We the Museum People: Politics in Museums

I consider myself a politically engaged, well-read citizen, and I have to say: I am getting pretty exhausted. My entire waking life, it seems, has been consumed by the national event scheduled for this coming Tuesday, November 8th. Thankfully, America will make its decision, and the direction of the government’s policies for the next four years will be a foregone conclusion. As a future museum professional, a human rights advocate, and a former and future non-profit worker, I am increasingly disturbed by the events of the last twelve months. I’m sure I am far from alone in my feelings.

This is not a political blog, and as such, I will not digress further or share my own personal views. What I will do, however, is briefly examine how 501(c)(3) non-profit organizations currently advocate for the policies and practices that promote their missions in a seemingly non-partisan way. But as long as they wish to continue to promote the causes of human rights, education, tolerance, and truth, museums have a stake in this election.

There are, of course, guidelines that should be respected. According to the American Alliance of Museums, institutions that identify as non-profit organizations must not participate in partisan activities such as the expression of preference for particular candidates or particular stances on ballot issues. While each individual staff member is free to express him or herself during their personal time, the staff are expected to maintain a neutral stance while on the clock.

20100414201035matissedance
Henri Matisse’s The Dance (1909-1910) depicting everyone in the US after this election (I hope)

When it comes to overarching moral issues and values, however, museums are not shy about expressing themselves. In their mission statements, museums highlight the importance they place on the fundamental human rights they seek to uphold. Institutions that focus on particular historical periods include in their missions how strongly they feel that we, the people of the present, should never forget the injustices so many have suffered (and continue to suffer) around the world.

There are even museums dedicated to the recognition and preservation of ethnic minority groups who have been historically discriminated against and disenfranchised. These institutions may not explicitly address discrimination awareness in their missions, but should be regarded as implicitly upholding equal rights for all human beings, no matter what their origin or background, through their dedication to celebrating diversity and increasing inclusion.

Several institutions have additionally established ongoing outreach and awareness programs dedicated to highlighting, addressing, and preventing future injustices. The U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum maintains jurisdiction over the Simon-Skjodt Center for the Prevention of Genocide, whose primary goal is to stop mass murder and human injustices from occurring. The Newseum has established the First Amendment Center, an education center and discussion forum championing the importance of the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution: the right to free speech, freedom of the press, freedom to practice one’s own religion, and the right to peacefully protest.

Museums generally maintain their distance from issues considered to be of a partisan nature. It would, of course, be in their best interests for the next incarnation of the Executive branch of the U.S. government to share the values and morals they trumpet in their missions and through their ongoing awareness efforts. At this point in my thought stream is where my musings about the election swirl together with my constant museum pondering. 

Especially given the current choices before us, this election has me asking myself: how many times have these institutions been put in the position of watching the election of a candidate whom they knew would not advocate for them; a candidate who might even put policies in place that went against their mission statement? Is there a protocol for the national endangerment of a non-profit’s mission statement?

I have yet to find answers to these questions, which I suppose is both good and bad. Throughout contemporary history are examples of museums taking on the challenging responsibility of remaining apolitical, nonpartisan members of our community, including the controversial 1989 exhibition of Dread Scott’s work at the Art Institute of Chicago. I only hope that they have plans in place for addressing threats to their status as palpable extensions of our freedoms.

Featured image courtesy of creativetimereports.org – Dread Scott, What is the Proper Way to Display a US Flag?, 1988 

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