Museums and other cultural institutions share knowledge, open inclusive dialogues and make us to meet the world by showing how its otherness can enrich every single one of us. While these tasks have been traditionally fulfilled with layers of mediation and distance that allowed museums to step back and put current events in a broader historical context, their involvement definitely took a different turn in the past weeks, as exceptional times call for exceptional measures.
On many levels, the US presidential campaign has been unique and so have the very first weeks of Donald Trump’s presidency. Threats on women’s rights and LGBTQ+ rights, Muslim ban, tweets about everything from Meryl Streep to the US-Mexican Border Wall, plans to eliminate the National Endowment for the Arts, repeal of the affordable care act and, of course, the rise of fake news and alternative facts.
In all this craziness, American museums and cultural institutions have chosen to focus on their core missions and foster inclusiveness, raising from soft power to counterpower.
On inauguration day, the Museum of the Moving Image launched Shia LaBeouf’s performance and installation “He Will Not Divide Us” right outside the museum. While the performance was supposed to last four years, inviting passersby to engage and everyone on the internet to watch, the installation was closed last Friday because it had become “a flashpoint for violence and was disrupted from its original intent” but is still considered by the museum as a successful “engaging and thought-provoking digital art installation”.
Although the installation was designed in advance (but over the course of two months, which can already seem short for a lot of museums), Donald Trump has also triggered very spontaneous reactions from the cultural world.
— New Museum (@newmuseum) 5 février 2017
In the same effort to include everyone in the protest and be at its center, the New Museum has launched an event called “Body Politic” that gathers artists, activists, lawyers around the issues at risk: healthcare, prisons, immigrations, the environment, indigenous rights… The session that took place at the beginning at February was not just a discussion about rights, it was an open conversation about civil disobedience, protest and related legal issues. A way to push the museum crowd to get involved in the protest or at least think about how to get involved and for which causes.
But performance and conversation are not the only way for museums to speak up their mind and collections have become a battleground as well. A week after the executive order banning citizens from seven Muslim countries to enter the United States, three MoMA curators and an assistant curator decided to join the protest it sparked off by replacing some exhibited artworks by contemporary art by artists from Iran, Iraq and Sudan – three of the seven countries targeted by the ban – and a work from a Syrian artist has been added to the film program. If choosing masterpieces that would be taken down to free up space was no easy task, the newly exhibited artwork has been selected to be culturally impactful and representative and still fit well within the galleries, creating parallels with artworks that were already in the exhibition space. This quickly decided step shows how art opens a conversation and builds bridges between cultures, mirroring the idea of American melting pot in which every culture can be embraced.
As History is unrolling in front of us, the conservation and hanging of already acquired artwork is not enough for some museums and libraries. Some have highlighted book selections that allow a better understanding of different cultures (and especially Islam) and have also decided to fulfill their role of collecting testimonies of History by crowdsourcing objects used during protest like the Women’s march, which include protest signs and banners, badges, pins, videos, pictures. Curators from the Smithsonian National Museum of American History even have enough objects from the D.C. Women’s march to add to the exhibition about historic marches in “The American Presidency: A Glorious Burden”.
— Newberry Library (@NewberryLibrary) 20 janvier 2017
And as no modern-day protest would be complete without a bit of social media, museums and other public sources of knowledge will be taking part in a #DayOfFacts on February 17th. In a dynamic similar to the one of rogue accounts of Federal agencies and of the hashtag #MuseumsAndSocialJustice, any museum, library, archive, science center… in the world can join this one of a kind occasion to fight alternative facts on social media, where they are usually spread. The event is not meant to take an “overt political stand” but simply invites institutions to carry out their sharing mission with content about their collection or staff that is “relevant to this particular moment in American history”, in which actively sharing truths about refugees, the environment and Civil rights – among other subjects – can be considered resistance.
Cultural institutions are not used to act that fast with such a big impact on their exhibitions, schedule or collections. Should they step back or should they keep getting involved? Is it their place to almost instantly mirror society (and probably the views of their visitors, judging by the frequentation of the exhibitions and events) or should they take a step back and imagine a way to work as usual? Would it be too late?
Then again, if museums don’t get involved, who will? They are already involved in the political debate against their will through the plan to defund the National Endowment for the Arts (which would also have consequences on non-state funding, as donation could be no longer be tax-deductible). Maybe joining and helping protests is just a way of highlighting the need for all the targets and potential targets of Donald Trump’s policies to show a united front. Maybe it is just a way of fulfilling their mission of social players and strongly reconnecting with their communities in a time when some of their values seem under threat.