August 4, 2005

The politics of global museums

Posted at 12:49 pm in British Museum, Similar cases

In this article which mainly focuses on African & Asian exhibits in Britain’s museums, a number of interesting points are made about how museums need to evolve to deal with changing times & a changing audience. In particular Jack Lohman of the Museum of London says: “Museums that present the culture of the world need to acknowledge the story by which those collections were acquired”.

New York Times

London Sees Political Force in Global Art
Published: August 4, 2005

PARIS, Aug. 3 – It was purely coincidental, but between the London bombings of July 7 and the failed bombings of July 21, a Commission on African and Asian Heritage appointed by London’s mayor issued its first report, “Delivering Shared Heritage,” which recommended ways of recognizing and integrating the contribution of black and Asian minorities to the life, culture and history of the city.

Two years in the making, the report evidently made no mention of terrorism. The only nod to the crisis was when the report was officially presented at the Victoria and Albert Museum on July 18. Standing before a diverse audience in understandably somber mood, the mayor, Ken Livingstone, asked for one minute’s silence to remember those killed or wounded on July 7.

Yet the fact that three British-born Asian Muslims and one Jamaican-born Muslim convert were identified as last month’s terrorist bombers has given an urgency to the report and to the continuing debate about the place of minorities in British society. It is a question increasingly faced throughout Europe, most critically in France, Germany and the Netherlands.

This is where questions of history and heritage are interwoven with those of identity. A significant African and Asian population has lived in London since the late 18th century. And for two centuries, blacks and Asians have been present in politics, law, culture and the armed forces. But until recently, their contribution, like that of African-Americans, was not acknowledged in school textbooks or museums.

The report highlights the perils of this lack. When a community’s heritage is denied, ignored or overshadowed, it warned, “the outcome can be debilitating, leading to disaffection and disillusionment, a sense of disenfranchisement and contributing to socio-economic decline.” And it added: “In London, this has been the untold part of the story that urgently needs to be addressed.”

Until the mid-1960’s, Britain viewed much of the world through the prism of empire. While institutions like the British Museum and the Victoria and Albert boast remarkable collections of African and Asian art, much of these are the fruits of the colonial era. Today, these two museums go out of their way to link their shows to minorities living in Britain, but the commission says that more must be done.

In a statement quoted by the report, Jack Lohman, director of the Museum of London Group, took a radical stance. “Many museums were born out of the pain of conquest,” he said. “I feel that there is a need for the museum community to acknowledge that pain. Museums that present the culture of the world need to acknowledge the story by which those collections were acquired. An apology for this pain is necessary.”

The report dwelled on more practical suggestions. It proposed that museums hire more African and Asian staff and use minority experts to interpret collections. It noted that, instead of being “showhorned” into festivals like Black History Month, African and Asian programming should be sustained year round. It also said that museums should explore their collections for long-buried material related to African and Asian heritage. To oversee these and other changes, it recommended creation of a Heritage Diversity Task Force.

In this, Mr. Livingstone has found an unlikely ally in the Arts Council England, a government-financed body, which earlier this year announced that performing arts groups would have to introduce affirmative action programs if they were to continue to receive subsidies.

Immigration to Western Europe rose rapidly from the 1960’s on, so that the original immigrants now have children and grandchildren born in Europe. And while the first wave of immigrants came from former colonies, they now also come from everywhere in the third world. In all cases, then, the fundamental issue is how European societies adjust to them and how they adjust to the European way of life.

Britain’s laissez-faire tradition led to multiculturalism; that is, immigrants and their children were reconstituted as largely self-contained communities. At one level, they were accepted as “different Britons” and, as such, were represented in politics and culture. But social inclusion was not a priority.

But even that has now changed. Partly as a result of 9/11, partly because of right-wing newspaper campaigns against “welfare-abusing” asylum seekers, attitudes in Britain have hardened. And even at a government level, the new philosophy is that if immigrants want to settle in Britain, they should become “real Britons,” that is, speak the language, accept the values and swear loyalty.

The Mayor’s Commission on African and Asian Heritage, however, represents a third – arguably more realistic – position: if minorities are to feel British, they must also see themselves mirrored in British society. In Mr. Livingstone’s words, they must “see their achievements, contributions and historical presence reflected in our museums, archives, galleries and school textbooks.”

In London, they are certainly highly visible. At present, 29 percent of the city’s population comes from African, Caribbean, Asian and other minority groups. They are also the fastest-growing sector of the population: by 2015, city officials have calculated, they will account for 80 percent of the increase in the working-age population. And, logically, these “new Londoners” must be made to feel at home.

For some Britons, it is true, this all represents political correctness gone mad. Yet, while it may do nothing to dismantle terrorist cells, “soft power” of this kind may help change attitudes – among white Britons as well as minorities, whether British-born or immigrant. Indeed, it could be argued that political differences become more manageable if a cultural dialogue is under way. In an intensely cosmopolitan city like London, it is one key to coexistence.

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