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If Not Here, Where? The Museum as Host in a Polarised World

© Derby Museums Trust

Tony Butler on why museums must use their unique qualities to bridge divisions and become conveners in a contested world

About the author: Tony Butler is a social history curator at heart and has been Executive Director of Derby Museums Trust since January 2014. Derby Museums includes Derby Silk Mill, the site of the world’s first factory and a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and Derby Museum and Art Gallery which contains the world’s finest collection of works by the 18th century artist Joseph Wright. Tony is a Fellow of the Clore Leadership Programme and from 2004 – 2013 was Director of the Museum of East Anglian Life. In 2011, he founded the Happy Museum Project to create an international community of practice to explore how museums could contribute to a society in which well-being and environmental sustainability were its principle values. Happy Museum has already supported 22 UK museums to develop projects which build mutual relationships with audiences and ‘steward the future as well as the past.’ Tony Butler chaired the 2016 and 2017 editions of the Museum Ideas conference and will be back in 2018.

In February 2017, nearly eight months after the Referendum on the UK’s membership of the European Union, the Happy Museum project held an event to understand why people chose to vote the way they did and to explore the kind of role a museum could play in a society which seems so polarised.

Rather than rerun the wherefores of the vote, the event sought to transcend the Referendum and understand competing values within society. Neuroscientist, Kris de Meyer spoke of how the more our beliefs become entrenched, the less able we are to see others’ perspectives. He likened this to a pyramid – at the top, two views held may be consensual, but the further external events and factors influence opinions, the further those holding the views drift apart. In the 1990s those on both political right and left held consensual views on issues such as immigration and multinational, pooled sovereignty. By 2016 these policy areas were the most sharply divisive.

Kris explored the notion of cognitive dissonance, a term coined in 1957 by Leon Festinger to explain the mental stress (discomfort) experienced by a person who simultaneously holds two or more contradictory beliefs, ideas, or values. He said:

“It has become shorthand for the inconsistencies we perceive in other people’s views – but rarely in our own. What people are less aware of is that dissonance drives opinion change. Festinger proposed that the inconsistencies we experience in our beliefs create an emotional discomfort that acts as a force to reduce the inconsistency, by changing our beliefs or adding new ones. … and thousands of experiments have shown that dissonance most strongly operates when events impact our core beliefs, especially the beliefs we have about ourselves as smart, good and competent people”

Tom Crompton is working closely with the Manchester Museum. His organisation, Common Cause, promotes the notion of values and frames for ethical development and used the Schwartz Values Model to illustrate the beliefs people hold. He noted that the divisions highlighted in the Brexit vote and the election of Donald Trump can be explained by two opposing value systems – Cosmopolitan Universalists on one side and more Authoritarian Traditionalists on the other. Examples of important beliefs for the Universalists were social justice and equality, for the Traditionalists things like family security, social order and honouring of elders was paramount.

Tom noted that although these differences seem wide in Schwartz’s model, there is another set of values which both cosmopolitans and traditionalist feel are important. This is expressed as Benevolence and includes qualities such as honesty, a desire for true friendship and meaning in life.

“Museums must use their unique qualities as hosts of well-liked civic spaces, their ability to use the long view of history to explain our current position; to show where we’ve come from and where we might go”

Amidst this polarisation museums have a significant role to play. Museums enjoy high levels of public trust. Through our collections and programmes we can take the long view of history, exploring the complex identities of local, national and global citizenship. Museums can be the bridge between opposing value systems, exploring difference but promoting those qualities humans have in common.

Yet even the suggestion of that museums should search for common ground elicits cries of sell-out or even appeasing illiberalism. To some, this might legitimise the tactics of those on the far or ‘alt’ right’ who have no shame in using violence, fake news and displacement tactics.

Museums are essentially social spaces, where people of all sorts can congregate. They are not neutral spaces, nor can they absolve themselves from complicity in colonialism or embedding privilege. They can however act as a starting point and stand for values which are non-negotiable such as religious tolerance, respect for the rule of law, the rights of minorities. These are the British Values taught in every English primary school.

Museums can be activist organisations and (to paraphrase Berthold Brecht) be both a mirror to society, and a hammer with which to shape it. But if there is a reluctance to explore values at odds with a dominant cosmopolitan perspective, they will forever preach to the choir.

An English museum director of a large city museum once told me of the tensions of collecting a banner belonging to the far-right English Defence League (EDL) following a rally. A leading local politician (and by association custodian of the museum) had stated that the EDL were “not welcome in the city”, and baulked at marking their presence within the museums collections.

Rufus Norris and Carol Ann-Duffy’s current play at the National Theatre ‘My Country – a work in progress’ drew on interviews of people from all regions of the UK following the Brexit vote . It seems that the theatre is well-placed to take the temperature of the country; to show where it’s at.

Museums must use their unique qualities as hosts of well-liked civic spaces, their ability to use the long view of history to explain our current position; to show where we’ve come from and where we might go.

Back in 2011 the paper Happy Museum – a tale of how it could turn out all right noted: ‘With recent trends seeing city space being increasingly transferred to private ownership museums are an important bulwark against the erosion of the public realm.’

The role of museums as conveners in a contested world is more vital than ever – as places to bridge divisions, if not here, where?

Tony Butler,
Executive Director, Derby Museums Trust
Founder, Happy Museum Project

Published: September 2017

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