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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
#228 Climate Revolutions ● Transitioning beyond climate and Covid-19 crises ● Conservation without colonialism ● Prisons, profits and punishment ● Surveillance capitalism in India ● The uses of comedy ●Simon Hedges ● Book reviews ● And much more!
And you choose how much to pay for your subscription...
Anna Clayton reviews Natalie Olah's book, which explores how upper middle-class pop culture has affected British politics
Join Red Pepper editor K Biswas and guests Paul Gilroy, Lola Olufemi, Ciaran Thapar and Joy White to discuss marginality, inequality, creativity and belonging in Britain
Suchandrika Chakrabarti reviews Wendy Liu's proposals to reclaim technology's potential for the public good
Connor Beaton reviews Daniel Finn's account of the politics and personalities which drove the IRA
Comedian Elf Lyons discusses creative innovation and rebellion in a dystopian age
As apocalypse rhetoric spreads during Covid-19, James Hendrix Elsey explores what 'the end of the world' really means under racialised capitalism – and what comes next