The Idea of Museum Neutrality: Where Did it Come From?

A museum’s attempt to be “neutral.” Is it? What questions does it raise? Photo by Stacey Mann

Where is Part 2?

In a post written on March 2, 2017, Stayin’ Alive, Part 1: Advocacy, I described efforts by the American Alliance of Museums, on behalf of the larger US museum community, to advocate for continued government funding of museums and cultural institutions in the face of a proposed Trump budget.  As implied by “Part 1” in the title, and as I stated at the end of the post, I planned a second entry where I would examine a number of questions, including:

What is our role as cultural institutions during a time when a free press is denigrated, when xenophobia, racism, and intolerance appear to be on the rise and even encouraged by those in power, when the veracity of science is questioned?

Three months later I am still laboring on my follow-up post.  I made up the question, and now I’m stuck. Upon reflection, the very question contains an assumption that for museums to work against xenophobia, racism, climate denial, etc is problematic–something new or challenging or out of the ordinary.  Further, behind this assumption lurks the idea of museum neutrality, a concept that is reinforced every time it is decried, e.g:

Museums have traditionally been regarded as institutions that display factual, accurate, unbiased representations of culture….Something about mightily displaying otherwise inaccessible objects, complete with label placards and curatorial description, seems to scream attentiveness to actuality, furthering the idea that the museum is neutral as a displayor (sic)

 Tanya Yorks, Graphite Journal (2009)

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Here at Eastern State Penitentiary we are rewriting our mission statement to remove the word “neutral.”We believe that the bedrock value that many of us brought into this field—that museums should strive for neutrality—has held us back more than it has helped us. Neutrality is, after all, in the eye of the beholder. At Eastern State, more often than not, the word provided us an excuse for simply avoiding thorny issues of race, poverty and policy that we weren’t ready to address.

 Sean Kelley, Beyond Neutrality (2016)

Kelley’s post on AAM’s Center for the Future of Museums blog is, according to CFM Director Elizabeth Merritt, the most read piece ever published by CFM, having racked up 17,250 page views as of the end of 2016.  The belief, not only that museums should be neutral, but that this is a core principle of museum practice, appears to be widely held. But where did it come from?

What does “neutrality” mean?

I think I need to address this idea of museum neutrality before any discussion of museums’ roles today. Most of the definitions I’ve read involve the idea of not taking sides in a conflict, e.g. Switzerland remaining neutral during World War II.  Of course neutrality is also a position, but in the context of disagreement or opposing views it connotes non-involvement, non-endorsement of any single view. But don’t decisions to collect, display, or interpret x and not y require judgments and decisions on what is important, valuable, worthy of expense, time, and energy?

Museums are known for accuracy and for well-researched conclusions, but these don’t seem to me to be the same as neutrality either.

Neutrality and non-partisanship

It’s true that museums as non-profit institutions must be non-partisan, i.e. the IRS Code states that non-profits shall “not participate in, or intervene in (including the publishing or distributing or statements), any political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) an candidate for public office.”

However, according to an article for the Council of NonProfits, not even all election-related activities are forbidden. The IRS allows voter education activities and public forums on elections as long as they don’t endorse a specific party. So the concept of “non-partisanship” is fairly narrow and literal, and does not exclude the kind of broadly educational programming that museums might organize around a specific issue.

Where is the concept in museum standards?

I don’t find the concept of neutrality in either AAM’s National Standards and Best Practices (2010) nor in any of the evolving definitions of “museum” published by the International Council of Museums (ICOM) over the years.

I talked about this with museum scholar Suze Anderson, blogger at Museum Geek, podcaster at Museuopunks and tweeter @shineslike at the recent American Alliance of Museums conference in St. Louis.  Suze thinks the idea of neutrality comes out of the earliest origins of museums in the 18th century Age of Enlightenment and rationalism.  Museums were seen as places where scientists and other scholars could display their collections, discoveries, and ideas.  These were based on the scientific method and rigorous research, and therefore were objective and without bias, i.e. “neutral.” Cairns agrees that you won’t necessarily find this idea articulated in lists of best practice.  It’s a long-held assumption that is deeply ingrained in museum culture despite the fact that simply selecting certain things and not others for display communicates a powerful point of view.

Perhaps what neutral means is “normative,” i.e. museums should reflect and represent–but not question–what already exists.  

Although the assumption of museum neutrality may be time-honored, it seems to me that it was brought to the fore in a damaging way during the culture wars at the end of the 20th century, with contentious exhibitions such as Robert Mapplethorpe: The Perfect Moment;  The West as America; and  Enola Gay. These exhibitions raised questions about long-held traditions and popular narratives and were criticized for having a specific viewpoint, i.e. lacking the desirable quality of neutrality. Perhaps what neutral means is “normative,” i.e. museums should reflect and represent–but not question–what already exists.  Neutrality is often invoked as a reason not to exhibit or program around current issues, but is it really just an excuse for not offending anyone?  And, as in the label reproduced at the beginning of this post, neutrality on some topics is offensive in itself.

What do you think? I’d like to continue to explore this question of museum neutrality, based on your observations and comments, or perhaps a guest post. I’d love to hear from readers who specialize in the history of the museum field. Is neutrality a core museum concept?  Was it ever?  What does it mean today as more museums examine their role in our fractured society?

If you are reading this post in an email please go to www.museumcommons.com to comment.  Also you can send a tweet or DM me @gretchjenn.

6 thoughts on “The Idea of Museum Neutrality: Where Did it Come From?

  1. It may be informative to look at the conditions in the field of cultural anthropology that lead to the rise of “cultural relativism.” Core to this was the idea that where their is a “map”, their is a “map maker” and this is a position that cannot be neutral. I actually can’t believe 30 years later we are still having this conversation. I’ve been creating exhibits for 26 years (map maker) and there are thousands of decisions in each project that are not neutral. If anything this is a failure of understanding by the public of what a museum is.

    • Thanks, Jim, I agree that there is no doubt an age difference in what audiences want out of museums. Unfortunately I think that many of the older group are the folks who sit on museum boards and so use this concept of neutrality to quell activist approaches. I’m looking forward to reading your study. thanks, Gretchen

  2. I agree with Lath’s comments that as we create exhibits we are always making choices about what to present and how to present it – Most visitors do not realize the amount of interpretation that goes into the exhibits they might assume are neutral. Beyond that, I found Colleen Dilenschneider’s post (https://www.colleendilen.com/2017/04/26/people-trust-museums-more-than-newspapers-here-is-why-that-matters-right-now-data/) about a large study of people’s views of trust in museums compared to government organizations and daily newspapers quite interesting. People, by far trust all kinds of museums far more than government and non-government organizations as well as daily newspapers. In very similar percentages, they find museums highly creditable – which might be interpreted as neutral. They don’t believe museums should have a political position BUT they do feel that museums could recommend action as long as it fits with their mission. Which leads to the question of whether some museums are starting to rethink their missions. I think this question of neutrality is going to evolve much further as we go through this next period of political craziness. I think that as museums become more integral parts of their communities – another direction of change for museums – they become increasingly important centers for gathering and becoming involved in the relevant conversations of our time.

    • Thanks for this comment and reference, Lynn. I agree that this whole issue of neutrality is undergoing a change and also that the trust that people put in museums is an aspect of this neutrality question.

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