Activism, Art, Top Stories

Against the Politicisation of Museums

“Museums,” declares Jillian Steinhauer in a recent OpEd for the Art Newspaper, “have a duty to be political.” A lot of her colleagues agree. It’s not enough for museums to entertain, inspire, and educate; they must change the world, too. Needless to say, ‘Make America Great Again’ isn’t what they mean. Worcester Art Museum calls out slave owners in labels on historic portraits. “Honestly, the catalyst for the project was the 2016 Presidential election,” curator Elizabeth Athens explained to Hyperallergic. Queens Museum closed for Trump’s inauguration and held a protest sign-making workshop instead, explaining that, “at a time when the status quo in the US is government-sanctioned racism and xenophobia, it is all the more urgent that museums acknowledge their political histories and adopt stances on contemporary issues.”

Radical criticism of museums has a pedigree. Pierre Bourdieu thought museums were places for elites to develop and flaunt their ‘cultural capital,’ a way of distinguishing themselves from hoi polloi. In his 1979 book Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste, Bordeau defined the museum in the tortured prose of radical social theory as:

[A] consecrated building presenting objects withheld from private appropriation and predisposed by economic neutralization to undergo the ‘neutralization’ defining the ‘pure’ gaze, is opposed to the commercial art gallery which, like other luxury emporia (‘boutiques’, antique shops etc.) offers objects which may be contemplated but also bought, just as the ‘pure’ aesthetic dispositions of the dominated fractions of the dominant class, especially teachers, who are strongly over-represented in museums, are opposed to those of the ‘happy few’ in the dominance fractions who have the means of materially appropriating works of art.

The middle class might not be able to afford to buy art, but museums give them a place to develop and flaunt their cultural superiority. They can ‘symbolically’ appropriate culture by liking different things in different ways.

Bourdieu is identifying a new sphere of inequality in our differential ability to appreciate culture. His influential acolytes argued that museums were too posh, too white, and too masculine. Activists wanted museums to pivot away from historic collections and towards their audiences, focusing more on excluded groups. Despite a generation of critical museology, and decades of diversity targets, museum audiences remain stubbornly elite. It’s getting harder to blame stick-in-the-mud curators, because they were ousted long ago. Museums are run by people schooled in the political monoculture of the humanities, and some are determined to impose the same intolerant norms on museum visitors.

The new curatorial activism builds on the heritage of critical museology, but also reflects its failure. Rather than adapting museums to serve a wider audience, they argue that museums should actively shape their audiences by impressing on them the gospel of social justice. It devalues collections and condescends to visitors.

At the end of January, Manchester Art Gallery removed a Victorian picture of ‘Hylas and the Nymphs’ to prompt discussion: “How can we talk about the collection in ways that are relevant in the 21st century?” they asked. Artist Sonia Boyce said she wanted to ‘prompt debate,’ and taking the picture down tells us that the debate is more important than the art. “The gallery exists in a world full of intertwined issues of gender, race, sexuality and class, which affect us all. How could artworks speak in more contemporary, relevant ways?” the museum mused. This provocatively stupid stunt attracted global attention, but fewer people have noticed that one of its greatest masterpieces, a beautiful crucifixion by an associate of Duccio, has also been languishing in storage. It was bought at great expense following a national fundraising campaign led by former director—and great connoisseur—Sir Timothy Clifford. The new managers are excited by political debate, but don’t even display their best pictures.

Tate Britain is now showing an exhibition of British figurative art, ‘All Too Human.’ The explanatory wall text tells us that, “Women’s lives and stories have often been overlooked in art as a historically male-dominated activity … As viewers we are drawn into and become complicit in an unruly world shaped by patriarchal power.” The idea that we become ‘complicit’ simply by looking at a picture is extraordinary, yet this can be asserted without question. And as art history, it overlooks the Renaissance obsession with the life of the Virgin and female saints, and the entire history of genre painting and portraiture. Across town the National Gallery is stuffed with pictures showing that women’s lives and stories have been central to the history of art. The political narrative obliterates the historical record. The final room is only women artists, who “investigate and stretch stereotypical views on femininity, masculinity, race and the many other categories that define and constrain our identity.” These dreary words don’t explain or inspire. They petulantly assert a narrative of victimhood that is orthodox in some academic disciplines, but perplexing to the rest of us.

