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Taking a Stand Against Neutrality: The Role of Social Justice in Museums

Kayleigh Bryant-Greenwell, Head of Public Programs, Smithsonian American Art Museum and The Renwick Gallery, Washington, D.C., United States

Kayleigh Bryant-Greenwell on considering the vital role of social justice in defining the future of the 21st Century Museum

Kayleigh Bryant-Greenwell gave the keynote talk at Museum Ideas 2019

In considering the future of museums it seems museums still operate in the past. Museums are of course stewards of the past, but in terms of progressive thinking, museums still seem stuck with a 19th Century mindset. The future of museums needs to be distinctly decolonized, inclusive, and truthful in regards to institutional histories. While equity and inclusion are necessities of responsible museum programming and practice, in clinging to the notion of neutrality, our profession as a whole is still far from exemplifying an honest future.

In recent years our profession, understanding its current crisis in equity, has been tiptoeing around the idea of the role social justice in our work. Social justice is our buzziest of buzzwords. While increasing interest in exploring social justice practice has certainly brought new vocabulary into the fold, we have not yet made the effort to fully grasp the severity and complexity of social justice practice for museums. Social justice practice requires taking a stand. It is political. It is polarizing. It is everything that neutrality is not. As museums continue to clutch hold of the falsehood of maintaining “neutral spaces,” social justice practice cannot thrive.

Embracing the fullness of social justice practice can be a resourceful tool towards breaking free of repressive norms or addressing a culture in crisis. Today, our profession is certainly in crisis. According to a 2014 US Census Bureau report, the US will comprise a minority-majority by 2045(1). According to the 2010 Center for the Future of Museums study by the American Alliance of Museums, non-white museum visitors make up only about 9% of visitors across the US(2). If nothing changes in museums in the next 28 years the intersection of these two developments spells disaster for our profession. And we all know that progress moves excruciatingly slow in museums.

Defining the 21st Century Museum
Readers of Museum-iD will be already familiar with our long history as elitist, exclusive, monolithic institutions, as described in many books, blogs and journals. But I’d like to point out that many years of research show “that worldwide, museum visitors are disproportionately more affluent and well educated than the general public [and] in most Western countries, visitors are much more likely to be drawn from European extraction.”(3) Further, post-colonial research shows that museums are “perceived by many to be unsatisfactory: serving a cultural elite… reflecting white values, and excluding from the interpretive process the very peoples whose cultures were represented in the collections.”(4)

“The impending irrelevance of the service of museums manifests a crisis to threaten the very existence of museums themselves. Across the field we are searching for answers to uphold our value and place in society”

This startling revelation of the impending irrelevance of the service of museums manifests a crisis to threaten the very existence of museums themselves. Across the field we are searching for answers to uphold our value and place in society before this critical 2045 juncture. While this heightened agitation within the field is unsettling, it is also compelling. A profession in crisis is a profession in evolution.

Charles Darwin, in exploring the science of evolution by natural selection, noted that only species who were the most adaptable to change survive.(5) This observation applies to many concepts, even museums. If cultural shifts continue as such, the 21st Century Museum will come to be defined by two factors: 1) it’s ability to adapt to change and 2) it’s relationship with social justice and community activism.

But how do museums, whose longstanding traditions actively resist change, begin to adapt? How do institutions, believed “neutral” enact social justice practice? In fact, as this article will reveal, neutrality has never existed in museums and thus should not be upheld now. Investigating the modes in which longstanding practices have been upheld, and even longer-standing terms have been defined, is a challenge. But questioning these norms not only reveals the relationship to historic (and present) racism and oppression communicable throughout the field, but also the truth of self-imposed structural limitations towards solving some of the museum’s most pressing concerns, including how to engage with social concerns.

Manifestations of Neutrality
What are the potential gains when neutrality is dismissed as having no place within the museum? Firstly, acknowledging neutrality as a normalizing force and dismissing neutrality has the potential to increase equity in museum practice. Through a historic lens, understanding the ways in which neutrality has presented itself in the field, I will argue that much of the normalizing, dominant and monolithic practices, now contended widely throughout museums, stem from a false notion of neutrality.

