Now is not the time for neutrality

I recently saw an Instagram post by the imitable Quann sisters (if you love fierce women who also have the fiercest sense of style you’ve ever seen, then you need to check them out) that points to a very simple reason why we need to reject neutrality:

The idea of ‘picking sides’ or alienating a section of society becomes irrelevant in the face of what is very clearly an irrefutable moral obligation. In my mind it’s an easy choice. It isn’t even a choice.

Things do, however, get a little complicated when it comes to museums and there are many differing opinions when it comes to rejecting or accepting neutrality. I think this comes down to two things: differing ideas of exactly what ‘neutral’ means (what constitutes an ‘un-neutral’ act in presenting and interpreting a diversity objects, information, identities and stories); and differing ideas regarding the fundamental purpose of a museum in the 21st century and beyond.  

In my mind, neutral means accepting the status quo. It means being middle-of-the-road and not confronting our changing and evolving world with truth, courage and conviction. During the Museums Australasia conference earlier this year there was much discussion around this concept, with people on both sides of the fence and many more in between. Some said we have a duty to reject neutrality – that based on museums’ track record of collecting, hoarding, misinterpreting and silencing the cultures from which much of our collections originate that we must take very active steps to use our unique place in society to agitate and ask hard questions of ourselves and our audiences. Others said we have a duty to uphold neutrality in some form - we must be seen as unbiased because we are here for everyone and therefore cannot be exclusive or exclusionary. I can understand this last viewpoint. We have this unwritten mandate that we must be all things to all people, that we can’t simply preach to the converted and that to get people in the door in order to ‘change hearts, minds and lives’[1] we must be seen as nonthreatening or non-confrontational. I would imagine people in this camp might adhere to ‘transformation through stealth’ museum experience and I don’t think this approach is wrong. Any way you look at it, there are rocks and hard places lurking around every corner.

Add to this the fact that ‘neutrality’ is a highly personal construct. It is a line in the sand drawn around you, your opinions, your acceptance of others, how comfortable you feel being challenged and how protective you are of your privilege. In short - neutrality means many different things to many different people. To give you an example, in the not-too-distant past I had an exacerbating conversation with someone regarding the use of te reo Māori text panels in Te Papa’s WWI exhibition, Gallipoli: The Scale of our War. This person was confused as to why te reo was included at all. They thought it was irrelevant to the content of that exhibition (but claimed they weren’t opposed to it being present in the “right” context). This was really about him feeling threatened - scared by the use of language because it removed him and his experience of life as a white, middle-aged, heterosexual man from the centre of the story. I asked him several things: what was he so afraid of? (he couldn’t answer); was he not at all interested in stepping outside his own context? (didn’t understand the question); and did he not understand that his reaction to this very small reclamation of language, at no cost to his person-hood or identity, was a manifestation of his privilege? (seemed like he’d never heard of the word ‘privilege’ before).

As disappointing as this was to me it made me realise that for him, Te Papa’s use of te reo was a highly un-neutral, politicised act, charged with cultural bias. It was P.C. gone mad. Never mind that it is an official language and this country’s first. Never mind that Te Papa has a commitment to bi-culturalism literally built into its foundations. Never mind that there are English text panels here, there and everywhere to satiate a need to be constantly acknowledged as central to any and all narratives. We can talk all we like about changing hearts and minds and lives but the simple fact is we can never be all things to all people and we will step on toes. But perhaps we should embrace this. Not to offend or isolate but to reveal, agitate and challenge people to examine their own lines in the sand and perhaps step over them every once and a while. But I’m not sure this will happen without rejecting neutrality to varying extents.   

In fact, let’s cast our minds back 20 years – before Te Papa opened and recognised bi-culturalism as central to our national museum’s re-birth. To remain neutral would have meant sticking with the status quo. It would have meant re-opening the national Museum as an updated version of the old Dominion Museum where objects were displayed devoid of contextual framework, the visitor was a passive receiver of wisdom exclusively held by the museum, and interpretation and presentation of history and information was European-settler-centric. Choosing bi-culturalism (although we need to be mindful that ‘choosing’ bi-culturalism is an asymmetric thing) was a radical (if long overdue) act – a step away from the old and towards the new. This was a museum fulfilling its societal purpose. By doing so Te Papa stepped out in front of society, took a firm stance and led us in a new direction.  We are better for this small step. But it was not a neutral step.

