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Empowering Change: Towards a Definition of the Activist Museum

NOISE Art Of Protest: Finalists Exhibition, People’s History Museum, Manchester © NOISE

Jennie Carvill Schellenbacher argues that the potential for activist museums lies in museums acknowledging and harnessing the role they play in shaping society. If museums can inspire action in their visitors to become more active citizens, more engaged in their communities, more involved in democracy at the local, regional and national level, more informed about how their everyday actions can affect real change and empowered to make change happen, the more relevant museums will be.

About the author: Jennie Carvill Schellenbacher is studying for a PhD at the University of Vienna, looking at museums and the ways that they are engaging in activism and activist practice. She has also lectured on this subject at the University of Graz. Originally from the UK, Jennie studied archaeology at Durham University and has an MA in Museum Studies from the University of Leicester. Jennie runs the website

“In fact, helping people think about past, present and future could be the special contribution of museums. But not many museums do that. Their concern with other times can make them aloof from the day-to-day. Looked at positively, they can be a haven – an escape from the trouble of the world. Less kindly, they can be seen as an ivory tower, isolated from earthly concerns.” (Davies, 2012)

Maurice Davies asked the museum world to consider the role of activism in their work in 2012, especially as regards their role in working towards a sustainable future. I hope to broaden the discussion, by offering a working definition of what might make a museum “activist”, in the hope that providing a framework for discussion will further enable the development of museum activism and its potential to transform the lives of visitors, having a positive effect of the societies in which they are embedded.

I come to this subject somewhat as a case in point. Having always been an avid museum-goer it was whilst writing my BA dissertation about the representation of the Holocaust in British museums that I experienced the transformative power of the museum experience, not only to educate or change a person’s perspective, but to be moved to want to do something about it. The exhibitions I visited did offere an excellent overview of the events of the Holocaust and the ideas and events that led to such a devastating and unparalleled human catastrophe under a murderous regime. It was a visit to the National Holocaust Centre and Museum (then the Beth Shalom Holocaust Centre) in Newark, UK, almost fifteen years ago, however, that opened my eyes to the potential of museums to engage in activism.

The visit consisted of the rather small exhibition followed by a talk with a Holocaust survivor and a question and answer session. Whilst other exhibitions had ended with a message of ‘Never Again’, Beth Shalom presented the work of their sister organisation, the Aegis Trust, in genocide prevention. They offered an update on what had occurred in the intervening years, including the escalating situation in Darfur, Sudan, a genocidal conflict that continues today. Crucially, the Beth Shalom Holocaust Centre didn’t allow its visitors just to be shocked and appalled to discover a genocide most had never heard of – myself included – occurring as they sat there, they offered them something to do about it and at varying levels of engagement. I came away with a cause and a conviction that to know about something meant an obligation to do what was in my power to change it, and I had been offered the tools with which to do it. That visit not only transformed how I thought about museums and their role in society, but it had a profound effect on my personal life.

In recent years, a new class of museum has emerged along these lines, the mission-driven museum that not only highlights injustice and challenging histories, but tries to equip its visitors to enact real change. These “activist museums” cover a range of issues and reach out to their audiences in diverse and exciting ways. I’ll mostly be talking about the approach by history museums, but I believe any museum has the potential to be activist.

Rather than presenting an argument for a concrete definition for museum activism, I would like to begin a discussion by suggesting four essential elements that might act as hallmarks for this kind of work and help shape best practice. A discussion about what we mean when we talk about museum activism, and at least a working definition, might help museums to frame their work within an activist context, and hopefully ensure that the work is transformative and positive, rather than performative and misleading.

Museums use a range of methods to explicitly and implicitly construct meaning and communicate their attitudes – or society’s attitudes – to their audiences. Museums are able to not only reflect, but also influence and affect society (Sandell, 2007). In turn, audiences come to the museums with their own experiences, opinions and attitudes too. All the messages encoded into an exhibition by the exhibition team are then decoded by the visitors using different filters, according to myriad internal and external factors; external factors such as the context, location, lighting, the methods used, the length and language of the exhibition, and internal factors such as a visitor’s existing opinions on a matter, their cultural background and life experience (see for example Dierking, 2000; Hein, 2000).