“Repealing the myth of innocence within museums reveals opportunities to engage in deeper and more authentic practices of social justic. Empathy, as the opposite of neutrality, offers museums more fulfilling roads towards social justice practice”

Moreover, this article discusses how the nature of being neutral forbids fully participating in museum practice from working towards equity to expressing the breadth of narratives involved within our objects and our communities. Secondly, repealing the myth of innocence within museums reveals opportunities to engage in deeper and more authentic practices of social justice. Additionally, I will argue that empathy, as the opposite of neutrality, offers museums more fulfilling roads towards social justice practice.

Neutrality as a Normalizing History
From today’s point of view and a geo-economic perspective, it is impossible for museums to be neutral. “In the sense of tourism, museums have never been neutral, contributing to the sense of locale identity.”(6) Moreover, “museums influence identity formation of those who come in contact with the museum – and those who do not.”(7) Museums are too influential, and invested in their communities, to be considered neutral. But still the profession remains married to the idea that museums should not take sides, museums should not be political, museums should not agitate socio-cultural events. The politics of funding alone should exemplify the position of museums as non-neutral, considering that the presence of politically-charged donor funds by environmental, financial, and lobbying industries makes museums “political arenas.”(8) But fear of financial instability, fear of fallout from donors, and fear of unfavorable scrutiny paralyzes museums in a cycle of non-neutral behaviors: dominance, normalizing, mistakenly called neutral.

But neutrality as a problem goes beyond financial soundness. It’s historically based. Through the lens of critical race theory, or the means by which we contend with dominant narratives, we can examine how neutrality manifests as monolithic practice. Neutrality has time and again manifested as resistance to change from the normative or monolithic narrative. As an exclusionary practice, neutrality keeps out voices and positions whom disrupt the norm. We know this behavior as monolithic storytelling. Monolithic narratives continue to frame practice today, demonstrating that the impact of a neutral approach has persisted as the forces of dominance, normalization, and exclusion within museums.

“The very act of determining knowledge and influencing consensus around that knowledge is a political act. Therefore, the very essence of museums is non-neutral”

Three decades ago we praised museums for “work towards a universal view of man’s achievement or knowledge.”(9) But notably today, “ . . . knowledge is fluid . . . The universal meanings and approved curricula that formed the basis for [monolithic] education have become problematic.”(10) We accept that knowledge is power and power is political. Furthermore, as a means of flattening diversity, all neutral exhibitions, programs, initiatives are monolithic because they downplay variance from the determined monolith, or norm. This idea of neutrality incorrectly determines that forced unity is noncontroversial, because “Implicit social norms … call for avoidance of conflict and downplaying differences.”(11) It’s assumed that avoiding difference is the same as avoiding conflict, but in fact these monolithic practices further solidify problematic systems. “If we avoid these conversations, which aim to unpack [colonialism, Eurocentrism, monolithic narratives] … we perpetuate that power dynamic.”(12) Moreover, 21st Century museums know that it is limiting to try to “understand history as linear, coherent, sensical and verifiable. The institutionalization of history is a political craft: it redacts, edits and omits in order to bind and constitute communities.”(13) The very act of determining knowledge and influencing consensus around that knowledge is a political act. Therefore, the very essence of museums is non-neutral.

Considering the Consequences
Remaining neutral in social, political, cultural conflict may seem a reasonable way to “protect” the museum from undue critical ire, but in fact these practices are counterintuitive to museum work. “Such protectionism can limit the potential of the artwork [or object] to lift out of a static past and serve as a point of dialogue about those very discrepancies of belief, values, and meaning. It also fundamentally denies the legacy of the past on the present consciousness of viewers.”(14) As spaces to explore difficult questions and provoke critical thinking, museums cannot engage in neutrality.

As national rhetoric, international populist movements, and federal policy increasingly seek to infringe upon the rights and humanity of already vulnerable groups, 21st Century museums will have to decide how to define their service to their communities. The end of the 20th Century saw increased rhetoric around diversity, equity, inclusion, and accessibility in museums, which would suggest which side museums stand in the 21st Century, but still complacency thrives. As Desmund Tutu famously said, “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.”(15) Neturality is complacency. Educational theorist Paulo Freire explained, “Washing one’s hands of the conflict between the powerful and the powerless means to side with the powerful, not to be neutral.”(16) While associated museum communities are under threat, so is the museum itself. As a vestibule of culture, what is the potential threat to the essential makeup of the museum when culture is under attack?

