What Do You Mean Museums Are Not Neutral?

Over the weekend, I had the opportunity to visit the new Underground Railroad Heritage Center in Niagara Falls, New York. In the gift shop, magnets printed with the eye-catching slogan “Museums Are Not Neutral” were available for purchase. Beneath the display, a small plaque offered the following by way of explanation:

Museums are not “above” political and social issues—they can be relevant, socially engaged, and an agent of positive change. We believe that museums can make a difference and be a force for change in the world. Buy a magnet, display it proudly, and talk about the potential of museums to do good work. 100% of all proceeds will go the ACLU’s Legal Defense for Asylum Seekers.

It’s a noble initiative, to be sure, and I fully support the Underground Railroad Heritage Center’s position. But it is also an explanation that only tells half of the story, and therein lies a potential shortcoming of slogans and their catchy, quippy ilk.

Museums Are Not Neutral was created in 2017 by Mike Murawksi, director of education & public programs at the Portland Art Museum, and art historian and curator LaTanya Autry. They devised the slogan and emblazoned it on saleable consumer goods like t-shirts and magnets to “spark conversations about the role of museums” and raise money for progressive causes. The campaign has since been adopted by cultural institutions around the country.

But Murawski’s official statement on the campaign’s origins and objectives fails to elucidate the full nuance of the slogan, leaving it open to attack by detractors who may ignorantly see it as an attempt by liberals to impose our viewpoints on American culture and “rewrite” history.

What the slogan really speaks to is the reality that museums have never been neutral—even the ones that claim or appear to be.

“Many of the West’s most beloved art museums began as private collections—a way for royal and rich families and institutions to represent their good taste, wealth and power,” writer Jillian Steinhauer explains in a call-to-action article in The Art Newspaper.

“Natural history collections were more idiosyncratic, but similarly served as a showcase for their owners’ sophistication,” she continues. “Cabinets of curiosities presented natural specimens alongside man-made objects in an attempt to classify the world. This was inextricable from the ideology of colonialism, which placed Western society at the pinnacle of civilisation and viewed other lands, peoples and cultures as inferior, and hence exploitable…Our present museums grew out of this privileged milieu. Largely white, wealthy people chose which objects to include, and continue to do so today as board and staff members.”

Nathan “Mudyi” Sentence, a project officer specializing in indigenous culture at the Australian Museum, likewise weighed in, explaining that “memory institutions have predominantly presented a colonial history as fact and have excluded the voices of marginalised people and by doing so have demonstrated an ingrained bias.”

The Museums Are Not Neutral campaign, is not, then, an attempt by liberals to turn “innocuous” cultural institutions into leftist political machines. It is an organized effort to expose neutrality as a myth and bring attention to the longstanding power disparities traditional museums have largely supported, even if inactively.

If we fail to understand this important nuance of the campaign—that museums are inherently Americentric, Eurocentric, or otherwise disposed to the dominant culture—then, as Sentence points out, “actions like adding…stories of oppression to [a] collection to rectify past imbalances of perspectives can be framed as not an action of balance, but rather a political act.”

Museums Are Not Neutral, as a standalone slogan, does not convey the complexity of the issue at hand and would benefit from concise, digestible supportive messaging that participating institutions could use to give the campaign weight and context. At the same time, its bold, somewhat ambiguous stance has successfully instigated spirited dialogue and generated monetary support for noble social causes. In that sense, it is a success.