Rewriting history: museums and ‘neutrality’

Museums are socially vital precisely because of their political nature, says Siobhan McGuirk

July 5, 2019 · 3 min read

Participants chant ‘Stolen Land, Stolen Culture, Stolen Climate’ outside the British Museum’s BP-sponsored Assyria exhibition. Photo: Diana More

In May 2018, the director of the Victoria & Albert Museum, Tristram Hunt, announced: ‘I see the role of the museum not as a political force but as a civic exchange.’ For good measure, he added that he ‘was not so sure’ that museums ‘have a duty to be vehicles for social justice’. His naïve-at-best opinion was met with opprobrium from commentators both within and outside the heritage sector. It was useful, at least, in reinvigorating and highlighting longstanding and ongoing debates about the role of museums in society (including the #MuseumsAreNotNeutral movement).

The partial histories and heteropatriarchal narratives too-often presented within our cherished national institutions are becoming more difficult to justify or deny. In recent months, calls for restitution or repatriation of objects and human remains from the British Museum and Oxford’s Pitt Rivers Museum, among others, have made headlines. The conversation is not limited to UK institutions – all colonisers are implicated. In November, the French government published recommendations that objects in national collections that were taken from countries ‘without consent’ should be returned. Pressure is finally prompting significant (if still relatively slight and certainly overdue) movements in the right direction – though vocal opposition remains.

Museums are socially vital precisely because of their political nature. Rather than debate the impossibility of neutrality, it is far more productive to discuss how museums can and should (or should not) display the pasts and presents of our multifaceted society – with justice at the forefront of our thoughts.

These are timely reminders to pay attention to popular sites of history and learning. We are in the midst of a momentous self-regarding public debate over what it means to be British. From the shadows of referendum campaigning until now, misrepresentations, half-truths and outright lies have proliferated, recasting the past to demonise the other. The phrase ‘fake news’ has been co-opted to the point of meaninglessness, while flagship media outlets grant platforms to bigots, justified as promoting ‘neutrality’ – as if facts were up for debate, or ‘civic exchange’.

Texts on museums’ walls are called ‘interpretation’ for good reason. As we continue to write our past, we must scrutinise who is holding the pen.


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