Whoever said ‘May you live in interesting times’ probably did not anticipate 2016. If they did, then they’ve curse us all and deserve eternal damnation. 2016 saw an increase in terrorist attacks, further devastation in Syria, a global refugee crisis, Brexit, a Trump presidency, and many other horrors that I have forgotten purposely or because of desensitization. While the world is no worse than it has been in the past–the World Wars and the Black Plague immediately spring to mind–there is a distinct feeling that the 21st century is taking a turn for the worst. And perhaps it is that pessimism that has given birth to a new wave of political and social justice activism.
Throughout 2016 and into 2017, museum professionals have been discussing the idea of ‘the activist museum’ more and more. If museums are for the people, the belief goes, then should they not stand up for the people? This sentiment has only been strengthened by academic discussions of privilege and giving voices and agency to those previously silenced–people of color, people of non-Christian faiths, indigenous groups, disabled people, the LGBTQIA+ community, and women just to name a few.
Lately, however, I’ve been hearing some of my non-American colleagues come out in support of a neutral or ‘show both sides’ style of museum interpretation. The common thread in their comments is that activism divides people and is unfair to the opposing side. More specifically, they feel that social justice in American museums will alienate conservative Americans and the American Alt Right. ‘The American people need to come together and stop being at odds with another,’ they say.
The time for that has long since passed.
America’s conservative/progressive divide is nothing new and the hostility did not magically appear when Trump began his campaign. Trump was able to win the presidency because the hateful, pro-white, anti-diversity sentiment in my country was already simmering just below the surface, held at bay by the threat of social and financial punishment for spewing bigotry. Frankly, these appear to be ideas that have been putting down roots in American society since the American Civil War and liberal Americans have allowed it to happen.
Liberal America has a long-standing tradition of tolerating intolerance. There is a desire to be, if not civil, fair to those with opposing view points. For fairness to work, however, one must assume that both parties are approaching a topic rationally–but when was racism, Islamophobia, homophobia, transphobia, sexism et al. ever rational? Fairness also presupposes a desire on the part of all parties to negotiate. If nothing else, Obama’s two terms in office showed us that Republicans have no interest in negotiation. Their tactics were the political equivalent of brute force. It was their way or the highway, and there was more than one government shutdown to attest to that sentiment. ‘Fairness’ in American politics is dead (at least for the moment), and we cannot allow some misguided belief in the rationality of conservative social views to railroad progress in our country.
I urge my fellow museum professionals–do not be neutral. Elie Wiesel once wrote, “We must take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim.” If American museums continue to be neutral, we run the risk of allowing bigotry and hatred to become normalized in our country.
For further reading on socially active museums, I highly recommend the work of Richard Sandell and University of Leicester’s “How museums can stand up to Trump and discriminatory politics”. Please also follow and support the Twitter accounts @MuseumsResist and @AltNatParkSer to keep up to date on the American museum and heritage resistance movement.