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Eidsvoll 1814

What does it mean for a museum to be `socially engaged´?

Marzia Varuttis foredrag fra Vinterseminaret 2017.
Varutti er museumsforsker, førsteamanuensis ved IKOS, Universitetet i Oslo.

Some thoughts on what it may mean for a museum to be ‘socially engaged’

  •  (Foto/Photo)

The point of departure for this reflection is the thought that if we can create a common understanding of what it means for a museum to be socially engaged today, such understanding can become a platform for dialogue among museum scholars and professionals, as well as a way to move further in our work, thinking about how we can implement those ideas (and ideals), how can we translate them into concrete museum projects.

I would like to start by questioning the common understanding of museums as social institutions. What
does it mean? We know that it is not enough for museums to address society, or reflect society, or interact with society. Museums increasingly, are required to be socially relevant: that is, they need to be able to respond to contemporary societal issues and challenges, and possibly have an impact on them. This often means that museums need to be come part of the debates, not just reporting on them, they need to become actors that take up specific moral positions, in order to shape the moral positions of others – not only to visitors, but also institutions, including government bodies responsible for the making of public policies.

But this is not a easy path for museums. It’s risky. When you tackle topics such as climate change, disability, human rights or contested memories, controversy is just round the corner. Handling tactfully controversy is a skill that one can hardly learn: there are no guidelines for this, no blueprint, no recipe of success: every institution, and every curator will need to venture into this uncharted territory, and take risks. But taking risks, I believe, is worthy, because there is a lot at stake: through their work, museums are playing a role in the (trans-)formation of social and cultural norms. They can define and redefine our values, what we consider right or wrong, offensive or just thought provoking, normal or deviant from the norm.

So, what happens when a museum abandons neutrality and takes sides in an open, contested issue? Then we are confronted with a new set of questions: Where is the boundary between social engagement and partisan positioning?Are museums producing knowledge or (informed) opinions? How is museums' positioning in controversial issues affecting museums 'traditional' principles, functions? Is it strengthening museums, or weakening them, diluting their essence? If museums become just another activist organization, will they loose the trust they enjoy, and will this jeopardize other museum functions? ;

The only way to begin to answer these questions is through practice. It is by engaging in experimental, daring projects that museums can take the measure of their potential. And it is precisely from this daring practice, that we see new concepts emerging. For instance, ‘activist museum practice’ has been defined as a “set of actions designed to bring about social change, often in relation to issues characterized by moral, social or political contestation” (Sandell & Dodd 2010:14). Activist museum practice is “intended to construct and elicit support amongst audiences (and other constituencies) for alternative, progressive ways of thinking” (Sandell & Dodd 2010:3). Along the same lines, David Fleming (2007) put forward the concept of ‘campaigning museum’ understood as “a place of commitment, controversy, honesty and campaigning”. Activist museum practice is characterized by engagement with controversy, and radical transparency.

A socially engaged museums is a museum that is not afraid of controversy. Controversy is double-edged. One one side, as we all know far too well, controversy is hard to manage, it’s painful, potentially divisive, and it can damage an institutional position and image that it might have taken very long to consolidate. But there is also another side to controversy: it can be seen as an indicator that we are truly engaging audiences and opening up a topic for discussion. Museums can help visitors to have better informed debates, by presenting different standpoints, and by not being afraid to add the museum’s standpoint in that debate. 

As Richard Sandell argues, museums can operate as a moral compass “to set the parameters around the meanings that visitors might make out of their encounter; to establish the moral coordinates within which the debates between and amongst visitors could occur”(Sandell & Dodd 2010:20). The outcome of engaging with controversial issues can be ‘just’ opening a debate: unsettling an understanding that was previously considered unanimous, raising a veil that reveals a multitude of opinions that had previously been silenced. This is a step forward, this is a way for museums to become socially relevant.

A socially engaged museum is also a museum that embraces transparency, or better, radical transparency. Increasingly, museums need to enter into dialogues with their audiences and share their institutional vision, agendas and values. Transparency and social responsibility have become the cornerstone of a new ethics of museum work and communication, according to museum studies scholar Janet Marstine. Marstine advocates not just transparency, but ‘radical transparency’, which implies that museums share “what issues they are facing, the “hows” and “whys” of their decision-making processes and the larger impact of these choices” (Marstine 2011:14).

In what follows, I want to consider some examples of museum initiatives that illustrate how these ideals of transparency and engagement might inspire concrete museum projects.