“The end of the 20th Century saw increased rhetoric around diversity, equity, inclusion, and accessibility in museums, which would suggest which side museums stand in the 21st Century, but still complacency thrives”

Dismantling the Innocence of Museums
In embracing a position of neutrality, museums have jointly disseminated the falsehood of their innocence. As servants to the public perhaps there is an implied virtue to museum work, but certainly the proven track record of corruptibility within museums diminishes any sense of presumed innocence. Moreover, the field exerts itself in the pointed task of labeling, categorizing, curating, and educating – none of which exists in a neutral state. In fact museum researcher Tiffany MacLellan, warns “… against the perpetuation of myths that render the museum innocent. … museums are not the final authority on history and the master of our pasts.”(17)

Just as US President Donald J. Trump refused to acknowledge the inflammatory, hateful rhetoric that spurred violence, leading to the death of one woman and the injury of many others, at the Charlottesville white nationalist protest on August 12, 2017, some histories will alter the events of that fatal day to eliminate the responsibility from said white nationalists.(18) Efforts from the last fifty years of our profession to acknowledge the centering of whiteness within history are wasted if we continue to purport the myth of the museum’s innocence.

Taking a stand against neutrality counters this myth. Resisting acceptance that museums have done, and continue to do harm, however unintentionally, is misplaced. Recognizing harmful practices only skims the surface. The lack of innocence suggested by MacLellan is rooted in the profession itself not as a practice that can be rebuked, but as a permanent condition. As an institution positioned towards authority over the past museums are fraudulent. For the reason that, as MacLellan notes, “history can be read, written and presented to distil a sense of patriotism or nationalism framed by [overt forces]…” museums cannot be innocent.(19) So long as we engage in art, culture, history, and science, museums can never be neutral.

The Role of Social Justice
Efforts towards a neutral reading of history in museums have led to monolithic practices. The impossibility of neutrality should be reason enough not to attempt it, but moreover, if museums are to engage with social justice, neutrality must be left behind.

In the Night Trilogy: Night, Dawn, the Accident, Nobel Prize winner and Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel writes, “We must take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented. Sometimes we must interfere. When human lives are endangered, when human dignity is in jeopardy, national borders and sensitivities become irrelevant. Wherever men and women are persecuted because of their race, religion, or political views, that place must – at that moment – become the center of the universe.”

Social justice, as of late, does not yet function from the center of most museums, but current discourse demonstrates “an increased field-wide interest in positioning museums as sites for social engagement and civic activism.”(20) However as Mr. Wiesel points out, there is no room for neutrality in engaging with social justice. For any authentic engagement with social justice to flourish in a museum setting, it cannot be approached from a neutral position. Justice in any sense requires the choosing of sides. There is no neutral justice. The same goes for social justice. As audiences increasingly express interest in authentic experiences in museums, social justice will be no exception.

The Museum Visit Itself – An Act of Resistance
A cursory examination of any social media platform quickly reveals concerns about social issues – expressed not only by the often well-informed minds of museum visitors, but from the worried hearts of museum practitioners – from educators to fundraisers to curators to directors. The future of museums lies in the embrace of political position – not necessarily a partisan one – the abandonment of the idea of neutrality, and the openness towards radical shifts in social concern.

As, on social media, museum visitors increasingly seek to engage with museums on social justice issues, 21st Century museums are becoming publicly recognized as platforms for exploring social justice in explicit terms. While the means: social media is new, the outcome: social justice engagement, is not. Considering the historical role of museums as spaces to explore identity and culture, social justice has always been ingrained in practice. “When integrated with critical multicultural education, which “works to investigate the maintenance of authentic cultural history, the subjugation of non-dominant cultural knowledge and the continuous movement, fluidity and evolution of culture,” museum interpretive practice itself can be a form of liberatory, social justice.”