That’s why I’m fearful of the popular idea that the row about Confederate monuments can be resolved by putting them in museums. The argument is that museums will be able to contextualise them, but can we trust museums to do that? Many of the statues were cheaply mass-produced and have no particular artistic or historic value. The only reason to put them in museums is to tell a story about them. In an article for the American Alliance for Museums, Elizabeth Merritt worries that museums “need to critically examine their own histories of exclusion and any continued complicities in what they monumentalize before they earn the right to properly contextualize racist memorials.” The word ‘properly’ carries a lot of weight. It’s clear what she means when she says “we must recognize our own histories of complicity in the centering of white, male, hetero-normative heritages and the celebration of icons of white supremacy in our centuries of collection and display.” Check your privilege, museum goers!

Ironically the audience is sidelined in the race to be Woke. Polls show that only around a quarter to a third of Americans favour relocating Confederate monuments, and in one poll only half of black people supported removal. Elizabeth Merritt’s angst is not shared by the community she serves. In the New York Times article entitled “Decolonizing the Art Museum,” Olga Viso asks how museums can “reconceive their missions … as more diverse audiences demand a voice.” But it is the conformist curators and activists rather than ‘diverse audiences’ who are demanding change. The audiences are just the object of curators’ political activism; they must be made to recognise their victimhood or complicity. Like the old conservative ‘Moral Majority’ crusaders, they seek out objects of outrage to vent their fury but don’t represent a real majority. Colonising the museum world and enforcing Correct Thinking is a way of evading the hard work of convincing a wider public in the political sphere.

Overt political partisanship remains rare and the most outspoken curators face resistance. There was a righteous outcry against Manchester Art Gallery. Laura Raicovich, the director of Queens museum who hosted the protest sign-making event was fired for misleading the board over her refusal to host an event for the Israeli embassy. Helen Molesworth, a prominent critic of ‘white male privilege’ in the art world, was fired as chief curator at MOCA Los Angeles. But recent op-eds show that people are limbering up for a fight. It’s true that museums cannot be neutral. Nothing interesting is neutral. But that’s not an excuse for asserting partisan control, turning museums into instruments for engineering a right-thinking progressive citizenry. It won’t work. It will alienate patrons and provoke a backlash. Do we want left wing museums and separate right-wing museums, or museums contested between radical and conservative curators?

We risk losing sight of the inspiring brilliance of museums. Whether it’s a neolithic axe head or a Raphael altarpiece, objects in museums give us a sense of connection with human history. From the towering heights of human civilization to mundane details of our ancestors’ lives, museums delight and inspire. Curators play a vital role in selecting, displaying and interpreting. But we don’t go to museums to be indoctrinated. It would be tragic to lose our sense of wonder to the culture wars.

Michael Savage works in investment banking and is a curmudgeonly art historian on the side. Follow him on Twitter @grumpyart 


  1. “… and held a protest sign-making workshop instead”

    It’s a protest-sign-making event! After all, they are making protest signs. So {protest-sign}-making event. It’s not a sign-making event that is also a protest.

    • ga gamba says

      More than that. From its website:

      The Queens Museum is housed in the New York City Building, which is owned by the City of New York. With the assistance of the Queens Borough President and the New York City Council, the Museum is supported in part by public funds from the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs. Additional funding is provided by the New York State Council on the Arts, Queens Museum Board of Trustees, members, and friends.

      Using public funds from the borough, the city, and the state, the museum engaged in overtly political acts. As for refusing to host a party for the Israeli embassy, hosting (or not hosting) events must be done uniformly. Either all the embassies, none of which are taxpayers, are permitted to rent the space or none of them.

      Laura Raicovich, the director of Queens museum who hosted the protest sign-making event was fired for misleading the board over her refusal to host an event for the Israeli embassy.

      Raicovich, the co-editor of Assuming Boycott: Resistance, Agency and Cultural Production, a book advocating the boycott of Israel, resigned in January 2018, about 5 months after refusing to host the embassy party and more than a year after the anti-Trump arts and farts project.

      That an official goes unpunished for misusing publicly financed facilities and resources for overtly political domestic acts, yet after offending a foreign government does the same official face consequence indicates the Democrats have their priorities upside-down, back-to-front, and inside-out.

