Our distorted society needs our museums

2017.01.19 Simon Brown

Many of us have watched horrified as the standard of public discourse has rapidly descended in recent years.

It would be naïve to assume that powerful people in public institutions have never lied. But there has been a clear shift to a more brazen, arrogant and shameless language. The language and actions of powerful decision makers are moving away from truth, and towards emotional manipulation. They seek to engage through emotional connection, rather than logic, analysis and fairness.

Public conversations are increasingly hijacked by political figures. Not to engage with the issue, but to galvanise support from those who already agree with them. An entire industry of opinion has been enabled by this behaviour. Opinion writers produce deliberately inflammatory pieces, to get an emotional reaction and the publicity that comes with it. National newspapers including the Sun and the Telegraph are printing pieces with openly racist, discriminatory language. Racist, discriminatory political figures can then cite these words as public opinion.

We are all able to list countless examples of this. It is arrogant, self-serving behaviour by the very people whose job it is to serve the public.

Public figures seek to distort science and history, in order to legitimise their actions. Modern fascists such as Tommy Robinson feel able to speak to crowds of supporters, directly in front of the cenotaph. Climate change deniers are sufficiently emboldened to publicly criticise schoolchildren for protesting about inaction on climate breakdown.

This behaviour matters. It influences public opinion. It leads to selfish and short-sighted action in our leaders.

One of the great privileges of working in museums is that we are public servants. Everything we do is for the benefit of the public. As trust in other public bodies collapses, museums remain among the most trusted institutions in the country.

We can and must be part of the solution. Museums represent public life in the past, the present and the future in all its glorious, grubby multiplicity. Museums show that nothing that matters is simple, and life is all the more beautiful for it. Museums are public spaces to engage with the things that affect all of us, with openness, depth and rigour.

You cannot deny the existence of dinosaurs when you are in the presence of one in a museum. You cannot deny the huge depth and scope of the transatlantic slave trade when presented with its enduring legacy in a museum. You cannot deny the deeply dangerous and destructive consequences of fascism when confronted with it in a museum.

Museums are already engaging with the issues that public figures are seeking to distort. Manchester Museum’s display of a life jacket used on a refugee travel route is a way of discussing the refugee crisis. The National Trust, the Museums Association and others being a visible presence at Pride shows to people who feel threatened by abuse that they are not forgotten in our museums. Leeds City Museum’s collecting of migration stories counters the toxic dominant narratives on migration. Museums all over the country are prioritising programmes that make their spaces open, accessible and welcome to all. They are showing how public space can, and should be, administered for the public benefit.

We spend a lot of our time worrying about the practicalities. About funding, maintenance, leaking roofs. But we are only fulfilling our purpose as public servants by remaining relevant and trusted. We are in the privileged position to be a positive voice in public discourse. We must continue to surpass our own expectations- it is as vital now as it has ever been. 

Simon Brown is a curator at Newstead Abbey and the National Justice Museum, both in Nottingham. He is also a board member of the Museums Association.

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