Due to a convergence of powerful factors: populist movements, digital forces, and visibility of social concerns and empathy, social justice is primed to play a key role in 21st Century museums. Museums can be empathetic spaces if we prioritize empathy as an explicit goal, not an unexpected byproduct of meaningful engagement by visitors. Neutrality as opposite to empathy dismisses the empathetic values of visitors. We can do better. In the immortal words of Sam Cooke “a change is gonna come.” It needs to come. It must come. Museums need this change. Neutrality only serves to alienate us from the creative and thoughtful agency of our visitors.

Kayleigh Bryant-Greenwell
Head of Public Programs, Smithsonian American Art Museum and The Renwick Gallery, Washington, D.C., United States

(1) Brookings, ‘New Projections’
(2) Farrell and Medvedeva, ‘Demographic Transformation’
(3 and 4) Anila, ‘Inclusion, 109
(5) Darwin, On Evolution, p58
(6) Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, Destination Culture, p7
(7) Anila, “Inclusion,” 109.
(8) MacLellan, “Myth of Apolitical.”
(9) Wilson, National museums.
(10) Hooper-Greenhill, “Education, Postmodernity,” 369.
(11) Sue, Race Talk, 58.
(12) Brown, Gutierrez, Okim, and McCullough, “Desegregating Conversations,” 122.
(13) MacLellan, “Myth of Apolitical.”
(14) Anila, “Inclusion,” 111.
(15) Younge, “Secrects.”
(16) Freire, Politics of Education, 122.
(17) MacLellan, “Myth of Apolitical.”
(18) Shear and Haberman, “Trump defends.”
(19) MacLellan, “Myth of Apolitical.”
(20) Brown, Gutierrez, Okim, and McCullough, “Desegregating Conversations,” 121.


Anila, Swarupa. “Inclusion Requires Fracturing,” Journal of Museum Education 42, no. 2, (2017) 108-119.

Brown, Lovisa, Caren Gutierrez, Janine Okim and Susan McCullough. “Desegregating Conversations about Race and Identity in Culturally
Specific Museums.” Journal of Museum Education 42, no. 2. (Summer 2017): 120-131.

Darwin, Charles. On Evolution: The Development of the Theory of Natural Selection. ed. Thomas F. Glick and David Kohn. (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, Inc., 1996), 58.

Farrell, Betty, and Medvedeva, Maria. “Demographic Transformation and the Future of Museums.” American Association of Museums, 2010.

Freier, Paulo. The Politics of Education: Culture, Power, and Liberation. Westport: Greenwood Publishing Group, 1985.

Hooper-Greenhill, Eilean. “Education, Postmodernity and the Museum in Museum Revolutions.” In Museum Revolutions: How museums
change and are changed
. ed. Simon Knell, Suzanne MacLeod, and Sheila Watson, 367-377. New York: Routledge, 2007.

Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, Barbara. Destination Culture: Tourism, Museums, and Heritage. Berkley: University of California Press, 1998.

MacLellan, Tiffany. “The myth of the apolitical museum.” Ottawa Citizen, December 9, 2013.

“New Projections Point to Minority Majority Nation in 2044,” Brookings, accessed August 11, 2017,

Sharma, Manisha. “Undisciplined Space: Indian craft heritage sites as texts for critical practice.” In Multiculturalism in Art Museums Today, ed. Joni Boyd Acuff and Laura Evans, 111-126. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2014.

Shear, Michael D. and Maggie Haberman. “Trump Defends Initial Remarks on Charlottesville; Again Blames ‘Both Sides.’” The New York Times, August 15, 2017.

Sue, Derald Wing. Race Talk and the Conspiracy of Silence: Understanding and Facilitating Difficult Dialogues on Race. Hoboken: John Wiley & Sons, Inc: 2015.

Younge, Gary. “The secrets of a peacemaker.” The Guardian, May 22, 2009.

Wilson, Sir David M. National museums. In Manual of Curatorship: A Guide to Museum Practice. Oxford: Butterworth-Heinemann Ltd,1984.

Autry, LaTanya. A Critical Lens on Diversity and Inclusion in Museums: #museumsrespondtoferguson, National Council on Public History, March 2016.

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