Museums as Political Influencers
Do museums have a political responsibility? I would argue that museums as culture makers are inherently engaged in politics and should embrace, if not at the very least acknowledge, their role in politics.
Culture influences politics. Let’s break this down: culture is a group’s shared beliefs and practices. These shared values influence a group’s politics, beliefs about the roles and responsibilities of government. Museums are culture makers, as are artists, movies, television, podcasts… You get the picture. Culture makers tell stories, and how they choose to frame these narratives reflects, and at times challenges, their audiences’ values (A.K.A. culture). As cultural storytellers, museums promote certain values and practices, including beliefs about political participation and topics deemed “political.”
Museums engage politics in various ways, particularly in their exhibition spaces. I like to think about this engagement as a spectrum from being inconspicuously to blatantly political.
1. The Sanitized Exhibition
The sanitized exhibition intentionally avoids challenging (including political) topics to prevent risking their visitors feeling uncomfortable or alienating their funding sources. This might take the form of a museum displaying an exhibit on oil drilling while evading a discussion on climate change. Another example is the Laura Plantation in Louisiana: in centering its tours on the lives of the plantation’s Creole owners, the museum sidesteps the harrowing experience of the slaves who were responsible for the family’s wealth. While actively avoiding mention of difficult, challenging or contentious topics, I would argue that sanitized exhibitions are breeding a culture of apathy. In a country with low political participation such as the U.S., sanitized exhibitions are not doing our democracy any favors. If anything, they are feeding a culture who prefers to ignore the ugly truth, versus engage with the messiness that is the reality of a pluralistic society.
Exhibit within the Laura Plantation tour in Vacherie, Louisiana. Image Credit: Emma Thorne-Christy
2. The Both Sides of the Coin Exhibition
The both sides of the coin exhibition encourages political engagement by displaying multiple perspectives on a topic while not privileging one side. They tend to promote political participation, such as encouraging visitors to register to vote or fill out the census, versus advocating for a specific political stance. The Oakland Museum of California takes this “both sides” approach in its exhibit Negotiating the Border, which tackles conflicting views on contemporary immigration into the U.S. from Mexico.
Negotiating the Border exhibition at the Oakland Museum of California. Image Credit: Emma Thorne-Christy
3. The Inconvenient Truth Exhibition
The inconvenient truth exhibition lays out the facts, even if it makes some visitors uncomfortable or deem it “too political.” Climate change is a great example of an inconvenient truth, or the enduring negative impacts of incarceration on prisoners. Per(sister): Incarcerated Women of Louisiana at the Newcomb Art Museum presents infographics throughout its gallery to contextualize the personal experiences of incarcerated women displayed in the space. While it is an emotionally heavy exhibition, the museum does not veer away from addressing these difficult truths. In order to sustain visitors through this difficult material, it wisely incorporates a built environment, the sensorial room, into the gallery for visitors to take a breather during the exhibition and sit with their feelings.
Section text exploring the physical and behavioral health toll of incarceration on women along with a hand-painted infographic in front of the “sensorial room” in Per(sister): Incarcerated Women of Louisiana exhibition at the Newcomb Art Museum. Image Credit: Emma Thorne-Christy
4. The Advocacy Exhibition
The advocacy exhibition, as the name suggests, advocates for certain political stances. When culture creators (including museums) deliberately work towards changing politics through shifting the values, beliefs and practices of its audiences, it is called cultural strategy (learn more about it here). We have seen this surface over the summer as various museums decide to publicly back the Black Lives Matter movement. The Yerba Buena Center for the Arts (YBCA) is a great example of an advocacy institution. In its mission statement, it clearly outlines its political values, and therefore, it was no surprise when YBCA came out in support of Black Lives Matter: “We believe that culture is an essential catalyst for change. Therefore, it’s the responsibility of arts institutions to spur and support societal movement. Our mission is to generate culture that moves people.” Their values are woven throughout YBCA’s space, including their public sign board.
Orange wall outside of the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts which reads, “THIS IS NOT AMBIGUOUS. END WHITE SUPREMACY” circa 2017.
Image Credit: Anthony Lazarus, The Frisc, https://thefrisc.com
5. The Propaganda Exhibition
The propaganda exhibition. These exhibitions blatantly refuse to acknowledge their prejudices, while disseminating highly biased information and narratives. They pose a danger to the general public in propagating potentially damaging information. These exhibitions differ from their relative the advocacy exhibition in that there is a complete lack of transparency of motive; an advocacy exhibition uses languages such as “We believe…. We value…” whereas a propaganda exhibition states their beliefs as facts, such as the Church of Scientology’s exhibition Psychiatry: An Industry of Death.
Image of Church of Scientology’s exhibition Psychiatry: An Industry of Death.
The above the display reads, “PSYCHIATRY TORTURE & DEATH SOLD AS MIRACLE CURE”. Image Credit: www.unrulystowaway.com
Museums collect, frame and disseminate information, and in this act privilege certain subjects, knowledge, and perspectives over others. What museums choose to preserve, display, and promote has political repercussions. In order to be politically responsible cultural makers, museums must reflect on how they choose to engage with their political power, and on the cultural and political ramifications of their exhibitions.
In my next installment in this series, I will be exploring common reasons museums avoid political activism, and the best practices I have observed in integrating activism into my favorite topic: the exhibition.
ABOUT THIS SERIES: This is the second in a series of articles by Emma Thorne-Christy on Museums, Politics and Activism. The series explores how museums across the U.S. publicly engage with politics and activism to encourage and help guide museums to address contentious or “political” subjects effectively through inspiring critical thinking, self-reflection, and dialogue amongst their visitors.