I want to take my first example of activist practice from my fieldwork among Indigenous Peoples in Taiwan – it is related to political rights and struggles for political recognition. The Taiwanese government has so far recognized 16 indigenous groups. There is one group called Pingpu, which has not been officially recognized by the government. Indeed, the government declared the Pingpu officially extinct in 1954 due to assimilation to the Han. Pingpu activists however, counter that their culture is still alive. According to activists, historical records, together with the revival of Pingpu cultural practices and language since the early 1990s, justify Pingpu claims to recognition as an indigenous group of Taiwan.

Most museums in Taiwan simply avoid this issue, but some museums – such as the National Taiwan Museum (Taipei), the National Museum of Science and Technology (Taichung) and the National Museum of Taiwan History (Tainan) – are using the medium of temporary exhibitions to raise open questions on Pinpgu’s debated indigenous status. Temporary exhibitions are casting light on historical documents and ancient collections in order to document and substantiate the cultural distinctiveness of Pingpu and their very existence as a group distinct from the Han Chinese majority. This is not an easy task for curators, because there are few historical documents available and few objects of the Pingpu in museum collections. For instance, a land contract became an icon for the Pingpu movement: a long forgotten archival document has become a political manifesto. Because there are so few Pingpu traces left, most of information and objects have to be collected through contemporary anthropological research (fieldwork, interviews etc.).

I wish to pause a moment on the curatorial role and responsibility here. Curators working on Pingpu groups in Taiwan face difficulties of at least two kinds. Firstly, it is difficult to represent the past of these communities since to this date there are limited historical documents available and even less historical research on this topic (as historical narratives have so far privileged the perspective of Han Chinese); and secondly, there are relatively few objects available (both within and outside of museums) to illustrate the cultures of these groups. Thus the curators had to take up on themselves the roles of researcher, historical authenticator, cultural interpreter, and not least mediators – having to negotiate the requests and expectations of Pingpu communities on one hand, and the institutional needs and agendas of museums they work for, on the other. This case has a positive outcome as in October 2016 the Taiwanese government opened negotiations for the official recognition of the Pingpu groups. It’s hard to say exactly what role museum displays played in this political decision, but they certainly contributed to enhance the visibility of this issue and encourage a public debate around it.

This example illustrates how ‘activist’ approaches to curatorship have the potential to change museum practices: still today most museums conceptualize new displays on the basis of the composition of their collections. If this had been the criteria for curators of the Pingpu exhibitions, none of these initiatives would have seen the light since there were virtually no collections of Pingpu cultures to start with. This suggests that contemporary, socially relevant and controversial issues can become a source of inspiration for new, thought-provoking, and potentially consequential exhibitions. This example shows that engagement with new topics can stimulate museums to move beyond their established areas of expertise, and to develop new competences, new channels for collaboration, new relationships with actors previously unrelated to museum work, and ultimately this also translates into developing altogether new collections.

My second example deals with representations of disability in museums. The last two decades have seen a rise of attention for how disability and disabled people are being represented in museums. Thanks to the intervention of activists we now have a better understanding of the discriminatory practices that were implicit in what was considered ‘the norm’ or ‘normal’ - in museums and in society at large.

And research on collections has played a key role in casting light on such discriminatory practices. For instance, Rethinking Disability Representation was a research project initiated by the Research Centre for Museums and Galleries (RCMG) at the University of Leicester. It aimed to identify and engage with objects and narratives related to disability in museums and galleries in the UK.

It emerged that issues of access can be broken down into 3 strands: access to the physical environment of the museum or exhibition; access to content (eg. the need to provide texts in Braille for visually impaired people, or subtitles in videos for visitors with hearing issues); and most importantly, access to history and culture (that is the right of disabled individuals to see narratives related to disability being included in exhibitions – this is the most problematic aspect. One of the interesting findings of the project was that, contrary to expectations, there is considerable material on disability in museums in the UK – and not only in medical and history collections, but also in social history, fine and decorative art,
military, archaeological and ethnographic collections. However, much of this material lies in the storage space, it’s not on display. And even more problematically perhaps, when this material succeeds in moving out of the storage, and finds its way in the display glass case, its connections with disability are rarely made explicit. To a large extent, disability continues to be treated as a form of deviance from the norm, as the abnormal. Of course this fueled negative attitudes of fear, or pity (see Sandell and Dodd 2010). In an effort to redress this situation, the Rethinking Disability project created a framework for collaborations in 9 museums across the UK, among disabled activists and artists, and curators, working together to develop new approaches to the interpretation and display of collections linked to disability.