    • I doubt anyone thought they held a sign making workshop of no particular content as a protest of the Trump inauguration.

  2. ga gamba says

    Artist Sonia Boyce said she wanted to ‘prompt debate,’ and taking the picture down tells us that the debate is more important than the art.

    Eureka! A debate she did prompt. One she lost.

    The Guardian reported: Sonia Boyce, the artist at the centre of the row, was completely taken by surprise by the ferocity of the response to the temporary removal, as was the museum. […] Boyce’s first instinct, she tells me, was to “go and hide – and not because I felt remorseful”. There was, she says, “a level of anger and vitriol that was really unhealthy”, and “the desire to bash women in the public space was strongly felt”.

    If one genuinely wants to prompt debate is it a natural reaction be surprised and to want to go and hide when that wanted debate comes to be? Anyone who has ever participated in a conversation, a debate, and even an argument knows that it’s unscripted and uncontrolled. You never truly know what the other guy may say. You just may be surprised. Confounded, even.

    I think Boyce is lying about her surprise and wanting to go and hide. Why? She also felt that the response fell into a pattern of outrage directed at contemporary art that runs deep in British culture: she was reminded of the “Tate bricks” scandal – a furore that broke out in 1976 over Carl Andre’s minimalist sculpture, Equivalent VIII, consisting of an arrangement of fire bricks. “There is an assumption that contemporary art has got to be nonsense, got to be a fraud,” she says.

    Obviously she was well aware of the “pattern of outrage”. Knowing this, she still decided to play with fire. Fine, that’s her choice, but “poor me, the fire I sparked burnt me” doesn’t engender my sympathy because it isn’t genuine.

    Her art, over the past decade or so, has often involved bringing apparently disparate ingredients together and, without interfering or directing too much, watching them react…

    She knew quite well the potential reactions, so her claims of being a victim are part of the performance.

    As for “the bashing of women”, a read of the comments posted online in newspaper readers’ forums and also on Manchester Art Gallery’s website shows them to be, in order of frequency, hostile to Boyce, the gallery, and feminism. There is no bashing of women, only of a particular person who happens to be a woman. Boyce uses the gambit of she being the avatar for all women to deflect attention off of her motivation and behavior and to rally allies.

    At the start of this artistic endeavour, the gallery and Boyce termed the removal of the painting a “takeover”. I think this over-eggs the event. When the management invites someone to do something, a takeover it isn’t. We have a larping of revolutionary action by cultural elite insiders against the system and institution that they already control. To me it appears to be a contrivance, even a fraud.

    I support artistic endeavours, even fabricated takeovers. Yet, if one’s artistic intent is to incite, then you can’t complain when the reaction happens but goes in a way that displeases you. You may have your performance, but you may not control the reactions to it.

    Moving on to the gallery. Claire Gannaway, the gallery’s curator of contemporary art, said: “For me personally, there is a sense of embarrassment that we haven’t dealt with it sooner. Our attention has been elsewhere … we’ve collectively forgotten to look at this space and think about it properly. We want to do something about it now because we have forgotten about it for so long.”

    Gannaway said the removal was not about censorship. “We think it probably will return, yes, but hopefully contextualised quite differently. It is not just about that one painting, it is the whole context of the gallery.”

    Gannaway is a public employee, which places on her the heavy burden of accommodating all, to the extent the gallery’s and collection’s size permits, and leaving aside her personal biases. She clearly states the space is not being thought of “properly”, i.e. how she thinks of it, which is the proper way. Further, she unequivocally states she wants the painting and the gallery to be recontextualised – leave it the Guardian’s mediocre journalist to fail to ask what recontextualisation means. Again, she allows her own bias to set the agenda. It appears she mistakes the public space, which is to be contextualised by each member of the public, for her own personal space, with which she may do as she pleases. Moreover, though she is the curator of contemporary art, the painting removed is pre- Raphaelite, which would have required the complicity of the fine art curator. Why did Gannaway not choose to remove a painting from her own domain of responsibility? This was more than removing a painting to create a conversation, it was an act of removing a specific painting for a specific yet undisclosed purpose.

