to interrogate norms, in this case exploring how cultural spaces can be made more accessible to disabled people.

5. Incorporate reflective practice

Ringfencing staff time for reflection is an important part of the learning process and can feed into, and inform, the museum’s future actions and approaches. Reflection can be anything from looking at the positive aspects and feelings behind people’s motivation to take a political stance, to analysing the limitations, barriers and challenges that come with dissenting.

These guidelines can set museums on the path towards embracing dissent, but it does not equal a state of completion. When museums become too comfortable in their attitudes they remain at risk of excluding others. There is always more to do – more debates to have and voices to be heard. Having a plan is one step in the right direction.

Donata Miller and Lisa Kennedy are members of Museum of Dissent


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