#MuseumsResist: Museums Continue the Fight for Social Justice Online

Just last week, I praised several brave cultural and government institutions that dared to stand up for the rights of their fellow citizens to access truth and facts [1]. I had mentioned in previous articles how promoting politicized agendas, even if they are interpreted by interested parties as apolitical, can be extremely delicate, difficult, and even dangerous to the institution. The danger of taking a stance is often compounded by the conservative attitude some museums may espouse regarding their organization’s social media use. A respondent to a 2013 Pew Research Center survey on professional social media use shared that:

We have struggled with free expression among younger staff around museum issues and have not come to a good resolution. There are varying opinions about social media and right now the old, conservative guard are in control.” [2]

In my opinion, regardless of the consequences, when human rights are at stake, museums have no choice – they must fight for the people whose history they have dedicated their entire staff and budget to protect and preserve.

I have therefore been heartened by my colleagues’ actions during this transitional time. In just one week, museums and museum staff large and small have stepped up to answer the calls of their stakeholders and followers to take a stand against the policies of the Trump administration, some of which have already lead to human rights violations [3]. Each action of subversion, resistance, and defiance has added additional value to the already powerful counter-argument to the White House’s extreme agenda.

@MuseumsResist

Twitter has long been a platform for museum staff to discuss their institution’s initiatives, policies, and practices. Museum-focused Twitter chats abound, and many museum professionals meet one another on Twitter long before they have a chance to network in person [4]. It is an ideal location, therefore, for museum workers to unite in resistance. Such subversive discussion spawned the @MuseumsResist handle, which has gained 621 followers – as of this writing – in less than a month [5].

Each day, the account shares several stories relating to both museums and the promotion and protection of human rights by cultural organizations. The account’s managers describe themselves as “staff,volunteers, & supporters of #museums” who “educate, preserve, & explore ideas. We, and the public we serve, are affected by national events. #Resist.” [5] The #MuseumsResist team also participate in Twitter chats, maintaining a grassroots blend of individual and organizational voice that supports the challenging conversations that museum professionals have found themselves in desperate need of since November.

Trump Protest Archive

screen-shot-2017-01-23-at-10-48-01-am
Sign from the Women’s March on Washington, courtesy of The Observer

If you’ve been following major news sources, you likely already know that many of the signs created for the Women’s March on Washington on January 21st have already been collected by museums across the country for the purposes of preserving the historic event [6][7]. But in the digital age, signs and protest ephemera can be collected in more ways than through the physical exchange from maker to institution. Enter: the Trump Protest Archive [8].

Created by George Mason University Ph.D. student Eric Nolan Gonzaba, this crowd-sourced database allows for the democratic creation and preservation of the Women’s March experience by its participants. It is a beautiful concept that allows for the development of inclusive, open online resources and accompanying metadata that will undoubtedly aid in the creation and preservation of the March as a lived experience for the education of future generations [9].

MoMA Hangs Muslim Art

Although not necessarily an exclusively digital display of political activism, MoMA’s decision to hang works by Muslim artists in one of their permanent collection galleries has made an impact on the online news world [10][11]. The works were hung in place of well-known art from their permanent collection by modern masters such as Henri Matisse and Pablo Picasso, sending a clear message of inclusivity and support to the diverse art-going world.

MoMA chose complete transparency, leaving no doubt of their intentions:

Alongside each work is a wall text that plainly states the museum’s intentions: “This work is by an artist from a nation whose citizens are being denied entry into the United States, according to a presidential executive order issued on Jan. 27, 2017. This is one of several such artworks from the Museum’s collection installed throughout the fifth-floor galleries to affirm the ideals of welcome and freedom as vital to this Museum as they are to the United States.” [11]

This gesture of political activism shatters MoMA’s surgical, excruciatingly precise treatment of modern art. The timeline of Modernism is knocked askew, its perfect balance brazenly rearranged. For those who casually pass through the fifth floor on their first visit to the museum, the gesture will read as empathetic solidarity. But those more closely familiar with its mission and ethos will read the installation as an unusual, powerful, angry and uncharacteristically critical gesture of American government.

guernica
Pablo Picasso’s Guernica, courtesy of pablopicasso.org

Is this MoMA’s Guernica [12]? I would reserve final judgment on such a statement until further into the Trump presidency. But the recent actions of the Trump White House have undoubtedly ignited a political passion among the museum’s administration that may move the institution to the center of museum-based political resistance.

Museums have spoken. Museums have taken action. Museums have joined the political conversation. Museums have affirmed their dedication to human rights. Have you pledged to #resist with them?

Featured image of Charles Hossein Zenderoudi’s “K+L+32+H+4. Mon père et moi (My Father and I)” courtesy of The Independent via Getty Images

Endnotes

[1] https://movingmuseums.wordpress.com/2017/01/30/the-resistance-is-us-museums-get-in-formation/

[2] http://www.pewinternet.org/2013/01/04/section-4-social-media-use/

[3] http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/americas/donald-trump-muslim-travel-ban-illegal-un-rights-chief-a7552991.html

[4] http://danamus.es/2016/08/01/glossary-of-museum-related-hashtags/

[5] https://twitter.com/MuseumsResist

[6] https://www.womensmarch.com/event-details/

[7] http://www.esquire.com/news-politics/news/a52492/womens-march-signswomens-march/

[8] http://trumpprotestarchive.com/

[9] http://historyarthistory.gmu.edu/people/egonzaba

[10] https://www.moma.org/

[11] https://www.nytimes.com/2017/02/03/arts/design/moma-protests-trump-entry-ban-with-work-by-artists-from-muslim-nations.html?_r=0

[12] https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2010/may/08/pablo-picasso-politics-exhibition-tate

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