    Further, Gannaway and the gallery were deceitful. “We think it probably will return…” Once the takeover became controversial the perpetrators stated it was never their intent to remove the painting permanently. Boyce said she worked with the gallery for several months prior planning the takeover and her exhibition, so Gannaway’s comment of uncertainty cannot be taken as an off-the-cuff remark. The claims of “temporary” were the gallery engaged in damage control.

    “Probably will return” is not an assured “will return”. It is evident Gannaway and her cohorts dislike the painting, though the problem exists with the contextualised lens of political aims and puritanical taste they view it, and using an artistic performance as a ruse, intended to remove it permanently. Seems to me had it gone unopposed and not protested other paintings such as Charles-August Mengin’s Sappho would have followed. Curators of publicly funded art have the duty to be transparent to the owners, and failing this they should be sacked – a group of like-minded conspirators is not acting on the entire public’s behalf.

    That Boyce and the curators conjured up excuses it was about making the hidden workings of museums and their curators baldly visible, and inviting members of the public to take a view, would be more believable had it been not conducted in such a ham-handed way. What’s the way forward? I mentioned earlier I support artistic endeavours, even including faux takeovers and having debates, so the curators have an obligation to write a plan to include their intent, the duration, how they intend to communicate with the public including protests (ignoring the public is acceptable if it is part of the artist’s vision), and the outcome of the artwork affected, i.e. the date of return to view. File it with a representative outside the gallery’s authority, and adhere to it. What of an artist who wants to spark debate that may rely on an element of secrecy to pull it off? Upon completion the plan is made public, which will allow the public to be surprised and manipulated if that’s the artist’s intent and also his/her willingness to accept the consequences. Verify compliance and apply remedies, if needed. Over time such actions will build trust with the public, and earning its goodwill the curators will be allowed to present art in novel ways.

    • Jack B. Nimble says

      Note: Not all museums are publicly-supported.

      All museums have to choose what to acquire, what to display and what to store, and how to interpret what is on display. Any or all of those steps can involve politics, including the risk of offending certain groups in the process.

      Consider the ‘Elgin’ marbles on display at the British Museum, which were essentially looted from the Parthenon by a Scottish Earl. Or how about the thousands of ancient artifacts looted from Iraq and destined for display at the “Museum of the Bible” in Washington, DC? Or displays of Native N. American and S. American artifacts including items used in sacred ceremonies? Or the huge controversy over how the Smithsonian commemorated the 50th anniversary of the atomic bombing of Japan [ ]. Or Nazi war loot, etc., etc.

      Museums tend to whitewash this kind of history, not to avoid politics per se, but to protect their reputations and their donor bases. Museums that continue to display items of questionable provenance or legitimacy need to include this dirty laundry as part of the exhibit–that’s what I call a REAL art education.

      Even the locations of museums can be political–think of the National Mall in Washington DC with its monuments and museums and the Unter den Linden in Berlin, with the massive Brandenburg Gate. These settings and the museums themselves are often built on a colossal scale–intended to symbolize the solidity, power and permanence of the regimes that erected and maintain these spaces. One consequence of all this grandiose architecture is that casual drop-in visits, especially by the middle and working classes, are discouraged. The most famous and imposing museums ARE largely places for social and economic elites to congregate and celebrate their…… err ……. elite-ness.

      • Look Karl the people aren’t stupid. Looking at a Greek original in a Roman museum, I don’t have to be told it’s loot. That’s part and parcel of the exhibition.

        And people of all classes are able to visit museums and monuments. I’ve yet to see a sign stating otherwise.

        • Jack B. Nimble says

          Nice strawmen you just built! Do you make them for a living? Can I buy some for use at a later time?

      • Tell me, when museums start mentioning their displays were looted from Egypt will they also mention that they’ve preserved those same items in better condition than comparative items which remained in Egypt? Does that context matter or only the context which furthers an anti-western narrative? And while I don’t see many homeless people at the museum they’re certainly not elite domains, if anything their spaces for middle class couples to go on dates.

  3. Emmanuel says

    Museums are public institutions. That means they have to be politically neutral. When museum officials politicize their job as civil servants, they are guilty of serious professional misdemeanor. Yet they are never fired or punished for that behaviour… It is not a normal situation.
    Regarding the Manchester case, I believe that story proves how ignorant of art history those sjw museum officials are. In the greek tradition, Hylas is first the “feminine boyfriend” of Heracles before being abducted by nymphs who have been seduced by his beauty and have decided they will have him wether he wants it or not. Hylas is a man treated as a sex object by women. Therefore describing a painting of Hylas and the nymphs as an example of male dominated art makes no sense at all : all it means is that one can now work as a museum curator without knowing anything about art history.

