Activism might not be a matter of choice anymore for museums

Activism might not be a matter of choice anymore for museums

April 18, 2017 by Claire Solery
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A couple of months  ago, #dayoffacts encouraged cultural institutions – museums, libraries, universities… – to share actual facts about climate change, human rights, gender equality against a backdrop continued political controversy and unrest. The initiative, even though it is declared as not political, clearly aimed to fight against the rise of “alternative facts”, reality-twisting lies that have achieved mainstream visibility in the latest US presidential race and in the first weeks of the Donald Trump presidency.

Mara Kurlandsky and Alli Hartley, who are behind Day Of Facts, have successfully brought together major institutions like the Getty and the American Museum of Natural History, as well as smaller ones from all over the world – and some institutions are still using the hashtag #dayoffacts to share gifs, videos and pictures, the best of it being collected in this Storify.

After this first Day Of Facts and before we celebrate Earth Day with marches and teach-ins, we took time to speak with Mara Kurlandsky who looks back at the duo’s project, next initiatives in museum activism and how it feels to have your hashtag reused by the very content you are fighting against.


More empowered, emboldened museums are reaffirming their mission statement

Kurlandsky did consider #dayoffcats a success as it emboldened publicly-funded institutions to raise their voice: ‘we saw tons of institutions sharing facts about climate change, stories about immigrants and refugees in their own communities and in history, artists that are working with “controversial topics,” primary source documentation about racism and slavery, stories about projects funded by federal agencies that expand access to science and art education to low-income communities.’, she recalls.

Institutions within and outside the US did successfully merge the concept with their own message, thus showing the need for a platform in the “post-fact” world, which signals a likely evolution towards more affirmation of the role of museums and knowledge-based institutions as fact-checkers and providers.

‘It was wonderful to see how different organizations embraced the concept and really made it their own, especially science organizations and libraries. For example, the Field Museum created a wonderful video with around 40 staff members, the European science organization Ecsite devoted a whole online magazine issue to communicating about science (…) and many libraries created guides and resources about how to find reliable sources and navigate information overload. In that sense, it was extremely successful, because they used #DayofFacts as a framework that organizations could use to authentically communicate their own mission.’


Neutrality, not an option anymore

Ironically enough, #dayoffacts” was used by alternative facts providers on Twitter, but that can only be good, right?

I’ll take it as a measure of success that the museums and institutions posted enough early in the day to get the tag trending, enough that lots of people started using it in ways we hadn’t intended. I’m not going to lie, it was hard going through all the tweets the day after and weeding out the bad ones—as you pointed out, many of the tweets were the exact kind of content we were trying to fight against, like conspiracy theories and really negative rhetoric. But given that the word “facts” has become politicized, I suppose it was inevitable.’

As for the future of #DayOfFacts, Kurlandsky and Hartley will have to give it some good thinking from the gathered experience and data of past February and continuing. However they do see #DayOfFacts as a very timely event.  This maybe because being a part of the ongoing dialogue is not, in this time and age, an option anymore for museums.

‘we have a lot of contacts for  enthusiastic organizations that we can call on for other actions. Alli and I have both been inspired by many different people who have been pushing museums towards being more social justice oriented, and we’re hoping to link the energy for #DayofFacts into work that’s already been done. For me, I would like to push beyond making facts the focus and into enabling museums to take more bold positions about issues that directly affect our visitors. I know a lot of museums have been holding panel discussions or events to talk about current events. Two recent examples: the Hammer Museum held an event about getting involved in activism, and the Brooklyn Museum held a panel to educate about immigrant rights, that I believe was attended by around 500 people. I’d love to see more of that. The next few years may get really scary for a lot of people, and I don’t think neutrality is an option anymore, for individuals or for institutions.’