Museums are great places for us to look at the world in a new way. The collections they hold are portals that allow us to view art, science and history with a fresh perspective and to think about the world differently. Museums are places of discovery where our minds are allowed to wander.
At least, that what’s they want you to believe.
I believe this is what museums aim for, but that in reality many museums regurgitate the same stories and the same views they have been doing for years. Centuries even.
I wonder if they museums could be intentionally provocative?
Received wisdom is a dangerous thing when it comes to creating museum interpretation. All too often the heritage sector plays it safe. Museums write what they think they ought to write and don’t necessarily push the boundaries. The words on the little pieces of card by the artworks are going to be read by the public, after all. And also peers from within the heritage sector.
What if museums didn’t write in an academic tone and tried to rock the boat a little? What if museums challenged not only their own versions of history, but provoked us as visitors to challenge ourselves? What if they made us uncomfortable??
Here are a few examples of what I mean by gentle provocation.
A Roman frontier
Hadrian’s Wall was built in the AD 120s as a frontier. It runs for over 70 miles right across England on the borderline of what was once the Roman Empire to the south and land occupied by Ancient Britons on the north. The Emperor Hadrian was marking the edge of the empire with a heavily fortified construction – a symbol of Roman power and control. It also acted as a defensive shield and an economic control zone.
Today Hadrian’s Wall is presented to the public as a frontier and as an architectural marvel. The tourist sites along it tell stories of the construction of the wall, Roman military and social life and also the landscape in which it sits. It’s displayed as a feat of design and engineering and of something the Romans were proud of.
It’s also a great place for a walk, with splendid views along the UNESCO-protected site.
If we in the heritage community are really as bothered about learning from history as we say we are, I wonder if we ought to also be encouraging visitors to Hadrian’s Wall to think again about what the wall represents?
Walls and barriers throughout history tend not to have worked out that well. Berlin. Gaza. Belfast. And now the US President wants to build another one?!
The custodians of Hadrian’s Wall could, if they wanted, invite us to overturn the idea that walls that keep people out (or in) are positive forces. By showing stories from both sides of the wall, we provoke people to challenge their own preconceptions about the monument, but also to reflect on our own lives in a different way. What do walls and barriers mean to us today? Should we celebrate Hadrian’s Wall?
Further south in England is the city of Manchester. Today it’s home to world-famous football teams and media companies, but 250 years ago it was the birthplace of the Industrial Revolution.
At the Museum of Science and Industry in Manchester the men – and they were all men – whose technological advances made the revolution possible are celebrated. Their various scientific inventions that harnessed the power of nature and turned it into products – and money – show how the rapid explosion in production and wealth changed the world forever.
Take Richard Arkwright, for example, described by the museum as ‘Father of the Factory Age’ – and he well deserves this title. His cotton spinning machine and his early steam-powered factories allowed for production of cotton to increase rapidly and for money to flow into the country from across the British Empire.
But what also started right here in Manchester is the workers’ rights movement.
While we celebrate Arkwright as an industrialist, we need to remember that nearly two-thirds of his employees were children, who started work at the age of seven. He graciously allowed employees in Cromford, Derbyshire, a week’s holiday a year, on condition that they didn’t leave the village.
The conditions in which those grafting workers were expected to spend long periods of time are presented in Manchester’s People’s History Museum but they don’t get such a high profile in industrial museums. Or how about the fact that the whole Industrial Revolution was propped up by the Transatlantic Slave Trade. All that cotton came from somewhere, right? But that gets glossed over.
And so to does the role that the industrial revolution played in climate change.
In the slavery museum, the social history museum, the natural history museum and the people’s rights museum the Industrial Revolution is presented in a very different light.
Surely we all have to admit that a cotton weaving machine – as much as a technological advance as it may have been – has many more stories to tell than one of how we learned to process cotton in industrial quantities.
It might make for uncomfortable reading in an industrial context, but it’s true.
There’s a question about whether museums should be challenging their visitors in this way.
Should they provoke visitors with alternative histories or ones that go against the norm? Or should the toe the line?
If you believe that museums have a mission to fulfil of being spaces of learning, reflection and change, then it’s fairly easy to say ‘yes’ to that. And if museums are repositories of collections that have multiple histories, surely they have a duty to explain them as fully as possible.
So Hadrian’s Wall becomes a place where we provoke visitors to challenge the idea of enforced borders. And industrial history provokes us to ask questions about human rights and the environment.
But a question remains about how far they should they go in being intentionally provocative.
There are, of course, factors that need to be considered when taking this approach.
To start with the museum sector is a place where change tends to happen slowly. There will be traditionalists who don’t want to upset the academics and don’t want to rock the boat.
This much we know and this much we have been working with to persuade of the public benefit.
Taking this approach will require being brave – and for some that will be a challenge. It’s difficult to be provocative if you’re still insistent on being vague. And there’s always a risk that there’ll be some negative feedback – from visitors, from the media, from trustees and from peers.
Personally, I think these are all brilliant reasons FOR challenging the established story, not hiding away from controversy.
It’s worth acknowledging that many places are doing great work already, telling multiple stories – including the heritage sites I’ve mentioned above. These institutions are savvy – they know that by not acknowledging alternative histories they open themselves up to criticism and that by engaging with potentially difficult subjects they can create new conversations.
By showing new perspectives – and by provoking visitors – museums can generate conversations and potentially change attitudes. They can gain traction and media coverage. Positioning yourself as a museum which provokes might even attract a new audience and you could even end up becoming a source of inspiration to other institutions.
But if we are going to be provocative, we need to be brave.
Given these concerns, how then might museums start on their journey to visitor provocation? Here are a few thoughts on how it might happen ….
Have a go and see what happens
Write a label with a different history that challenges the norm and place it on public display for a day. Did anyone complain? Try it up there for two days and see if you get letters from angry visitors. Try it for a week.
Provide multiple viewpoints
Rather than simply describing something in a completely new way, you could provide two interpretations offering different perspectives, rather than just one. Be traditional and be provocative at the same time. Show the multi-vocality of museum collections.
Say it, don’t write it
If you’re not brave enough to write something provocative on a label and leave it unattended, try adding it to a tour or a live event. Museum tours have gone from strength to strength in recent years. The people at Museum Hack have a great knack for this and are exploring ways of engaging visitors by using guides, games and gossip.
Pass the buck
Rather than taking the risk yourself, try getting someone who doesn’t represent the mainstream museum voice to be provocative. Get a journalist or someone from a different organisation to write in a new way about an object in your collection and watch what happens afterwards.
Make it digital
Your social media community isn’t a hostile place – they’re your friends. Periscope your provocation, tweet it, Instagram the freak out of it. Stick it on you tube. And if you don’t like the reaction you can take it down.
Will you be provocative?
Being provocative in the museum space doesn’t mean being revolutionary. This kind of work could be quite simple and subtle. It doesn’t require rebranding an industrial museum as the National Museum of Human Exploitation, Slavery and Injustice. And it doesn’t involve spray-painting Hadrian’s Wall with a slogan about evil wall-builders.
Museums are cleverer than that. They can do it subtly. And they can certainly provoke their visitors for positive results.
Go on. Be a provocateur.
While writing this blog I thought it might be of interest to Museum Hack’s writing contest, so am entering it here.