Museums Are Not Neutral: A Discussion on Why There is No Museum Neutrality in Museum Education
Throughout the conference sessions I have attended and the social media discussions I participated in, the topic of museum neutrality has been discussed among myself and many other museum professionals. Questions we should start with when discussing museum neutrality are: What does museum neutrality mean? If we should claim we are neutral, how can we claim to be relevant in current events in our society and in the future? If we claim we are not neutral, how do we move forward in our practices at museums and what are the best approaches in moving forward? In recent years, I began to hear more about the Museums Are Not Neutral movement which addresses how museums should be spaces that allow museum professionals and visitors to express their concerns for social justice. These discussions also included how we in the museum field interpret the term “neutral”.
According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, the word neutral means not engaged on either side, or not decided or pronounced as to characteristics. Neutrality, however, means different things to different people, and depend on perspectives. There has been a notion that museums do not take sides on political and social issues since in the past museums focused their missions on collecting and preserving items without considering the visitors’ capabilities of understanding the significance of preserved items on display. Anabel Roque Rodríguez discussed the myth of museum neutrality in her blog post about it. She stated that
In the past, museums were temples where knowledge was preserved and education was the highest value. This might still be a big asset, but with this purpose comes the voice of institutional authority, that does not facilitate a dialogue with the people visiting the museum. A collection can be used as a tool to start visitor’s engagement, but knowledge works two-ways. How much space is there for the own experiences of the public and in which ways are museums still able to transport the research and knowledge behind the exhibition? Museums are facing a shift and need to open up in order to remain relevant in the future.
As our society continues to work on changing these issues, museums need to remain relevant by knowing and figuring out what they stand for. We as museum professionals can connect with our visitors by providing the space to express their concerns with our society. The topic of museum neutrality is a lengthy conversation we need to continue discussing because there are a lot of concerns about museums not taking action and concerns about what if museums do take action. In other words, when we talk about taking action instead of remaining neutral we need to be prepared to take action on many issues.
Museums should find out how they should approach taking action because there are individuals that believe museums are not doing enough to show museums are not neutral. In the post “Changing the Things I Cannot Accept: Museums Are Not Neutral” the writer expressed their concerns about museums’ lack of actions on political and social issues:
I have always known that museums are not neutral. They have never have been neutral. I would hope that our colleagues know that museums originate from colonialist endeavors. They are about power. As I have shared on social media networks, if anyone comes as me with that neutrality mess, I will take them down. I have had it with that narrow-minded perspective that ignores history and enables museums to operate as racist, sexist, and classist spaces.
While finding the balance between incorporating visitor input and utilizing research and knowledge in our institutions can be a challenge, it is a challenge worth pursuing to remain relevant in our community now and in the future.
Some museum professionals pointed out the evidence that museums should not be neutral. Mike Murawski, founding author and editor of ArtMuseumTeaching.com, museum educator, and the Director of Education & Public Programs for the Portland Art Museum, stated in his post
Museums have the potential to be relevant, socially-engaged spaces in our communities, acting as agents of positive change. Yet, too often, they strive to remain “above” the political and social issues that affect our lives — embracing a myth of neutrality.
Well, MUSEUMS ARE NOT NEUTRAL, plain and simple.
In other words, we have the potential to set examples within our communities on how every individual can create positive change. One of the examples I have found in my research shows positive impact on going beyond neutrality and incorporating issues previously difficult to discuss in the museum.
In Elizabeth Merritt’s Center for the Future of Museums blog post “Beyond Neutrality”, she pointed out the reasons Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia are moving away from using the word neutral:
We believe that the bedrock value that many of us brought into this field — that museums should strive for neutrality — has held us back more than it has helped us. Neutrality is, after all, in the eye of the beholder. At Eastern State, more often than not, the word provided us an excuse for simply avoiding thorny issues of race, poverty and policy that we weren’t ready to address.
By moving away from using the word, and making different approaches in discussion about tough issues, the Eastern State Penitentiary saw significant positive change in the amount of visitors learning something thought-provoking and an increase in attendance at the Penitentiary. Each museum is different so no one way would be effective for all museums but by looking into their own organizations and the communities they serve museums could potentially work towards addressing the issues. Other museum professionals expressed concern about how we can be agents of positive change while finding out how we define museums in the process.
Rebecca Hertz reflected on what has been discussed about museum neutrality and brought up concerns she has on the possibility of museums being neutral. In her blog post, Can Museums Be Neutral?, Hertz stated there are two problems that concern her: first, the assumption that museums or any other institutions can be “neutral,” and second, the places that political engagement on a larger scale might take us. She discussed that museums being neutral or not neutral is more complicated than previous museum professionals have suggested; Hertz pointed out
Museums implicitly support systems of hierarchy through their funding structure, which makes museums highly dependent upon the support of the 1%, the “winners” in our capitalist system. Racism, sexism, and injustice of many kinds in the contemporary world are entangled in a system which equates merit with money, and confers advantages to the rich that keep them rich. So museums are not neutral, but instead bulwarks of the system that the “Museums are not neutral” campaign asks us to lobby against.
A lot of museums depend on donors with significant amounts of financial support to keep its doors open, and unfortunately the issues we face are intertwined with financial dependency. What seems to be suggested is we should also tackle on economic issues as well when we move forward to untangle the complicated weave. Hertz’s blog post described further detail about each of the problems she is concerned about such as opening up the possibility of continuing to widen the gap within already divided communities as museums begin to take sides of the political spectrum.
Leadership Matters blog expressed their support for museums not being neutral and they also pointed out concerns museum leaders face. In their blog post “Museums Are Not Neutral”, they summarized their thoughts on museum neutrality by stating
We believe first and foremost that museums have to understand their communities, and their entire community, not just the largely white, heterosexual, wealthy community who wanders their galleries and attends openings. But how do museums decide when and how to take a stand? Is what’s relevant to the director important to the community? And how about the board? As a director, if you take a stand will it matter to the people you’re trying to support? Does not being neutral mean being a good citizen, and how should an organization be a good citizen? How do museums engage their communities while being transparent?
All museum professionals should be able to understand and have knowledge of the community surrounding their museum. We also should be asking ourselves questions, especially the previously listed questions, about what it means to not be neutral.
Each museum is different, and each community is different so therefore all museums would have to answer similar questions differently and sometimes ask different questions. What we all could agree on is we cannot go backwards in our progress as a field. Our museum field talks about what our role should be in the community, and by stating that museums should be neutral we would be taking steps backward in trying to be relevant in our society.
What does museum neutrality mean to you? When was the first time you began to see the “Museums Are Not Neutral” phrase, and how do you respond to it?
To learn more: I included more resources on the subject below, especially ones I referenced in this week’s blog post.