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Book review: 'Museum Activism'

  • February 2020
  • Topics in science
  • Book or article
Museum Activism

Museum Activism

Edited by Robert R. Janes and Richard Sandell

Published by Routledge
ISBN: 978-0815369974

Book review by Andrea Bandelli, Executive Director, Science Gallery International, Dublin, Ireland

Museum Activism is undoubtedly the most influential scholarly book I’ve read in recent times. It is a book that demands multiple readings, a resource that discloses new meanings every time it is consulted, a body of reference that untangles the complex interpretations of a concept which is still uncomfortable for many of us working in the museum field.

Until recently, activism was largely a taboo topic for museums. Shielded by a thinning layer of perceived neutrality, museums have traditionally avoided the discourse about activism. The editors of the book, Robert R. Janes and Richard Sandell, argue that today we can and we should talk about museum activism, and this book challenges us to act in many appropriate ways. The beauty of this book is that it provides many definitions and understandings of museum activism, drawing from both practice and theory.

The first chapter “Posterity has arrived” by Janes and Sandell convincingly argues why activism is nothing to shy away from. Activism in fact has a home in museums, and the authors’ call to confront the “immorality of inaction” - the silence on human rights and social justice - cannot be ignored.

Two ethical obligations sustain that call, two functions that many museums today already recognise as central: public advocacy (“this is not about lobbying for greater recognition and financial support of museums, but rather taking a stand on issues where the museum can add perspective, expertise, advice and assistance”) and insisting on the accountability of government and public sector (“much greater accountability is required, as both governments and the private sector persist with actions, inaction and decisions that threaten the well-being of our species and the planet.” p.15).

Even without access to the whole book, I highly recommend you to take some time and read this chapter online.

This introductory essay is followed by 33 chapters by 51 authors which provide a comprehensive account of the spectrum of activist meanings and practices.

Victoria Hollows presents an enlightening research about the activist role of museum staff. In this chapter the balance between individual and organisational values is discussed, clarifying how the agency of the staff enables the change that the organisation advocates: “It is the responsibility of the individual not not the organisation, to ensure that the values set at the core of their lifetime portfolio are good fit with the workplace or the role they inhabit at any given time. Emphasising personal agency through this type of responsibility reinforces why critical consciousness is so important. It is people who make things happen, through choices informed by their values and beliefs. Museums are simply made up of individual people and processes devised by these people. We make it happen, together; not others.

Activism doesn’t necessarily mean conflict or protest; it can be on a small as well as a large scale. It does not have to be conducted by someone who identifies themselves as ‘an activist’, or who holds a particular position in society or within an organisational structure. Activism doesn’t belong to ‘other’ people; we all have agency and therefore we all have the capacity to make change. Recognising and owning our agency is the first step towards making change; then it is about what we do and how, and equally what we don’t do.” (pp. 85-86)

In the chapter “Museums in the age of intolerance” Sharon Heal provides a deep dive into how activism can in fact be an embodiment of what we often call engagement. Several museum practitioners were interviewed for this chapter and through their voices we learn that when public engagement focuses on the aims - rather than on the act of engagement - that’s when we can step into activism. Sacha Coward (whom we interviewed in Spokes #32) explains: “I presumed it meant placards and marches and anger. The stuff that I've been doing I hadn't immediately labelled as activism. But in terms of being someone who tries to make positive change and work with people to make things happen, if that's that, then yes, I definitely am an activist.” (p. 209)

Bernadette Lynch asks “whose activism” do we mean when talking about activism and museums? She quotes Nora Landkammer: “social change sounds good so long as you don’t say what the change is about”. Going deeper, Lynch points out the important difference between performative activism and operational activism: “It is important to differentiate between the museum’s activist image (for example an exhibition on refugees or climate change) and its efforts to support others in developing their own activism for actual change. The latter is something with which not all museums are comfortable.” (p. 117). Lynch points to a concern of activism being for show in contrast to actually working with people to do something. This chapter is a useful resource to reflect on how museums “own” the meaning of activism, and how they can foster a rights-based practice.

The views and expectations of visitors are discussed by Lyons and Bosworth. A recent MuseumNext survey shows that frequent museum visitors think that museums should take positions on pressing contemporary issues. In fact, 33% of those who took the survey think that addressing social issues would make the museum more relevant to their lives and they would be more likely to visit such museums. Visitors under 30 years old felt even more that political advocacy would increase the relevance of museums to their lives. These results are echoed by several other studies, for instance Fiona Cameron’s excellent research on climate change and science centres. Lyons and Bosworth bring front and central the moral responsibility of museums in the climate emergency, discussing relevancy, advocacy and environmental justice.

Activism does not necessarily mean protest. In “Quiet is the new loud” Åshild Andrea Brekke provides a clear account of the importance of trust in enabling any kind of engagement in a museum - especially when it comes to social inclusion.

“When we trust it is always at the risk of an economic, social or emotional cost; however, we hope that the other person will live up to our trust and are therefore inclined to give the other person ‘credit’ in the broadest sense of the word (from Latin credere, to trust).” (p. 272). Museums, argues Brekke, are social trust builders: they create trust in strangers you have never met before - that is our visitors! And social trust is a hallmark of well-balanced, peaceful and economically healthy societies.

These (few) examples highlight the scope and breadth of this book, where all chapters are superb essays that unpack the meaning and purpose of activism in museums. Learning about activism is our first help against the immorality of inaction. Regardless of whether you consider yourself an activist or not, this book should be on your table.


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