There's been a spate of museum ‘what-to-do-about-Brexit’ conferences/briefings since the EU referendum - a symptom of the uncertainty which museums (and everyone else) faces at this time. A fundamental problem for museums is that one of the founding values of their purpose, liberal progress, faces its darkest threat since WW2. As custodians of history, Museums (should) recognise more than most that we have been here before - rising hate crime, xenophobia, populist nationalism/fascism, and now Trump in the White House adding gangster capitalism and climate change denial. Chinese military officials openly operate on the assumption of the 'practical reality' of Sino-US war and, even since I started writing this, Putin has told the Russian air force to prepare for war. We now know what it felt like in Germany in 1933. The barbarians are at the gate and this time we have no excuse for ignorance – we have the lessons of history.
So what will the museums do? There’ll be rhetoric of more cultural democracy, participation, increased access etc. Museums have been educating and engaging with their communities for decades.... but their communities still voted to leave the EU. In the same way, Bury Art Museum has presented its audience with an internationalist programme for more than 15 years; its cultural aspiration being that Bury people shouldn’t need to go to Berlin or Basel to see the best international contemporary art, people in Berlin or Basel should have to come to Bury. But Bury was also one of the towns in which the majority voted for Brexit.
So what should museums do? Cultural professionals often claim that it is a function of culture to challenge. In truth, I can think of very few museums that ever really challenge. How often have you left a gallery feeling challenged? And now culture faces an existential challenge and it cannot fail to meet it. The assault on humanity, decency, truth, even life on earth has been bewildering fast and, taken aback, the response of civilised society has been slow and confused.
The International Committee for Museums (ICOM) has a conference called 'Exhibitions Without Borders' this summer in Puerto Rico - a dependant US territory and therefore subject to Trump's proposed ban on Muslims entering the country. I asked ICOM what their position was going to be on this as clearly the exclusion of Muslim museums would be an anathema to the values of the organisation. ICOM and US-ICOM have announced that the ban is contrary to the values of museums, but is that enough? The US courts have knocked back the Trump ban but this is no time for complacency, the Regime are coming back with more bile. Maybe resistance is mobilising in the American Museums – I know that MOMA responded by showing artists from the banned countries Davis Museum in Massachusetts removed artworks by immigrant artists leaving empty walls. So what can museums do? ('Community engagement', 'cultural democracy' blah, blah, have their place, but don't face the crisis head-on).
Bury Art Museum and Sculpture Centre already has an international programme; and in terms of challenging, it is currently showing Riiko Sakkinen's critically sharp 'ABC of Capitalism', Juntae Teejay Hwang uncompromising ‘Angry Hotel Propaganda’ (left) and Jez Dolan’s queer ‘Diary Drawings’ and 60/50. But Brexit, Trump and rising racism require a specific response. So this summer I’ll be curating an exhibition called ‘Foreigners’.
This won't be a show about immigration or refugees; it won't even be a show about foreignness. It won’t romanticise the Foreign as Other. We are being told to fear foreigners, to hate them, to blame them for any and every problem we face. The Foreigners exhibition will be a cultural action that defies fear with hope.
It is my belief that Museums should do more than collect/preserve history, they are part of the process of making it; the narratives we lay down now form our future past. This is a dark moment in history, the future of humanity and truth is at stake: Museums have to be on the right side of History.
We are accepting submissions from artists to be in the show at firstname.lastname@example.org