Why the Crisis Tearing Through Our Museums Affects Everyone

From mass redundancies to fierce debates on national identity, museums have been become cultural battlegrounds in the wake of the pandemic. These are not niche issues, argues Museum of London curator [author]Danielle Thom[/author], but a force for change within an increasingly divided society.

© Anoushka Khandwala

The museum as microcosm is not a new idea. The original cabinets of curiosities, from which the modern museum institution emerged, were always intended as worlds in miniature; allowing their wealthy and aristocratic collectors to enjoy the wonders of creation in one convenient wunderkammerThe evolution of the public museum, throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, depended upon the loot of battles and expeditions by the European imperial powers. Their marble halls became another form of world in miniature, shaped in the image of a Eurocentric notion of “good taste, and explicitly structured according to principles of colonial domination and exploitation.

Museums reflect the social and cultural contexts from which they have emerged. Everything from catalogue terminology to recruitment is inflected directly by this history. Less clear, however, is the relationship between the museum and its contemporary social contexts. Do museums actively seek to shape our society and its discourses, or passively reflect the cultural context in which they sit? What can they tell us about who we really are? 

For those of us who work within museums, public collections and similar institutions, these questions are pressing. Post-lockdown, these questions take on a new urgency, as institutions cut jobs and programmes in the interests of financial survival. It was reported yesterday that the Royal Academy is to debate the sale of a £100 million Michelangelo sculpture from its collection in order to save 150 jobs. Already, mass redundancies are taking place across the sector, including those recently announced at Tate, Birmingham Museums Trust, and Historic Royal Palaces

Hammered by more than a decade of austerity, it is more important than ever to define what a museum is actually for, and what place it has in public life. I wish there was a simple answer. I could argue that museums are physical spaces for the care, storage and display of physical objects, where public history is told and retold. Needless to say, it’s not that simple. For one thing, museums are subject to (and responsible for perpetuating) the same structural inequities as society at large. Far from being neutral, they are organisations staffed by human beings, who come with their own biases, privileges, agendas and areas of ignorance—just like any other kind of organisation. 

“Museums are subject to (and responsible for perpetuating) the same structural inequities as society at large”

Leadership in the sector is still overwhelmingly white and male: of the 45 leaders who currently make up the National Museum Directors’ Council, only 12 are women. There are unjustifiably large pay disparities between upper management and other staff, such as that at the Science Museum, whose director received a bonus of between £20-25,000 in 2018, but which only agreed to pay the London Living Wage for its lowest-paid staff after strike action the following year. 

Access to the sector is made near-impossible by the prevalence of unpaid work experience and expensive postgraduate degrees, if you are to be in with even a shot at one of the rare entry-level jobs that come up. Furthermore, many institutions refuse to engage meaningfully with the process of decolonising either their collections or their working practices, extending to recruitment, education, fundraising and other areas. 

It feels like those who work in the sector are on the verge of civil war. There are those of us who advocate for change from the inside, and then there are those who prefer not to undermine the status quo, for fear of upsetting donors, ‘traditional’ audiences or the press. Between trying to improve our own working conditions, and making meaningful improvements to how we serve the public, there are many who recognise where museums are going wrong and how we as an industry can do better. But there are others, more often to be found in positions of power, who talk about diversity and access without following through on the radical changes that are so sorely needed. 

Despite the passion and the fury which this situation inspires within the industry, it would be hard to deny that museums and their problems feel like a bit of a niche issue at present. Between the long-term effects of austerity and structural inequity, and the immediate urgency of a global pandemic, millions of people find themselves without an income, without housing, even without food to eat. Do we really have the luxury of getting worked up about sculptures and a few underpaid Courtauld graduates, given the current circumstances?

Demanding more from our museums is not a luxury—it’s essential. Museums are still microcosms of the society in which they exist. Right now, that society is one which appears to be acutely, perhaps irrevocably, divided. The global movement to address gross social and economic disparities through protest and policy has been transformed by those in power into a phony ‘culture war’. Artificial divisions between old and young, Black and white, city and rural, have been constructed as a distraction from the real division in our society: between those who control the reins of capitalism and its contingencies, and everyone else.

“Do we really have the luxury of getting worked up about sculptures and a few underpaid Courtauld graduates, given the current circumstances?”

Museums have been pulled into this so-called war, becoming battlegrounds on which questions of authenticity, representation and national identity are bitterly fought. They are the places where we preserve tangible and intangible memory, and use that to construct narratives about who we are. This naturally poses the question, who is that all-encompassing ‘we’? The public which museums claim to serve is not a coherent mass of homogenous people, but instead bring a whole range of prejudices and agendas to their experience. 

Take, for example, the situation in which the Museum of the Home (formerly the Geffrye Museum) finds itself at present, after launching a public consultation on whether to remove the statue of slave-trader Sir Robert Geffrye from its facade. The majority of local residents and visitors have expressed support for its removal, and yet the museum’s board of trustees have ultimately decided to keep the statue in situ, after coming under direct pressure from the Culture Secretary, Oliver Dowden.

The current situation leaves us in a depressing quandary. I still believe that changing museums for the better has the power to improve society, in large ways and small. Faced with the cultural, political and economic realities of the present, however, it’s hard not to wonder what the point of our work really is. Sometimes I worry that museums cannot be better until society at large is better. 

I take hope from something a colleague said recently; that the very existence of a ‘culture war’ shows how much capacity those who work in the culture industry could have as a force for change. As statues are pulled down and collections revised, the politics and power of objects, archives and the cataloguing of history are clearer than ever. Properly funded, fully autonomous and representative museums would wield enormous influence—is it any wonder that there are people who want to keep us down?