Odd travelling to Milan, to a conference peopled by delegates from around the world, just after your own country has made a choice to pursue a more independent agenda. It is perhaps unsurprising that many of the conversations I had in Italy’s industrial capital did not focus on museums at all. But, instead, on Brexit.
The ICOM conference, running from the 3rd – 9th July, was a huge affair. I had gone, funded by the Museum Development North West, to talk about communities. Or more accurately, to talk about how museum’s talk about communities. I went to suggest that communities are not homogenised entities, wandering around beyond the museum walls, but in fact incredibly complex entities. And to truly represent a/the community in museums, we must recognise that the museum has to be a place for debate, for discussion and even for resistance.
Call it what you will the political museum, the musueum of politics, the campaigning museum, is a developing theme. #Museumhour has recently featured politics as a subject. The MA seems more inclinded, indeed more demanding – perhaps under the Presidency of David Fleming – to see museums as political spaces. As places not just of delitcately told pasts, but of troubling, complicated futures.
Many of course, including myself, would argue they have always been this. Working in a museum dedicated to democracy such statements can seem glib. But read any artist statement and the well worn phrase ‘all art is political’ is revealed as ever more real. And if art is political so too by extension is the art gallery. But where does the museum fit within the political landscape of consumed pasts. Especially as discussions around museum and politics in the UK quickly, inevitably, turn to that most boring of words – neutrality. How can any space be politically neutral? As soon as a space is occupied by something or someone, politics must surely follow.
What was suprising about the ICOM conference, was that many of those who I heard speak, freely acknowledged museusms were inherently political. The debate was not about ‘should’ but about ‘how’. We heard from Giusi Nicolini mayor of Lampedusa, of the amazing work of the island’s museum’s. Helping as they do to, provide shelter for the thousands of people who arrive on the island’s shore every year – all attempting to escape a horrififc former life. I went to a paper and learnt that the ‘Museum of international Democracy’ in Argentina, was renamed the ‘Museum for International Democracy’. How powerful a prepositional change can be. One paper suggested that we couldn’t accept democracy as completed thing, but that museums were part of its ongoing development.
Of course the difficulty of politics is difference. If we are to understand and explore genuine points of disagreement, we need to get to the point of what that disagreement actually is. We need to understand that there are some binary seperations in the world, but not everything can be catagorised as wrong or true.
It is in the nuance of public debate where museums are at their best. Public space is becoming a rare thing and under attack. Museums have long been places for calm contemplation, they have a unique ability to ask questions but not demand immediate ill-considered response. What Milan helped me think about was that never has this been needed more. Museums should be spaces of safe discussion. During the referendum campaign, most people sat on the 36 bus between work and home were discussing the EU. I’ll finish with one question; why weren’t more museums doing the same?
Chris Burgess is Head of Collections at the People’s History Museum