Thoughts on Museum Neutrality: Part I

I’m still gathering my thoughts on the fast and furious Twitter conversation of the week of December 18, 2017, sparked by Rebecca Herz’s post, Can Museums Be Neutral?  While I’m working on my response I’d like to add to the discussion by publishing the thoughts of Dan Spock (formerly Director of the Museum at the Minnesota Historical Society and now Senior Vice President, Audience Engagement, Levine Museum of the New South.)  Dan commented on my post The Idea of Museum Neutrality: Where Did it Come From?

I’m publishing this with Dan’s permission;

I’m sensing that this is a much more complicated question than we’ve given it credit for to date. It’s impossible to look at the issue of neutrality today without seeing the erosion of fact by opinion in almost every sphere of public discourse. Yes, it may be true that perfect objectivity is impossible in the affairs of human beings. But, for me anyway, that shouldn’t undercut objectivity and fact seeking as a value any more than the elusiveness of attaining human empathy and compassion should make us reject those values categorically. We are limited by our perceptions and biases, but that is no excuse for a wholesale rejection of accuracy as a goal, it is still worth striving for however unattainable it might seem. So I think we should be clear that when we reject neutrality, we are not rejecting methods by which information can be responsibly substantiated. No, we aren’t going to give creationism equal billing with evolution in some gesture of “neutrality.” No, we aren’t going to share the dais with “experts” who believe archaeology monuments were constructed by visitors from other planets.

Rolled up in this discussion is a term I have heard more often in museums than neutrality, which is “balance.” Balance cleaves more to the heart of the dilemma. For an example, I have seen museums attacked for including alternative perspectives on history as unbalanced when a counter argument could be made that including perspectives that were once marginalized IS the balancing. In these instances, you could say that presenting a perspective from outside of the dominant culture museums traditionally represent is a new kind of balance, one that is more inclusive. If curating means discerning, it might mean that curation enters a new phase where the selection of perspectives involves, among other things, weighing them both according to their legitimacy, but also as a way to get marginalized perspectives in front of more people.

Where it gets tough is when an outside-of-the-museum perspective really clashes with the “truth” as best we (museums) understand it. I think museums have worked through some protocols for this, for example trying to make distinctions between forensic truth, personal truth, social truth, reconciled truth. But, if you are a person who sees their truth being pushed to the curb, and today this is a growing number of people from all identities and political stripes, you get angry. It is highly problematic when recorded history and evidence has been saved and presented largely by archivists and historians who, until fairly recently, were only interested in documenting the narratives of the dominant class. A step away from “neutrality” towards “balance” should acknowledge the absent narratives in the historical record, moving towards trying to redress them. But this also means taking the heat when defenders invested in a previous narrative go into high dudgeon.

The other thing museums cannot get around is that many, many casual observers see attention paid by a museum to a particular perspective as some sort of sanction or emphasis, an official seal of approval. Yes, we can and should share authority. But we also have to choose whom we share authority with. I can’t see any way around that and this comes with a lot of responsibility. Museums will need to work very hard, leaning into their characteristic risk aversion.

The fact that museums have never been purely neutral, is a salient thing to accept. At the very least, museums espouse advocacy for their missions, to be champions for the disciplines they represent. This is no small matter, actually, especially in this age of dubious information and culture wars. A science museum can’t ethically pander to climate change deniers if science is the mission. This is not neutrality. Most history museums were founded in a spirit of national, local or civic celebration. Truth telling has not always found a comfortable place in these museums. If museums commit some sins of commission, they just as often commit sins of omission. For stories to make sense, details have to be both selected and omitted. Even the museums that pay tribute to more violent or traumatic aspects of our history, the memorials in particular, have tended to want to project a sense of triumph over adversity, of imposing unity on a story where the truth may actually be quite different. We seem to need museums to project “closure,” and this is not an act of neutrality at all.

 

If you are reading this by email and want to comment, go to www.museumcommons.com or send a tweet to me @gretchjenn and to Dan @danspock.  Thanks and Happy New Year!

 

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