FRIDAY Fast Five: Protest at the Museum

It was a deeply frustrating few days in the lead up to Waitangi day (see Matariki's last F.F. post). I felt myself do that sharp, metaphorical intake of breath that often happens when you're waiting for something stressful to be over - you breathe a bit shallower, things irritate you a bit more and, in this case, I started to wonder if there was a single, rational, compassionate thought out there in internet land. And then a couple of things happened that allowed me to release that breath...first The Great Dildo Incident. A defiant and comical 'fuck you' to the government and their refusal to acknowledge the stake that tangata whenua (and the rest of us) have in the future of our land and its people.

The second was Beyonce's release of Formation and its video. It hit me and the rest of the Internet like a lightning bolt. Over the next 24 hours, the Internet rejoiced at the anger, the politics, the celebration of #blacklivesmatter in the video. Thinkpieces sprung up celebrating her use of 'bama' and Negro, of Black fashion and dance culture and beauty, of Southern food, of Trans and Queer bodies and voices, of poor Southern-ness, of spotlighting post-Katrina, 10-years-down-the-track New Orleans; for highlighting police violence and Jim Crow law, of Black resistance, and for creating a video and song that is not intended, at all, for a white audience. We can enjoy it, love it, appreciate it (and I do, immensely) but it's not for us (which is awesome). And that was before the Superbowl and the Black Panther tribute and the 'X' marks the spot formation.  

And now the second wave of thinkpieces has emerged. Some say she has exploited the #blacklivesmatter campaign for financial benefit; some say she has no business speaking for poor, Black Southerners when she now exists so far from their world; some say she has exploited and silenced Trans and Queer voices; some say post-Katrina New Orleans is not a sexy backdrop for a video; some say she promotes colourism within the Black community as she so clearly makes a distinction between her 'Negro' father and her 'Creole' mother. When I found myself getting defensive of Bey and her intentions, I needed to remind myself that this is good. There is truly excellent, worthy thinking and debate coming out of this (and I'm not even going to get into the conservative arguments that she promotes cop-killing, is anti-white and that celebrating the Black Panthers is the same as celebrating the KKK. Just no. These people need to use their brains).

This is getting too long and not 'Fast Five-y' at all so I'll get to my point. The point is protest and dissent  and public discussion and debate is good. More than good, it's nourishing. Regardless of what you think about Bey's intentions and motivations, her actions have spurred a very public and very important debate. All over the world. And so, getting to the point even more, these two actions by two passionate women reminded me that museums are sites of protest too. Not just that they are, but that they should be. Protest can be overt or subtle; it can be held within the subversive contents of an exhibition or a collection object, or it can rage outside the museum walls. Museums are inherently political spaces. 

So in the spirit of dissent, here is a selection of insistence's that illustrate the many ways museums can be sites/targets/causes of protest and activism:

1. Penn Museum's Archiving Protest in the Era of #blacklivesmatter

Museums document and archive protest. "The demonstrations of #BlackLivesMatter protestors around the nation have produced a collection of cultural objects—including visual and plastic art, performance pieces, and new media work—that speak to spectators’ and victims’ experiences. The programmatic strategies modeled by the movement also illustrate new possibilities for the work of heritage preservation, including digital curation and community-driven archival practice." 

2. The Boston Museum of Fine Art's "Kimono Wednesdays" programme.

Museums can cause protest. An poorly thought-out and misguided attempt by the BMoFA to engage in cross-cultural meets art appreciation, visitors were encouraged to "channel your inner Camille Monet" by posing in front of Claude Monet's "La Japonaise while trying on a replica of the kimono Monet's wife, Camille, wears in the painting." A case of 'how-did-it-get-this-far,' the programme resulted in worldwide outrage at the perceived cultural appropriation, orientalism, fetishisation and racial stereotyping (referred to by protesters as "yellow face"), and an all out social media protest complete with hashtags and facebook/tumblr accounts.

3.  Occupy Museums

"Debtfair is an ongoing artistic campaign to expose the relationship between economic inequality in the art market and artists’ growing debt burdens, exploring the idea that all spaces function with a layer of extraction just below the surface. Occupy Museums and Art League Houston (ALH) invite Texas-based artists to reframe and exhibit their artwork within the first-realization of Debtfair to illustrate the economic realities for Texas artists and their relationships to the cultural economy at large."

4.  Fred Wilson's "Mining the Museum," 1992.  

"The installation “Metalwork 1793–1880” was another way that Wilson reshuffled the museum’s collection to highlight the history of African Americans. The installation juxtaposed ornate silver pitchers, flacons, and teacups with a pair of iron slave shackles. Traditionally, the display of arts and craft is kept separate from the display of traumatic artifacts such as slave shackles. By displaying these artifacts side by side, Wilson created an atmosphere of unease and made apparent the link between the two kinds of metal works: The production of the one was made possible by the subjugation enforced by the other. When the audience made this connection, Wilson succeeded in creating awareness of the biases that often underlie historical exhibitions and, further, the way these biases shape the meaning we attach to what we are viewing." 

5. HART stick, Te Papa Tongarewa 

Made by artist Barry Lett, the " ‘HART stick’ was made for protesters to carry at demonstrations against the 1981 Springbok rugby tour. The heart motif was the logo for Halt All Racist Tours (HART) and became a well-known symbol of the anti-tour movement."