This makes two things apparent:

1. Neutrality doesn’t exist in museums. Museums as institutions, and exhibitions as a medium, are the result of choices and actions by the people who produce them. Museum professionals are not able to exist outside of the world they live in and are influenced by the education, knowledge and life experiences they bring to the role, as well as the history of the institution and the collections they hold. If the people who run museums aren’t neutral, then museums can’t be either. They exist to support or challenge the status quo, but either way they are taking a stance on a matter. Inaction is also a decision.

2. Museum visitors are not empty vessels to fill up with knowledge and will not automatically receive or support the intended message of an exhibition. Visitors will (hopefully) come from a broad spectrum of groups, backgrounds and in various constellations. They will bring their own attitudes and opinions with them when they visit.

‘New Museology’ has developed over time, from the initial disruption of the ‘post museum’ and the recognition that museums and collections were a product of the societies in which they were established and developed, often reflecting a minority, ruling-class perspective of history and culture embedded in colonialism. This led to the ‘inclusive museum’, telling a broader range of stories to include the history and experiences of groups and individuals who had been ignored or silenced to that point, for example, women, people of colour, the working-class, people with disabilities, LGBTQI+ people or migrants (by no means an exhaustive list). With each development in the way that museums were approaching and incorporating new narratives, the methods they use were critiqued and practice moulded. ‘Participatory museums’ didn’t only seek to include these stories, they also invited people to help shape which stories and the stories of their communities were told and how. Museums were more conscious of the importance of not only telling stories, but how they were telling stories. Museums became responsible primarily to their audiences, rather than their collections (Kotler & Kotler, 2000, p. 273).

Museums began producing mission statements that laid out the key principles of their work and what they hoped the outcomes would be. These mission statements talk both about methods and role of the museum, but also go beyond the traditional definition of collecting, preserving and education to include a commitment to proclaim their relevance and responsibilities to the communities they serve and the impact museums can and aim to have on the lives of their visitors. More recently, museums and museum-related organisations have begun producing documents more akin to manifestos (and in some cases even called such), going one step further, declaring confidently the power of museums to be the change they want to see in the world. These museums will no longer ‘try’ to affect change, it is integral to their self-identity, work and their definition of the modern museum.

Museums engaging in work of an activist nature can be seen as a confident extension of the social inclusion agenda and a full recognition of the social agency of museums.

The UK Museums Association produced the “Museums Change Lives” report, their vision for the potential impact of museums which begins with the statement:

“Museums change people’s lives. They enrich the lives of individuals, contribute to strong and resilient communities, and help create a fair and just society. Museums are in turn immensely enriched by the skills and creativity of their public.” (Museums Association, 2013, p. 2)

Several projects and initiatives by museums reflect this belief, both in the UK and further afield. In the US, since the inauguration of Donald Trump in January 2017, museums and museum professionals have shown open resistance to policies and executive orders that have followed. The Davis Museum at Wellesley College, for example, removed art work that was created or donated by people from countries affected by the travel ban (around 20% of their collection) in an attempt to highlight the cultural contributions of people and cultures being viewed through a singular, skewed lens (Worley, 2017).

Even before Trump’s election, museum professionals had been agitating for action and change in relation to current events: #MuseumsRespondToFerguson – a twitter-based conversation in response to the issues exemplified by the shooting of unarmed teenager Michael Brown by police (Jennings, 2015); Museum Workers Speak, an initiative aimed at ‘turning the social justice lens inwards’ (Museum Workers Speak, n.d.) to address labour and employment practices in the museum sector; and the Museums Detox group which staged a flash mob at the Museum of London in 2016 and describes itself as “part professional networking group, part support system, and part pub club”(Kemp, 2017) for BAME museum professionals in the UK. Museum professionals have shown themselves ready and willing to discuss radical changes in the ways that museums are run and the topics they address.

