The permanent and official blog of the University of Leicester's School of Museum Studies PhD student conferences and special events.

27 March 2012

Our First Sounding: Museums and the Shaping of Human Rights

The Choices We Make: Museums and the Shaping of Human Rights

How do the beliefs of staff shape the museums engagement with human rights issues, and what consequences flow from them? To what extent can they pursue their utopian ideals - particularly when they challenge more broadly accepted norms? These are the driving questions behind our first Keynote Speech, given by our own head of school, Professor Richard Sandell.

Over the last two decades, museums have become increasingly committed to their engagement with human rights issues, and this, Richard says, makes for a wonderful, sometimes progressive and open, working environment. But to achieve this vision is no easy task - from funding to politics, there are constraints placed upon the individuals and institutions concerned. Much of the responsibility, and much of the impact, comes from those individuals within, behind, and in front of, the scenes. Richard's aim here is personal - to shine a spotlight on the day to day decisions and choices which people make in order to work towards building this ideal.

But what, then, is defined as a human right, and who takes that decision? What are the social effects and consequences of the decisions individuals make?

Over the past few years, the human rights issue has been picked up by multifarious institutions - becoming perhaps one of the most 'globalised' political discussions of our time. There are museums dedicated specifically to human rights one - opening in Canada in the next couple of years, will be the largest institution dedicated to the issue in the world. But other, institutions also tackle the issue and see themselves as taking part in the surrounding moral discourse - perhaps in more specialized way, institutions such as St Mungo's Museum in Glasgow which promotes mutual understanding.

The human rights project tends to unite people from a huge variety of contexts, and they are often conceptualised as morally universal. However, there are fierce debates, particularly in social anthropology, where a cultural relativist position has attacked the idea of universal norms of justice, arguing for a less hegemonic attitude towards rights, justice, and cultural difference. This standpoint is becoming seen as increasingly untenable, but the debate is still live.

'Rights' are not static, not fixed, not forever. Richard argues that rights are situated, contingent and dynamic - to claim universality and immutability only works in an abstract sense. There is, therefore a huge tension between the utopian ideal and the practical, real life setting.

So rights, then, need to be constantly renegotiated - and in this, museums and galleries have a role for supporting, inscribing, and changing those rights. To explore this, Richard takes us back down to the the Gallery of Modern Art in Glasgow. For the last few years, this institution's Social Justice programme has taken a particular contemporary rights issue, such as asylum, violence against women, sectarianism, LGBTI identity, and engaged with other community and social institutions invested in it, in order to foster dialogue within the city.

In the case of the LGBTI project, which resulted in a 2009 exhibition called (sh)OUT!, there was a huge controversy, with negative press coverage and protests run throughout the city - and indeed across the country. Such controversies are what we tend to focus on in these situations. But the issues, fights and planning were far more multifariously negotiated.

It was hugely significant that there was such a large amount of material around not just lesbian and gay experiences, but around gender diversity - interestingly, in 2009 - the year before the Equalities Act was published in the UK. This was hugely significant; transgender and intersex issues, issues of gender identity, have often been included in a very tokenistic, or shallower way. The staff of the museum were faced with a powerful choice - who, and what, to include. Richard considers that they reached the most utopian, cosmopolitan ideal that they could; they did vast amounts of research, and collaborated with the Scottish Transgender Alliance, entering new territory by including the I - intersex.

It's hard to show what impact those decisions had on the shaping of human rights. But, as Richard explains, the social justice programme publicized at the museum, makes such issues more familiar, less scary, by presenting them in a public space. The STA was initially reticent about collaborating with an arts project, but when they found out more about it, they were eager to participate.

There are many forces shaping our decisions on a day to day basis - many of them very real. But museums and galleries can, because of their highly trusted status, produce change. They have a huge responsibility - and to Richard, this means that they should be heading towards the ideal, the progressive - heading towards Utopia.

It is interesting, as one of our delegates points out, to question whether by presenting these groups and issues so specifically, we are not creating another binary. In dividing groups defined socially and politically, presenting dedicated institutions, there is, perhaps, a risk of ghettoisation - it has certainly been a debate amongst academics and practitioners. I do wonder, however, if this is a stage which we need to go through in order to reach integration.

So, we've seen a first sounding - and it's already engendered controversy. Thank you, Richard, for giving us your time, and a wonderful opening discussion. Given the change and progressive note on which we ended the keynote speech, it's time for us to move on, to head towards utopias which have been lost, ideals which have crumbled and gone.

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