Here we see the importance of research in bringing to the fore hidden aspects of museum collections and enabling new stories to be told and new voices to be heard. Research on museum collections inspired by socially relevant topics and concerns is also an expression of social engagement and can be conducive to activist museum practice.

My third example focuses on museums and human rights. One of the main challenges in dealing with human rights is that human rights are at the same time universal and culturally specific. We can say that freedom is a universal right of human beings, but in many cultural contexts limitations of freedom are accepted, for instance in India social discriminations are inherent in a cast system which is largely accepted and normalized as a facet of culture. This is a topic explored for instance in the exhibition Broken Lives1, which closed in December 2016 at the International Slavery Museum in Liverpool, and which cast light on the social discrimination of Dalit communities in India, and denounced it as a form of modern slavery. 

So how do we balance this situation, between the universal and the culturally specific, the global and the local understandings of human rights and ideas of social justice? One way to move beyond such dualism is to approach human rights as situated, contingent and dynamic, and as the outcome of negotiations between the global and the local, the universal and the culturally specific. When we take this perspective, we see that activists and social movements play the crucial roles of translators and mediators of concepts, sensitivities, and experiences between cosmopolitan, supranational and abstract understandings of human rights, and everyday realities of struggle against abuses and discrimination. Not surprisingly, activists (often artists activists) are prime interlocutors of museums, as well as a compelling force behind the forging of new exhibition approaches to social justice and equality, and the development of new collaborative museum practices. In the case of the exhibition Broken Lives for instance, the International Slavery Museum collaborated with two NGOs: the Dalit Freedom Network and RED International – Relief, Education, Development. The point I wish to underline here is that activists, as museum collaborators, can help museums to bring to the fore hidden tensions, to understand where are the frictions, the points around which consensus turns into disagreement. Shunning a light on these tensions and frictions, and creating a debate around them, are enormous steps ahead, compared to denial, disavowal, ignorance and indifference. This is also ‘activist practice’.
As an extension of this third example, I wish to ponder the significance of artistic intervention as institutional and social critique. I find it intriguing that difficult and controversial topics are often more easily tackled through art and artistic intervention. Why is contemporary art so successful and effective as a vehicle for social critique? Why are artists often the best positioned to bring us to think critically about our societies? Contemporary artists activists are especially positioned: they tend to have multicultural references, experiences of travel, mobility, migration, diaspora, cultural exchanges... they are the real cultural translators of our times (translating through their art, different cultural sensitivities, different cultural worlds, different times, ideas and emotions). Art can bring us to see things differently, it can bring us to stop and reflect without pedagogical or patronizing undertones. Often communicating without texts or narratives, but through the sheer potency of images and objects – communicating directly to our emotions, to our deepest core of humanity. Not surprisingly, in museums today we see more and more artistic intervention as social critique and as part of activist practice.

Some thoughts to conclude 

The concepts that are available to us today to make sense of how museums relate to contemporary social challenges, are emerging from grass-root practice in museums. And it is my hope that they can in turn contribute to inspire new and even more daring museum experiments. My position might sound somewhat naive, yet I do believe that – as museum researchers and professionals – we must be idealistic, we must nurture high aspirations and grand dreams of change if we want some fragments of those aspirations and dreams to survive in passing through the maze of bureaucratic obstacles, tight deadlines, budget limitations, and finally become reality. Often, change is not dramatic nor clear cut, but incremental. It is a gradual, slow process, because real change – the one that happens in our minds – takes time to unfold. I set out to explore what it means for a museum to be socially engaged. From the examples I’ve considered, it emerges that:

  • embracing debates and even controversy;
  • moving beyond established areas of expertise, beyond the collections we have and we are known for;
  • casting new light on the objects that we do have in our collections, through fresh and daring research questions;
  • and reaching out to new collaborators, such as activists and particularly artist activist

are all possible directions for a museum that wishes to become socially engaged. But there is no perfect recipe for this endeavor. Every institution, and every curator will need to forge its very own definition for a socially engaged museum practice – one that makes sense locally and contingently. Ultimately, it is only concrete museum projects that can gradually fill up with new and richer meanings the ideal of social engagement.

References cited


Sandell, R., and Dodd, J. 2010. ‘Activist practice’ in Sandell, R., Dodd, J. and Garland Thomson, R. (eds) Re-

Presenting Disability: activism and agency in the museum, Routledge. Pp.3-22.

Fleming 2007 “The need for the International Slavery Museum”, inaugural speech. Online


Marstine Janet, 2011, “The contingent nature of the new museum ethics” in Marstine, Janet (ed) Routledge

Companion to Museum Ethics: Redefining Ethics for the Twenty-First Century Museum.