To most in the cultural sector I would assume (hopefully) this bi-culturalism and use of our two written languages is now a familiar and expected part of our museological landscape. But we must remember that it wasn’t always. To take our current practices for granted is to do a disservice to the struggle that preceded us and to the people who fought for recognition in a hegemonic, asymmetric society. Likewise we must honour that by continuing to address and present real solutions to pressing societal concerns.

Judging by conversations had at the Museums Australasia conference there is a concern that rejecting neutrality means being politically partisan, something that museums are and should be wary of. At the same time though, if museums have carefully thought out mission statements that are aligned with being places to nurture conversations around difficult or challenging topics – this will surely act as a touchstone and provide something to constantly refer back to. We must also remember that political parties do not have exclusive rights to society’s issues. They are (or should be) in service of them, just like museums. Take the current homelessness crisis in Aotearoa. I would assume museums are working hard and figuring out ways to speak to this issue regardless of the fact that it has been used in political table tennis.

We must also acknowledge that the very act of curating collections and exhibitions is inherently biased (ie. not neutral). In the context of a museum where histories, objects and stories are constantly being selected and omitted for acquisition or display, it seems disingenuous to claim complete neutrality. An exhibition doesn’t pop out of the ground fully formed. The objects, stories and information presented to the public in the final product are the result of continuous choice and omission. This may be driven by many different factors, none of them manipulative or exclusionary, but the truth is this process can never be entirely neutral.

I have heard people say that while staff may have particular biases, an organisation shouldn’t. But I’m not so sure that is true. A museum has so many moving parts and varying influences. Your bias (I don’t use this as a negative term) may be based on - your collection and the shift in what was historically collected to what is collected now; your curators and their areas of interest/expertise; your partners and funding bodies etc. Admitting bias doesn’t mean rejecting objective research. I don’t believe these are mutually exclusive things – it is possible to acknowledge bias but still engage in and present factual, well researched material that adheres to your organisation’s mission.  I suggest that this paradox should be acknowledged and embraced.

There may also be an idea that maintaining neutrality means that your organisation can provide a blank slate on which many voices are able claim space. I absolutely agree that many voices must be heard within our organisations but I don’t necessarily agree that museums are blank slates or inherently neutral spaces, but rather incredibly layered and complex entities that must be acutely aware of their histories and contexts. Instead of claiming neutrality, I’ve always rather liked the adage that museums are “safe places for unsafe ideas.”

Claiming the museum as a wholly neutral territory to me indicates an unwillingness to change and debunk tradition. Yet surely museums must change by continually asking themselves what purpose they serve. Why do we do what we do? How do we present different histories, how to we provide platforms for many voices and how do we provide a space for our visitors to step outside of themselves? And how has that “doing” changed or evolved? I believe the key to understanding the question of neutrality (and why we should question it) lies within that evolution. It lies in the origin of museums and their collections, their roots in colonisation and empires, and their past complacency in supporting asymmetric power dynamics.

We need to look at the trajectory of that evolution – where we have come from, where we are and where we want to be. I doubt (m)any contemporary museum worker(s) would look to the practices of a museum from 100 years ago and say, “lets go back to that model.” Museums have changed and adapted. Their missions have grown to encompass embracing multiple perspectives, voices and histories, and no longer viewing history and collections as things frozen in time but rather as vehicles to tell stories about the past, how that might relate to where we are now and what that might mean for the future. This happened because our changing world demanded it.

In a similar vein, why would we want to sit on our laurels and stay still? Like Robert Janes has said, there is no mythical destination toward which we are moving – it is all a work in progress. If we wish to proclaim that our organisations are no longer simply repositories but are rather working towards some kind of social good, then we need to continually be asking – why? We have the means, but what is the end goal?  To “change heart, minds and lives” we need to keep checking in with our communities to see what their needs are and how we can address their concerns. Just like those needs were different 50, 20, 10, 5 years ago so too future needs will morph and change. To change with them, museums must make bold choices. Like I said earlier, I think there are many rocks and hard places for the museum community to face, but surely making those hard choices is preferable to being squished by those rocks or paralyzed by inaction? 

P.S When I Googled 'neutral emoji', this is what came up. Let's not be this emoji:

Nina Finigan