On Tuesday 2nd November 2010 I attended Professor Richard Sandell’s Inaugural Lecture, held at the University of Leicester. Richard is the Director of the School of Museum Studies and he spoke on ‘Museums, Moralities and Human Rights’, which drew on his recent research. His lecture addressed the following questions;
‘What roles might museums of all kinds play in building the good society – one based on principles of equity, fairness and justice? What moral and ethical dilemmas are bound up in this socially purposeful project and how can museums navigate the often turbulent waters that accompany such an approach to thinking and practice?’
Richard’s talk consisted of three main themes – ‘museums and morality’, ‘human rights’, ‘conflicting rights’ – which were illustrated through a discussion of research undertaken at the Walt Whitman Birthplace State Historic Site and Interpretive Center, USA, the Gallery of Modern Art, Glasgow, UK (GoMA) and Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery, UK (BMAG).
Under the theme, ‘museums and morality’, Richard discussed the controversy that surrounded an interpretive exhibition panel on Whitman’s personal life. The Birthplace revised the panel, text and images, de-emphasising overt references to his homosexuality, although it does include a photograph of Whitman and his lover Peter Doyle, whom Whitman referred to as his ‘Confederate veteran pal’. This caused anger in the gay community, leading to protests. However, the panel was also criticised by a Methodist minister for showing the images of Whitman and his partner. The museum, therefore, found itself caught between the two communities, with one wanting the panel to be more explicit and the other wanting it to be less explicit.
‘Human Rights’ centred on the exhibition ‘Shout: Contemporary Art and Human Rights’ at the Gallery of Modern Art, Glasgow, which again proved to be controversial. The exhibition was part of a series examining social justice. The topic for ‘Shout’ was lesbian, gay, bisexual, intersex and transgender (LGBTI) life and was run in association with Amnesty International. The exhibition drew extremely negative press for showing explicit content, but then attracted more controversy when some of the artists complained that their work had been censored. This ‘media effect’ and the responses by the audience to the exhibition were assessed through an analysis of GoMA visitors. Despite the negative coverage, only 29% of visitor responses were negative, with 71% positive. Many of the people who were positive were visiting another part of GoMA and happened across the exhibition, rather than were there specifically to see it.
‘Shout’ was an unusual exhibition, but it demonstrated the role that museums have to play in human rights struggles. They can give visibility and raise awareness of issues and can actually inform thinking. Importantly, they provide a space for debate.
Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery was the focus of the theme ‘conflicting rights’. Richard has worked closely with the School of Museum Studies’ Research Centre for Museums and Galleries (RCMG) on their project ‘Rethinking Disability Representation’. They worked with nine large and small partner museums to develop politically aware approaches to interpretation. In the project at BMAG, ‘Talking about… Disability and Art’, the Museum set up various audio points next to particular art works. Visitors could listen not only to a curatorial voice informing them about art historical aspects of that art work, but also the voices of members of the disabled community, so providing a balanced and more personal insight.
Richard summed up his fascinating argument by saying that it has been suggested that museums have been slow to assess their impact. However, this is now changing and there has been considerable research, not least by RCMG, to demonstrate this. Museums need to move forward and deal with the challenges posed by controversial subjects and so address the conflicts caused when the rights of one group clash with those of another. Richard emphasised that rights should only be supported in so far as they do not oppress others and that groups who do not have popular consensus should be supported. Ultimately, ‘museums have a unique, though undeniably challenging, role to play in contributing towards a more just and equitable society.’