    • Robert Darby says

      Really good point! As Emmanuel says, Hylas was one of Herakles boyfriends/lovers and accompanied him on the voyage of the Argonauts. According to the story, he was sent ashore to fetch water, and the nymphs were so enamoured by his beauty that they dragged him to his doom. In the late Victorian context there would be many ways of interpreting the painting: as one of the few allowable excuses to depict female breasts publicly; as a warning against illicit sexual indulgence (it was the height of the syphilis scare); as a reply to the reigning Victorian ideology that women lacked sexual desire; as a reference to Wagner’s Ring des Nibelungen, in which both the evil Alberich and later the hero Siegfried have a similar encounter with the scantily clad Rhinemaidens; and as a subtle allusion to the love that dare not speak its name, in the wake of the trial and disgrace of Oscar Wilde. It is of interest that Waterhouse was only one of several Victorian artists who depicted the same scene, one of whom was the female artist Henrietta Rae (1910 – strictly Edwardian, if you want to be fussy). Was this the sort of discussion that the curator had in mind?

      It does not in the least surprise me that readers of Quillette are better informed about art history than curators in today’s art galleries and museums!

  4. Abu Nudnik says

    Two quibbles. Middle class people and even poorer people can indeed afford to own art. Some art by young artists is available for very little money. People use credit cards on everything but turning their houses into homes instead of prison cells where they live in credit prison. People’s priorities are all screwed up when they have television sets that are a technical marvel but which spew out a constant menu of very low quality stuff. A painting costs less Anyone with an eye can build a collection on their bare white depressing walls and lift their spirits.

    The other quibble is your acceptance that museums cannot be politically neutral. Yes, they can. They can be devoted to art, not politics.

    Thank you for your otherwise fine article, Mr. Savage.

  5. Charles White says

    Museums are educational institutions. Like the public schools and universities whose academic staffs are increasingly totalitarian in their socialism, so to are museums with their “academics”. This will become even more of a problem for museums associated with a university.

    Academia is no longer about presenting alternatives neutrally to be critically evaluated. It is now about presenting pre-digested pablum to be accepted without question. The museums are just following suit.

  6. David J says

    Good article. The more I see how progressive ideology is relentlessly spreading through our institutions and organisations, and its nature, the more I’m convinced its adherents are starting to resemble a cult.

  7. ccscientist says

    I gag when I am in a natural history museum and get a visual lecture on climate change or environmentalism–with never an acknowledgement that many of the policies promoted (solar, wind) don’t work, recycling wastes resources and is stupid, electric cars don’t save the world, etc. It is pure feel-good propaganda without any substance.

  8. marvol19 says

    I have no particular opinion on the content of the article but the choice of main image is confusing to say the least , if not downright baffling.
    The entire article mentions only art museums so why add a totally irrelevant photo of the National History Museum?

  9. Caligula says

    As others have noted, museums can’t display everything; therefore they must have some criteria for what they display (and to some extent the context in which the work is presented).

    If art museums prioritize political correctness one can expect to find mostly politically correct art there. Along with disapproving wall text next to works some self-important curator feels you absolutely must know about the work you’re viewing. Yet the historical record for politically correct art is poor (e.g., Socialist Realism, and Nazi rejection of “degenerate” art).

    Politically correct history museums may make the public aware of some once-suppressed history, but when they push the PC too far the become mere propaganda organs and an untrustworthy source of information.

    Ultimately museums must answer to at least some subset of the public, for if they don’t they’ll have no audience to buy their gift-shop trinkets or their over-priced food. As it is, if you just want to know about some subject you don’t know well (if at all), most museums tend to be a low-quality resource if you wish to obtain a well-rounded (if rudimentary) knowledge of the subject.

    And at some point even those who agree with the museum’s self-righteous politicization are likely to find the never-ending political diet aggravating.

  10. Pingback: Visual Arts News Digest, Compiled by the Vancouver Art Gallery Library, May 10, 2018 | Vancouver Art Gallery Library & Archives

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