Activist museums don’t engage in propaganda , instead they address contentious issues in innovative ways, offering a space for both the museum and visitors to engage in informed debate without presenting their standpoint on the matter as neutral.

The following criteria have been developed to sketch how activism in the museum is a distinct development beyond participatory practice (whilst also maintaining the same commitment to representation and collaboration it entails):

1. Activist museums have an explicit agenda. The museum’s standpoint on an issue should not be hidden or implicit, but is established for the visitor from the outset. If a museum is presenting an exhibition about the lives of transgender people, it should be clear about the intended aim of the exhibition, e.g. not only to inform audiences, but to support transgender people in their fight for equality and visibility.

2. Their activism is reflected in all aspects of their work. If a museum is advocating for a more just and equitable society, it needs to make sure that those values are reflected within their own institution. A museum addressing migration histories needs to ensure that all levels of participation in the museum are open to people with a migration background: throughout their workforce, in the programming, their retail practices, collaboration with their audiences and reflected in their visitors.

3. An activist museum offers concrete actions for visitors who wish to be more active citizens. Museums should empower people by informing them of the various actions they can take to affect change in their societies, asking more from their visitors than understanding and empathy. Ideally, a range of activities at varying levels of engagement will be included. Protests and placards aren’t for everyone. They should offer visitors different ways to get involved at varying levels of involvement, be it in engaging in local politics, craftivism, changes they can make to their everyday life, etc.

4. Activist museums offer space to oppositional opinions. Probably the most difficult. How can avoid preaching to their visitors and give space to sometimes very unpalatable and harmful ideas? The museum must be a place for multiple perspectives, experiences and opinions. Not every opinion has a place in the museum, but acknowledging other views in context can give museums an opportunity to address them in more nuanced ways than by simple exclusion. Inclusion of oppositional opinions doesn’t mean giving them equal weight; rather than ignoring racist views, explain how racism is a system developed to serve an economic purpose and side-step moral arguments for the treatment of people according to arbitrary criteria and how that has real world effects right up until today. Telling people they are wrong is not creating dialogue. When the Tate Modern projected “Vote Remain” onto their façade in the run up to the Brexit referendum, they were telling people what to do. The People’s History Museum Manchester gave space to both sides of the debate and avoided drawing two camps, both in their programming and exhibition, recognising that information and nuance was what was missing from the discourse in general.

The potential for activist museums lies in museums acknowledging and harnessing the role they play in shaping society. If museums can inspire action in their visitors to become more active citizens, more engaged in their communities, more involved in democracy at the local, regional and national level, more informed about how their everyday actions can affect real change and empowered to make change happen, the more relevant museums will be.

Museum practice will always have to develop and adapt to societal changes, new challenges and emerging topics, and that might mean revising this definition in the future. The question of museum relevance lies in how museums choose to use the trust placed in them as cultural institutions that play a vital role in defining what a society is and what it aspires to be. Museums can be a place to explore contentious and pressing ideas that affect the lives of the publics they serve.

Jennie Carvill Schellenbacher
PhD candidate, University of Vienna


Davies, M. (2012). The activist museum | Museums Association. from (Accessed 10 August 2017)
Dierking, L. (2000). Contemporary Theories of Learning. In G. Durbin (Ed.), ‘Developing Exhibitions for Lifelong Learning’ (pp. 25–29). London, UK: The Stationary Office.
Hein, G. (2000). Constructivist Learning Theory. In G. Durbin (Ed.), Developing Exhibitions for Lifelong Learning (pp. 30–35). London, UK: The Stationary Office.
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Kemp, V. (2017). Introducing Museum Detox: being BAME in museums | Art UK. from (Accessed 10 August 2017)
Kotler, N., & Kotler, P. (2000). Can Museums be All Things to All People?: Missions, Goals, and Marketing’s Role. Museum Management and Curatorship, 18(3), 271–287.
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Sandell, R. (2007). Museums, prejudice, and the reframing of difference. Routledge.
Worley, W. (2017). US art museum removes all works by immigrants to protest Donald Trump’s travel ban | The Independent. from (Accessed 14 August 2017)

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