The Link Between Museums and Activism

Guerrilla Girls If You Keep Women Out They Get Resentful
If You Keep Women Out They Get Resentful, 2018.
Guerrilla Girls. Image courtesy of GG.

In July, the The International Council of Museums (ICOM), representing over 40,000 members of 20,000 museums worldwide, announced plans to redefine what makes a museum a museum. ICOM created a new definition that promotes “human dignity and social justice, global equality and planetary wellbeing.” This literal redefining moment for museums parallels the very questions I frequently have while visiting many exhibitions. For example, the street art exhibition “Beyond the Streets” in Brooklyn, which was divided by areas that displayed artists known for their style and another floor showing artists and collectives of activism. There is a clear curatorial division in many exhibitions, galleries, and museums which separate art and activism, but the lines are blurred in most contemporary art today. Many believe activism is prevalent and necessary in all settings. So, why do we separate art that promotes beauty from art that advocates social or political change?

 
“… Museums are creatures of their communities. They belong to their communities and should partner with them. If they want to continue to be relevant, they have to continue to bring new information to the table.”
 

ICOM’s current definition states that a museum is “a nonprofit institution [that] acquires, conserves, researches, communicates, and exhibits the tangible and intangible heritage of humanity and its environment for the purposes of education, study, and enjoyment.” This definition has been edited minorly since the 1970s, and ICOM’s Executive Board is looking for an alternative definition that will be more relevant and appropriate for museums today and tomorrow. Jette Sandahl, ICOM’s Chair for the Standing Committee Museum Definition, Prospects and Potentials, believes this “should be a definition which recognises the dissimilar conditions and practices of museums in diverse and rapidly changing societies, and supports museums in developing and adopting new scientific paradigms and addressing more adequately the complexities of the 21st century.”

The new definition that was presented in Kyoto in September 2019, speaks from a universal position of respect for this basic principle of self-representation:

“Museums are democratizing, inclusive and polyphonic spaces for critical dialogue about the past and the future. Acknowledging and addressing the conflicts and challenges of the present, they hold artifacts and specimens in trust for society, safeguard diverse memories for future generations and guarantee equal rights and equal access to heritage for all people.”

“Museums are not-for-profit. They are participatory and transparent, and work in active partnership with and for diverse communities to collect, preserve, research, interpret, exhibit, and enhance understandings of the world, aiming to contribute to human dignity and social justice, global equality and planetary wellbeing.”

Margaret Anderson, who has been working in museums and with ICOM for 40 years, now serves on the Committee Museum Definition, Prospects and Potentials, is the Director of the Old Treasury Building and is a member of the History Council of Victoria in Melbourne, Australia. Throughout her work, she researches and writes on women’s history, the history and demography of the family and on aspects of public history.

Throughout Anderson’s work on the committee to update the definition of “museum,” there were many responses and feedback from members who agreed and disagreed with the definition. Several members made it obvious from the beginning that they rejected the new definition, critiquing it as a response to fashionable ideals and saying no to terms such as “democratising” and “polyphonic.” In my conversation with Anderson, she says, “Some people don’t like change. Those that stay opposed to the change take the definition in a more legalistic approach and believe the updated definition politicizes museums. However, we have to understand how politics drives our museums. Museums are creatures of their communities. They belong to their communities and should partner with them. If they want to continue to be relevant, they have to continue to bring new information to the table.”

Guerrilla Girls Wealth & Power Banner Fair, Miami
Wealth & Power, 2017.
Banner. FAIR, Miami.
Guerrilla Girls. Image courtesy of GG.
Guerrilla Girls Dear Art Collector Billionaire Billboard Barnes Foundation
Dear Art Collector Billionaire, 2015.
Billboard. Barnes Foundation, Philadelphia. 2017.
Guerrilla Girls. Image courtesy of GG.

