There is an notion that museum´s are – and should be – silent bystanders to current events. That their mission is to simply record, collect and display as neutrally and objective as possible. That may or may not have been the idea, but it has never been the case in practice. Many of our most revered institutions are in fact created to be an integral part of a very political nation building, or based on scientific paradigm that has since changed. Museums of cultural history and art especially, have to continually reinterpret their permanent or temporary exhibits, as well as the old collections with objects from eras of slavery, colonialism or built on a gender biased selection. Repatriation of objects is a problematic, and political issue.

But politics is also very much an issue of the present. A prime example is funding; both corporate and government. Corporate funding is a necessity for most larger museums but how much do these gifts hamper the academic freedom of the institution. And even if they do not try to influence the institution, how do the public perceive the relationship between the museum and its sponsor?

And to compete for the government funding, museums have to find ways of showing how their worth in soft values can be translated into dollars and cents somewhere down the line. Will there be a return on investment and in what way? From tourism, to community growth and development. A museum or gallery can and should be part of the social discourse. They are after all, institutes of non-formal learning, documenting our shared human heritage and scientific progress. This is part of their mission – to be in the service of the citizens.

Three examples of thorny issues

This balancing act between Market and Mission is especially important, and complicated, in a democratic society. The tightrope between unbiased and accessible learning, scientific rigor, ethics and defending the universal human rights, pitted against political and commercial pressure for possible funding, is more important and contentious than ever. Cue the Trump-presidency of the USA. Here is an article from ArtsJournal on some of the many museums and galleries going against the controversial “muslim travel ban” One example of protest was the Museum of Modern Art in New York who replaced some of the art work from the gallery featuring the Big Ones (Picasso etc), with pieces by artists from the countries defined in the original travel ban.

Another worry with Trump is the proposed defunding of the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities. A number of directors from high profile US museums voiced their objection to this:

“Federal support has been a critical piece of the puzzle for museums in our shared mission to foster knowledge, create cultural exchange, generate jobs and tourism, educate our youth, ignite the imagination of our audiences and nurture the creativity of working artists. Across the country – in communities small and large, urban and rural — the NEA and NEH help to guarantee access to the arts and the preservation and presentation of diverse cultural expression.”

Read more in this article from ArtNews.

Elsewhere it can feel as we are back in the era of Soviet union-style communism. According to journalists Nina Porzucki and Urszula Slawiec, the Museum of the Second World War in Gdansk, Poland, was opened ahead of completion because the director, Pawl Machcewicz, feared it would not be allowed to open.

“The minister of culture has made public statements criticizing the way history is being presented at Machcewicz’s museum — that it doesn’t conform to official historical policy.”

Further reading here on public media WGBH

There are hundreds of examples; from the ruins of museums in war zones, to barely noticeable dilemmas hidden in plain view on the list of sponsors. What have you seen? Have you noticed an uneasy relationship or a problematic relationship between a museum or gallery, and the outside world? Share your story!

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