#flmuseums 3-5: the activist museum

Whistle stop tour through weeks 3 (emotions), 4 (social justice and human rights) and 5 (health and wellbeing), all of which had an exclusive, if not narrow, focus on the idea of the activist (or proselytising) museum that “takes up and tries to build support for a particular moral standpoint or engages visitors in debates about contested issues”. Increasingly felt like a foundation course with museums tacked on, cultural heritage as a means to an end. I don’t have a problem with any of this, it’s just not what I came for, and there’s a distinct lack of balance, which is reflected in the comments.

Museums and our emotions

The 21st century museum is “all about us”, seeking to engage and connect with its audience. Hence it is inevitable that people respond emotionally to the spaces, objects, exhibitions and stories they contain. It is important to remember that your response will not be the same as another person’s – “we all connect with objects and stories differently”.

  • How should we design with emotion in mind? What should we take into account?
  • Should museums be seeking to purposefully elicit emotional responses from visitors? If so, what sort of emotions should we be seeking to elicit, and how far should we go?
  • And what, if any, is our duty of care to our visitors if we know that the stories we tell are likely to generate emotional responses?

Visitor responses to powerful works can be encouraged by offering opportunities to provide feedback, through comments cards, visitor books, #some or even via sticky notes, which can be added to a comments board. “You can gain some very emotional and personal information by giving people a space to react and express their emotions” – it can even become part of the exhibition.


museums and cognitive dissonance: “what happens in museums when we see something and experience something that we don’t expect, that doesn’t fit in with our view of the world, we feel an emotion that overcomes our sense of aesthetic detachment”

Do you think a museum should actively seek to elicit emotional responses from visitors, or should they seek to be dispassionate about the subjects they display? Is it even possible for a museum to be dispassionate?

David Fleming (Director of National Museums Liverpool) on the emotional museum:

The fundamental issue about museums – their role in society: why we have them, why we fund them, and how we run them. We need to consider what we, the people who run museums, think we are here to do. Museums have to connect with and impact upon the public. If we do not do that, there is not much point in having the museum in the first place.

But…the challenges that a museum faces in displaying difficult objects and telling emotional stories. These difficult stories are sometimes those that most need to be told, but how should the museum deal with material that clearly has the potential to cause emotional distress? Museums have a role to play in telling difficult stories and highlighting both historic and contemporary issues – can they be dispassionate?

  • At the very start of this week, what point did we make about the meaning of museum objects? – Objects have many meanings. Different people will find a multiplicity of meanings in a single object.
  • Why should museums consider emotions when creating exhibitions and displays? – Because our emotions kick in a split second before we start thinking and this affects how we intellectually perceive something. What are some of the implications of this for those creating exhibitions and interpreting objects?
  • Why should emotions be at the heart of museums? – Museums should seek to connect with and impact upon the public.

“If shock leaves us feeling numb, then maybe there’s a problem. If it inspires us to action and to change things for the better, then maybe there isn’t.

If people actually are inspired to feel rage and anger at injustice and go and do something about it, that in that case shows that rage and anger can be very positive emotions when they’re turned to doing something to make things better.

Museums, social justice and human rights

Museums are powerful places and are well positioned to deal with a number of difficult issues, looking at the present and future as well as back to the past. One of the most significant arenas in which the museum has a role to play is in the fight for social justice and human rights, supporting positive change in society. In 2014 the UK’s Museums Association launched Museums Change Lives, a new vision for the social impact of museums, and recent years have seen the emergence of an activist museum practise that seeks to use the resources of the museum to contribute purposefully and actively towards a more fair and just society. Note however that this idea is by no means universally accepted – debates around the social roles, responsibilities and value of museums remains subject to debate.

A number of organisations have been set up with a specific remit to shine a spotlight on specific issues, but museums of all kinds are inherently political, and the decisions that they make regarding whose stories are told and whose interests are represented in the museum – or overlooked – can have implications that spread beyond the walls of the museum.

This poses a series of difficult questions for practitioners:

  • Why are some human rights issues taken up by museums whilst others are neglected?
  • What dangers and pitfalls might there be in supporting a particular viewpoint or cause?
  • What are the challenges involved in engaging audiences in debate about some of the most difficult issues we face in contemporary society?

Case studies on racism and hate crime, migration and immigration, transphobia and homophobia, and disability representation. International networks are developing for museums that engage with these issues – see the Social Justice Alliance for Museums and the Federation of International Human Rights Museums.

Bet these comments don’t make it to the end of week vid:

I didn’t change my mind over the week, in fact it confirmed my view that museums should research exhibitions as thoroughly as possible, make them as balanced as possible and should not indulge in social engineering.

I feel slightly patronised. Like I’d never considered any of these issues….? It’s OK to say we need to, but this week didn’t half lay the message on a bit thicker than was necessary.

Museums’ contribution to health and wellbeing

Health and wellbeing is more than the physical functioning of our bodies and how that can be affected by illness, disease, infirmity or old age. The holistic view of health and wellbeing realises that health and wellbeing are affected by our feelings, personal characteristics (eg age, gender), social and community relationships and networks, living and working contexts, and the wider socio-economic, cultural and environmental context in which we live.

Wellbeing is made up of two elements, feeling good and functioning well. Characteristics of feeling good include feelings of happiness, contentment, enjoyment, curiosity and engagement with the world, whilst functioning well is associated with the experience of positive relationships, having control over your life and a sense of purpose. Health and wellbeing is increasingly being seen as a societal issue that is linked to multiple and complex factors such as lifestyle, social and community networks, culture and the environment. Governments and the United Nations are also looking to wellbeing or happiness as an explicit policy goal, to replace economic value or material prosperity as an indicator of national wealth and success.

Museums can play a role in the health and wellbeing of their communities. This work needs to be rooted in community need, in museum collections and in finding the right partnerships. Cultural experiences and creative activity both have a positive impact on health and wellbeing.

The New Economics Foundation’s Five ways to wellbeing consists of five actions – connect, be active, take notice, keep learning and give – all connected to the idea of wellbeing as ‘feeling good and functioning well’. Each action contributes to wellbeing in a positive way, making people feel good and boosting their mental capital, for example their resilience (ability to adapt to change), self-esteem and emotional intelligence.

Case studies from a smoking cessation project, an exhibition seeking to explore and destigmatise HIV and a project that enables carers to use museum collections to support people living with dementia.

For measuring impact see UCL’s Museum Wellbeing Measures, aka the infamous umbrella. It wasn’t what the people wanted…

Onward to the final week, plus a haul of accumulated links to work through.


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