David Fleming, director of NML, spoke passionately about a subject evidently close to his heart; the social responsibility of museums. Although not directly linked to my practice, his talk raised some interesting points. Particularly how museums have a right, almost a duty, to incite debate and questioning.
He sought to establish a difference between the old Victorian concept of passive museums where the focus is on the collections rather than making a comment on history. He seemed to argue that, to be politically neutral, to be passive, is to align in opposition to activity and engagement.
I am inclined to agree.
He spoke of how collections feed people ‘the line’ that a time period can be summed up by a few items. He mentions how a Jane Austen style collection omits the presence of the majority who could not afford the luxury table set or, indeed, the slave labour used to make it.
In this way museums have a responsibility to tell the whole story. Also, Fleming touched on curational choices, on how a museum curator can filter and design the truth. This is perhaps best distilled in his international slavery museum which caused quite a stir in the museum community as it directly opposed the notion that museums should not comment on political matters. Fleming finds these suggestions mad, as he fails to see how a museum cannot be political. Citing that even a pencil museum would raise questions of literacy.
Fleming’s attitude is could actually be quite worrying. Though I may agree with him, his opinion that a neutral museum is actually in opposition to his cause could create a dangerous ‘if you’re not with us, you’re against us’ logic. Surely this should be avoided.
However, it is hard to imagine the existence of a neutral museum, as he rightly says.
His talk of curators and construction recalls certain literary theories around authorship but also open up the larger question of what constitutes as history.
The curator of a museum is given the power of authorship of history, over the perceived truth of anyone who walks into the building. What they choose to show, or more importantly not show, effectively constructs history around a visitor. This brings to light the narrative qualities of all our history which can only be understood as a series of selective and unfinished narratives that exist only in relation to the present.