Museums and activism

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REUTERS/Leonhard Foeger

To what extent should museum and cultural institutions take charge of the social and political problems in their communities? And what are the ways in which the physical and digital spaces of museums can accommodate and interpret the social demands of their time effectively and non-rhetorically? We have tried to answer these questions to provide concrete proposals and real-world examples to serve as a guide in such a complex and sensitive area to address.

According to the new ICOM definition, museums are institutions“at the service of society […] promoting diversity and sustainability. They operate and communicate ethically and professionally, with the participation of communities“. Consequently, to fully respect this complex and ambitious mission, museums should consider and operate not only as places of historical, scientific, and artistic conservation and enhancement but also as spaces for representing society in all its variety.

It is important for a museum to be a reference point for its community because it is thanks to it that the institution finds its reason for existence. Therefore, if the exhibition of art, history, and science should not be an end in itself but can instead convey a message, then there are issues that can no longer be ignored.

The following examples have been examined because, on the one hand, they demonstrate how each organization has taken to heart a different cause based on its nature or history, and on the other hand, they are useful in understanding how to demonstrate support for an issue. Sometimes symbols, flags, and slogans are sufficient. In other cases, greater support comes from activities and projects that actively involve the audience.

The Pergamon Museum

The Pergamon Museum in Berlin is composed of three sections: the Museum of Ancient Art, the Near East Museum, and the Museum of Islamic Art. In the latter two sections, there are artifacts and artworks from countries like Iran and Syria, and currently, the museum’s management has decided to introduce several banners and posters in support of women’s freedom. The presence of these actual manifestos in these specific exhibition spaces is a way to give voice to the struggle against repressions occurring in the Middle East, with particular reference to recent events where women have been victims of the Iranian regime. The inscriptions “Women, Life, Freedom!” are displayed in both English and Arabic and represent the outcry that animates protests demanding rights and freedom following the death of Mahsa Amini at the hands of the Iranian state. It is therefore a rather silent but significant stance, and the presence of numerous symbols of rebellion is in itself an important and very strong act.

The Pergamon Museum does not limit itself to displaying banners but has long seemed aware of the role it plays. By hosting a large number of artifacts belonging to Islamic and Middle Eastern culture in a European capital, it is important that it also represents a meeting place between East and West and addresses issues such as immigration, diversity, and inclusion. The Museum of Islamic Art, for example, proposes projects such as “Prevention of extremism and development of educational access to museums for reference figures in Muslim communities,” a cooperation project with the Institute of Islamic Theology at the University of Osnabrück that aimsfor intercultural education and inclusion;or “Diversity as a narrative, diversity as reality,” which aims to depict the complexity of Berlin society, with all its cultural nuances.

Additionally, the Berlin museum also takes care of its younger audience, attempting to answer questions on significant themes, some of which are ethical. In some captions, curators question whether it is right to export ancient artifacts from their original sites to display them in European museums. This type of inquiry allows learners to see history from a different, less Eurocentric perspective, but it is also an opportunity to demonstrate the institution’s self-awareness. Always addressing the young, in the caption of a Babylonian-era work, curators highlighted how the clothing of the population was not indicative of gender and ethnic belonging, and studies have confirmed that garments of similar make and shape could be used by different types of people. These kinds of themes are extremely relevant and allow young people, and not only, to have a more critical eye and observe past and present with more awareness.

Rijksmuseum via Instagram

The Rijksmuseum

The Dutch museum has been siding with the LGBTQIA+ community for years. The way the Rijksmuseum has decided to support is both symbolic and concrete and active. In fact, not only is the rainbow flag displayed on the building’s facade during Amsterdam Pride Week, but there are also activities to raise awareness and welcome everyone without discrimination. For example, in July 2019, the Pride Walk was hosted in the museum’s outdoor spaces, and in the summer of 2021, tours related to the freedom to love were created. The staff has also been provided with rainbow symbol clothing, and according to director Erik van Ginkel, “this contributes to ensuring that you feel accepted and represented in the museum.”

The institution, in this case, makes itself physically available to support a cause, using its main facade as a sort of bulletin board, a blank sheet to tell something. But the flag on the Rijks building is not a practice solely dedicated to the LGBTQIA+ community. At the beginning of 2022, the museum decided to place two Ukrainian flags on its main facade to show its support following the Russian invasion. In this case, it is a unique action but one that clearly aligns the museum against the disasters caused by war.

This museum demonstrates how even just displaying symbols of a cause can declare one’s intentions and values. On the other hand, it is also desirable to promote and organize activities aimed at reducing discrimination and in favor of civil rights, to give more substance to one’s actions.

A final aspect that may seem marginal but can still teach us something is the fact that Instagram posts with photos featuring the LGBTQIA+ flag received some negative comments (which were not deleted). Almost always, taking a stand also means not gathering the consent of everyone, and this is a premise that must be kept in mind when deciding to embrace a cause.

Letzte Generation activists’ protest at the Leopold Museum (from ARTnews)

The Leopold Museum

In recent months, the actions of young activists who, by defacing artworks, have sought to shift attention to the urgency of the climate crisis have been frequent. These episodes have been criticized and considered acts of vandalism, and the Italian government, for example, has recently approved a bill that establishes severe penalties for the perpetrators of these actions.

The Leopold Museum in Vienna, also the site of one of these events, has decided to respond in another way. Sharing the concern for the seriousness of climate change, the museum has proposed the “A Few Degrees More” initiative, which aims to demonstrate how the rising temperatures will make the planet uninhabitable for humanity. Some masterpieces by Schiele, Klimt, Courbet, and other artists have been specifically tilted to metaphorically demonstrate how a few degrees can make a difference. In this way, the museum did not want to oppose the message of the activists but, on the contrary, in a slightly different way, it wanted to modify the artworks themselves to give even more prominence to the protest.

The intention to make the museum a place of awareness and knowledge is evident. Not just a container of objects but a place where works of art, artifacts, and materials from the past serve as a sounding board for issues that urgently need to be addressed for our future. Moreover, the institution did not want to create a rift with the activists but positioned itself as a mediator, at the service of society and its problems.

“A few degrees more” (from Finestre sull’Arte)

So, what perspectives do the examples we have analyzed offer?

It is in the nature of museums to support causes and defend rights, but it is also crucial that their activism aligns with their values to be more effective, credible, and avoid incidents of greenwashing and the like.

The use of symbols is important as they express immediate solidarity with specific issues, but it is better to also see proactive support, such as the development of projects and activities that truly make a difference.

Finally, we add that the best way to participate in change, even as cultural institutions, is not only characterized by tearing down. Constructive proposals are needed, ones that allow the reference community to be guided and truly feel represented.

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