Tuesday, 15 April 2008

Museums and politics

In the British Museum this afternoon, I came across an exhibition of Mao badges, all nicely polished up. The Museum chose to be neutral on the historical context, saying neither good things nor bad things about Mao. But he was one of the most foul and murderous dictators of all time, right up there with Stalin and Hitler. It would be hard for a museum to stage a similar exhibition about either of those two without providing a bit of context.

This set me wondering about the responsibilities of museums, especially in the light of last year's exhibitions on the slave trade, which did not give much prominence to the large-scale trade that had gone on within Africa for hundreds of years. And there was an exhibition on Soviet and Fascist art and architecture of the 1930s and 1940s at the Hayward Gallery and then in Barcelona and Berlin in 1995-96, under the title "Art and Power", which Time Out chose to describe as "pernicious".

I would not want to drag museums into politics, but nor would I exclude them from politics. Perhaps museums should simply encourage people more directly to go and find out about the historical context for themselves. After all, the Internet makes that easy enough. Any one site may not be authoritative, but it is easy to find a wide range of conflicting views. There is a lot to be said for articulate debate and disagreement. Apart from anything else, it is a great antidote to conformist political correctness.