Museums, social justice and human rights – and why I have fallen behind on events in Ambridge.

A conference can really mess about with your schedule, can’t it? This has impacted me in two ways, in particular, this week. Firstly, this blog post is a day late (sorry), and secondly, I have no idea whatsoever what has been going on in Ambridge this week.

For those of you that are not in the know, Ambridge is a country village, the focus of long-running BBC Radio drama, The Archers, which tells the story of rural farming folk. Over the last few weeks, Ambridge has been rocked by a dramatic storyline – one of domestic violence and trauma. Helen Titchener, victim of bullying husband Rob finally cracked under the pressure, attacking her husband and ending up in prison. You can see why I have been finding time in my schedule to regularly catch up with Helen and her pursuit for justice.

The listenership, however, is divided. Some are enthused that the programme is embracing such an issue, others outraged that the The Archers has departed from its often idyllic portrayal of English country life.

And, in a way, that’s a bit like museums, isn’t it? So often our museums offer a delicately curated portrayal of a life in our communities. A portrayal that is beautiful, that is safe, that offers a somewhat idealised story that ignores much of what people really experience as part of their daily lives. And when museums do turn their attention to contemporary social issues, it often causes great debate.

That debate was the subject of Professor Richard Sandell’s keynote speech yesterday morning. Richard thought about how museums can tackle issues of social justice and human rights, giving three examples of exhibitions that have focused on LGBTI rights, and how these have proved controversial.

The first of these examples was Hide/Seek, an exhibition at the Smithsonian in Washington DC, an exhibition that explored art history from a queer perspective. It featured a video, Fire in My Belly by David Wojnarowicz, which depicted a crucifix covered in ants, intended to demonstrate the suffering of people with AIDS. It proved controversial with congressmen even calling for reviews of the Smithsonian’s funding. The Smithsonian bowed to pressure, the film was removed. Protestors railed against the censorship, standing in the gallery and showing the film on an iPad worn around the neck. They were arrested and removed from the gallery.

The second example explored events at the Walt Whitman birthplace museum on Long Island where the interpretation of Whitman’s sexuality was hotly debated by the project team, resulting in a much watered down interpretation of his personal life and romantic relationship with long-term partner Peter Doyle. The launch of the new exhibition was hijacked by protestors who distributed flyers and threw chalkboard erasers to demonstrate against the erasure of this important aspect of Whitman’s life.

Richard’s final example explored sh[OUT], the social justice programme of the Gallery of Modern Art in Glasgow, which focussed particularly on LGBTI issues. Richard spoke particularly about trans* rights and considered the lived experience of trans* people and how uneven this still is, even in an environment with increasing legal protections. GOMA’s Sh[OUT] programme offered a platform to explore trans* issues with a broader audience.

Richard concluded that much of the museum’s work can be considered to be human rights work, but emphasised that this should not be restricted to human rights museums or site of conscience. He believed that the potential of museums to tackle issues of social justice and human rights, including, but not limited to LGBTI issues, is largely untapped and that museums should adopt a standpoint against bigotry and for human rights.

Richard emphasised that the stakes are high: nearly half of all young trans* people have attempted suicide. LGBTI people in North Carolina and Mississippi in the USA are suffering from state-sanctioned discrimination. Museums can make a difference.

For myself, I firmly believe that if we do not highlight stories of injustice and discrimination then we are betraying the victims. I do not want museums to tell sanitised stories that ignore issues faced by marginalised communities any more that I want radio dramas portraying idealised versions of rural life.

Museums (and radio dramas) have power and they have influence, if they can use them to help bring about positive social change, then they bloody well should.


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