The Guerrilla Girls is an anonymous collective of female-identifying artists that formed in 1985 after the Museum of Modern Art had An International Survey of Painting and Sculpture with 169 artists that only had 13 female artists and very few people of color. After this exhibition, they’ve made it their objective to make sure that equality and diversity is a driving force in the arts. Since their protests were ignored on the doorstep of the museum, they took their voices to the streets, pasting posters throughout NYC. In 1990, Roberta Smith, a critic for the “New York Times,” points out that, “Their posters have illuminated the gap between action and principle in an art world that thinks of itself as unusually liberal and enlightened.”

Running congruent with ICOM’s new “museum” definition, the Guerrilla Girls are now turning their focus on the influence of power on what is considered art. Frida Khalo, a nickname for one of the founding members, says the collective is “looking at how the art world, and especially the art market which fuels our museums, have become instruments of the rich and powerful. This situation does not fit our idea of democracy and we are fighting to change it.”

While speaking with Anderson, she affirmed, “Morality, money and the debates around them are happening now more than ever in museums. Many museums have stopped accepting sponsorship from sources that do not satisfy new ethical standards. Working towards ethical and sustainable futures includes fundraising. In the 1970s some museums still accepted funding from tobacco companies. Now museums are asking broader questions about the origin of wealth from potential funders.”

With the updated museum definition, museums will be characterized and held accountable to their commitment to democratizing, inclusive, and polyphonic spaces for critical dialogue as an overarching frame of value and purpose. According to our conversation, Anderson believes, “The language in the definition fits the same language many governments use when offering support and funding. Many museums have been actively advocating for equality and sustainability for years, and this definition aligns us with our partnering organizations and will inspire more programming opportunities.”

At the root of the objections surrounding the new “museum” definition and the Guerrilla Girls’ posters is social truth and esthetic truth. For example, the art critic Jed Perl, who wrote for the neoconservative monthly “The New Criterion,” responded to the Guerrilla Girls’ posters as a “positive force,” but has reservations about their overriding emphasis on numbers. “I don’t think that social truth and esthetic truth necessarily intermesh,” he says. “With women’s art that goes all the way to the top these days, its subject is in some way feminism. I would hope that the Guerrilla Girls are out for all women.” In “Museum International,” (Vol. 71, No.281-282), François Mairesse, Professor of Museology and Cultural Economic at Université Sorbonne Nouvelle, France, asserts in “The Museum Definition: The Backbone of Museum” that Museums should remain essentially technical and to list ethical values in a definition may be “much more difficult to implement in an international context.” Mairesse concludes, “Many museums would agree on general principles, such as respect for human rights or freedom of thought … but would all National Committees accept such principles?”

Guerrilla Girls Pop Quiz Projection, Minneapolis
Pop Quiz, 2016.
Projection. Hennepin Avenue, Minneapolis.
Guerrilla Girls. Image courtesy of GG.

Sandahl asserts in “The Museum Definition as the Backbone of ICOM,” “The disconnect, the hesitancy and reticence with which museums stay away from societal conflicts, contentious content and contemporary dilemmas, even when these relate closely to their defining subject matter, seem rooted both in the epistemological traditions and the historic positions museums have held within the power structures of their societies.”

So, power structures most likely play a systemic role in the separation of beauty from sociopolitical aspects of life.

In our discussion, Anderson mentioned the movement #museumsarenotneutral, where their organization eloquently stresses, “As museums are cultural products that originate from colonial enterprise, they are about power. They are political constructs. Their ongoing practices also are rooted in power. The very fact that this field has a long history of excluding and marginalizing people of color in terms of selection, interpretation, and care of art and other objects, jobs, visitor services, board representation and more indicates that museums are political spaces. Everything in them and about them involves decisions.” Anderson, who works in history museums, recognizes the definition “may be more difficult for art museums to adapt, but there is no evidence yet. Contemporary art may seem more difficult to work with because bias has to be confronted directly.” ICOM reconvenes in Paris June 2020 to vote again on the definition. Until then, country committees will discuss these issues locally.