Leading museum directors to debate whether institutions can remain objective in a politically volatile world

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In Prague this month, Lonnie Bunch, the secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, will drive a contentious debate: how can museums provide “cultural leadership” on human rights in today’s increasingly volatile world?

“What constitutes effective leadership in these exceptional times?” Bunch will ask his audience. “Disruption is emerging as a key factor for contemporary museum leadership,” he will say in a keynote speech to museum leaders at the International Council of Museums’ annual conference., which opens tomorrow.

In “Museums and Leadership”, a speech supported by Hilary Carty, the director of the British organisation Clore Leadership, Bunch will reflect on the many world events that have taken place since the last ICOM conference, held in Kyoto, Japan, in 2019: the war in Ukraine; Covid-19; the political unrest in the UK and US; climate change; and the continued reckoning over institutional racism highlighted by the Black Lives Matter movement.

“Accelerated change and unimaginable events can either destabilise leaders or carve new parameters,” Bunch will say. He will call on museum leaders to come to terms with “the demands of the ‘new normal’—where the unexpected can test the best-made plans.”

The new normal is very different to the old normal. According to The Art Newspaper’s Visitor Figures 2021 report, a major analysis on global museum visitor trends, the world’s 100 most visited museums suffered a 77% attendance drop in 2020 and a 69% drop in 2021, compared with 2019. More than 31,000 days were lost due to Covid restrictions—the equivalent of 86 years’ worth of visits. Research, meanwhile, by the UK’s Museums Association found that between March 2020 and March 2022, 4,824 professionals in the sector were made redundant. As Covid cases tick higher again, and as the economic impact of the war in Ukraine starts to be felt, this may be the tip of the iceberg.

A second keynote speech, “Museums and Civil Society”, will be delivered by Margarita Reyes Suárez, a researcher at the Colombian Institute of Anthropology and History. Reyes Suárez will discuss whether museums should adopt active advocacy positions on the human rights issues that routinely dominate our news feeds, from Ukraine, Palestine and Afghanistan to less frequently reported abuses in Yemen, China and Latin America. An ensuing panel discussion on the issue will be led by Kateryna Chuyeva, the deputy minister for culture and information policy in Ukraine, who will be joined by Jasminko Halilovic, the founder of the War Childhood Museum in Sarajevo, Bosnia-Herzegovina; Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, the chief curator at the POLIN Museum in Warsaw, Poland; and Hang Nisay, director of the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum of Cambodia in Phnom Penh, Cambodia.

Sharp and significant

“The democratic battles fought worldwide in the name of human rights urge museums to take an active stance towards a fair advancement of civil society,” reads the abstract for “Museums and Civil Society”. “Believing that the cultural sector can remain neutral in the face of exclusion and discrimination would endanger museums’ own relevance.”

Bunch’s message will be both sharp and significant, commentators say. Such a statement, from one of the global figureheads of the sector, will bring into the open one of the key debates taking place behind closed doors in museums across the Western world; whether cultural institutions can retain their significance in the 21st century while sustaining the objective political positioning that was de rigueur during the 20th century.

Maxwell Anderson, the former director of the Indianapolis Museum of Art and the Dallas Museum of Art, says that Bunch benefits from holding a “bully pulpit”: a position enabling him to speak out. “In Prague, I expect him to be very forthright,” he says. “He will speak truth to power in a way very few others can.”

But whether Bunch’s message will be privately welcomed is another matter, Anderson says. “Most museums are ill-equipped to offer moral leadership, because they’re under so much pressure to observe a state of neutrality,” he says.

Anderson says that, on certain issues, the museum community has unified around a state of advocacy; he cites the war in Ukraine and the aftermath of the murder of George Floyd as examples. But directors have not been able to take a comparable public stance on, for example, the plight of the Uyghur people in China This is, in large part, because of the nature of private donorship, Anderson says. “Private donors are not looking for museums to be moral leadership centres,” he says. “Directors are not rewarded for principles or courage. They are rewarded for swelling crowds, healthy profit margins and positive notices in the press. It’s the rare chief executive who steps out of the role of ringmaster and protests outside of the tent.”

Those who rise to the top of the museum sector are often those most skilled at backroom dealings, Anderson says. “If someone is truly a person of moral courage, they’re not likely going to end up being a museum director,” he says. “The modern museum director is typically someone who’s good at balancing multiple concerns and stakeholders; not stepping out with a banner.”

But observing a state of neutrality is not a sustainable option in the globalised world of today, given how present and obvious human rights violations now are, says Sverre Pedersen, the new chairperson of Freemuse, the Denmark-based human rights organisation. “I believe it is impossible for a museum today to be neutral and impartial,” Pedersen says, citing human rights abuses in the Middle East, Turkey, Brazil, Cuba and China, as well as the more obvious conflicts unfolding in Ukraine and Afghanistan. “If a museum seeks to remain impartial on these issues, then this in itself is an active stance. Museum leaders know that, every day, human rights are clearly violated. If they choose to ignore these facts, then they choose to cover for the violators.”

Pedersen welcomes the political nature of the ICOM conference. “The discussions in Prague will be very important, absolutely,” he says. “The current state of human rights and artistic freedoms globally is very fragile.”

Nimble, flexible and responsive

A key tenet of Bunch’s speech will be the challenges of running a museum in a so-called “VUCA”—volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous—world. An adjoining panel discussion on this subject will be led by Elizabeth Merritt, the vice president for strategic foresight at the American Alliance of Museums (AAM). “For much of the last century, the operating environment for museums changed relatively slowly and in a relatively predictable fashion,” Merritt says. “It was reasonable to come up with a one- or three- or five-year plan, because they could be constructed and implemented with fair assumptions about what the world was going to be like.”

That modus operandi is now a thing of the past, Merritt says. “It’s clear, in the coming decades, the world is going to experience enormous disruptions around culture, technology, the environment, finances and politics,” Merritt says. “Under these new circumstances, traditional planning can actually be a liability.” Museum leaders should focus on how to operate in “nimble, flexible and responsive ways”, she says: “We have to realise we don’t know what future we’re going to have to deal with.”

But if leaders are able to adapt to the demands of a “VUCA” world and become newly emboldened to adopt active stances on human rights issues, that might open up another issue—one of trust. In both the US and the UK, museums have long ranked as the most trusted of any state-affiliated institution. In May 2021, the AAM published a landmark research paper that detailed a growing awareness that museums “inherently present a specific point of view”. The report found that, of 1,200 Americans who had visited a museum in the past two years, most considered them their most trusted source of information after friends and family: more so than academics, scientists, government departments and top media organisations. Only 6% did not trust museums, while 15% thought they had a political agenda. A total of 48% thought museums should always be neutral, while 21% thought they can or should take a position on important and controversial issues. These findings create a quagmire for the speakers in Prague, for it’s clear the majority of US museum visitors are out of step with the emergent views of some of the sector’s most influential voices. “Overall, trust in museums seems to be rooted in a perception that museums are, or should be, fact-based and non-partisan—and thus neutral,” Merritt’s team write in the report’s findings.

In Prague, museum leaders will discuss how to retain the trust of visitors in this “volatile, uncertain complex and ambiguous” world. No easy answers will be forthcoming.

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