Glacial advances

The dreadful killing of George Floyd has further consciousness of Black Lives Matter as an idea, a movement and an organisation. Protests across the world have inspired some soul searching in business, academic, political and other circles. The cultural sector, which plays such an important but complex and ambiguous role in the creation and transmission of social values, has been at the forefront of this renewed debate. It is not accident that public statues have become the focus of contestation. They are among the most obvious instances of art meeting ideology. Contrary to what some maintain, the desire to see some of them removed is not ‘to lie about history‘: it is to reject the glorification of individuals who are associated with grave crimes.

Cultures with long and rich histories are always in dialogue with their own pasts. It is illogical, childish indeed, to take pride in the achievements of our great forebears but shuffle off any association with the sins of our fathers. It is right to celebrate Wilberforce’s campaign to end the slave trade, but not unless we are also ready to acknowledge the far greater number of men, some  of them also distinguished, who worked equally hard to establish and maintain it. British museums are among the world’s treasure houses, rightly celebrated for making humanity’s cultural legacy widely available. But it is really to lie about history if we deny how that treasure was often acquired. To ignore the supremacist narratives it has often been used to tell, is both morally and intellectually dishonest. 

Listening to voices on different sides of this argument in recent weeks, I have been struck again by the glacial pace of change in our cultural institutions. I’ve spent my whole professional life in debates about social justice that are characterised by empathy and good intentions, but which leave everything  much as it was. The profile of the people in positions of responsibility in the European cultural sector has barely changed in the past 40 years, so why would its institutions or programmes have changed? The profession’s perception of itself as liberal, tolerant, inclusive and open to all prevents it seeing a more complex reality. It is not that this image is false, but it is narrow and partial: it does not see what it does not include. Progress stiffens and freezes when demands are made that would lead to real change in cultural values. The cultural profession has its reactionaries too. 

Twenty-five years ago, I was researching case studies reported in Use or Ornament? The Social Impact of Participation in the Arts (1997). One of them was Nottingham Museums Service, which had worked with members of the city’s African-Caribbean and Asian communities to rethink how it presented its collection and what many local residents felt about that. Here’s part of what I wrote at the time:

[The museums]  faced accusations of elitism, and it was not easy to show how they addressed social deprivation. At public meetings in the early 1990s, anger was expressed by members of the city’s Black and Asian communities at displays which were seen as ‘imperialist and racist’. Part of the reason this was so important is the sense, rooted in their 19th century origins, that museums enshrine what a community believes is most valuable about itself. At the same time, and partly because of this, a museum is seen as belonging to local people (many of whom will have contributed to its collection over the decades) in a way that more recent cultural institutions do not. Getting it right matters.

Use or Ornament? p.56 (The quotation marks round ‘imperialist and racist’ indicate that these were direct quotes.)

The Museums Service responded to the challenge positively and created a new gallery called The Circle of Life, which presented objects of all the city’s cultural communities to find common ground in the rituals associated with birth, adulthood, marriage and death. At the time, visitors appreciated the change, but felt there was still a way to go (click here to read the full case study). Today, the gallery has gone, and the Castle Museum is being developed into ‘a world class heritage destination‘.

That happened nearly 30 years ago. In 30 years from now, will we still be debating how to make our cultural institutions more inclusive?

One comment

  1. Over here, I wish we were truly debating how. I think the truth is that the pressure comes from outside the institutions, and they are conducting a debate inside that purports to be about how while actually turning on whether or not to do it in any meaningful way.

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