Unsafe ideas

Robin_Hood_Gardens_AP_Smithson
Photo by Steve Cadman, via Wikimedia Commons

Tristram Hunt, Director of the V&A and former Labour MP/Shadow Minister, has written a piece for the Art Newspaper, responding to protests about the Museum’s acquisition of  a portion of the Robin Hood Gardens housing estate. This social housing was/is an icon of Brutalist architecture, and its proposed demolition has been one of the most contested issues of architectural preservation, rumbling over the past 10 years. Read Stephen Pritchard to get the view of those protesting the V&A’s acquisition and display of this architectural fragment at this year’s Venice Biennale. He suggests that this is ‘accumulation by dispossession’ as the residents have been decanted and displaced, while London’s new property is snapped up by foreign investors. The acquisition objectifies the lived experience of its inhabitants.

New research was announced yesterday that the UK has 9 of the 10 poorest regions of the whole of Europe. A major contributing factor is expensive housing. This poverty and inequality will only increase as we descend into the unknowns of Brexit, led as we are into it by hard Brexiteers who want corporations to be free to evade ‘red tape’, in other words, human and environmental rights.

I’m interested in what Tristram Hunt said: “Leaving aside the new social housing planned for the site or the constructive role that cultural institutions can have in promoting much-needed urban regeneration, behind this critique is the increasingly popular conviction that not only can museums not be neutral sites, but that they also have a duty to be vehicles for social justice.

“Rather than chronicling, challenging and interpreting, we should be organising demonstrations and signing petitions. I am not so sure. I see the role of the museum not as a political force, but as a civic exchange: curating shared space for unsafe ideas. And in an era of absolutist, righteous identity politics, these places for pluralism are more important than ever.”

This is setting up on the one hand museums as ‘political force’ as ‘organising demonstrations’, and on the other hand, museum as ‘civic exchange’ as a ‘shared space for unsafe ideas’.

However, those who argue that ‘museums are not neutral’ are not saying that museums should be organising demonstrations or signing petitions. (In a timely manner, this campaign was relaunched today and images of new T-shirts are all over social media.) They are saying that “museums have the potential to be relevant, socially engaged spaces in our communities, acting as agents of positive change”. In other words, they curate shared space for unsafe ideas. They advocate that this curation should be informed by enduring and common ethical principles, resisting the more negative outcomes of identity politics. A shared space has to exclude or critique violence, hate and injustice, otherwise it cannot be a shared space.

A key here is in Hunt’s suggestion of “leaving aside…the constructive role that cultural institutions can have in promoting much-needed urban regeneration”. His use of positive terms in this sentence suggests he believes that museums do have a political role, as promoters of regeneration. But, just as museums are not neutral, the processes and outcomes of urban regeneration are not neutral. Regeneration is not always ‘much-needed’, or rather it is not always the solution to the structural needs in a community of multiple disadvantage. And if it is a solution, it is rarely done in a way that allows for regeneration of nature, for community ownership of common assets, or for truly affordable access to shelter. It is usually done too fast, with Community Consultation, Cultural Strategies and even Sustainability bolted on as Corporate Social Responsibility. Museums can have a great role in regenerating areas, but this does not work for people or for nature if the measures are purely economic. (There are possibilities for a more helpful mindset for regeneration.)

Museums do indeed have a role in curating shared spaces for unsafe ideas about how we might live well together and thrive in our places, whether local places or our shared planetary home. Museums being ‘agents of positive change‘ (or ‘not neutral’) is the opposite of being agents for groups who have exploitative agendas (e.g. property developers or oil companies) or the narrow identity politics that Hunt rightly does not want to support. Museum professionals need to have heightened awareness of the values and historical frames that form their assumptions about growth, regeneration and justice. They also need to be aware of the impacts of their relationships with partners such as developers, corporate sponsors, object donors or politicians. We together need to explore the possibilities of curating these shared spaces, in ways that are sociocratic, pluralistic and also eco-centric.

I have a great deal of respect for the V&A, its staff and programmes, and believe that they have contributed greatly to professional practice in this area. The appointment of Helen Charman as Director of Learning and National Programmes will see further positive development.

The Robin Hood Gardens project and Hunt’s defence of their approach seems to be a misstep as part of a progressive shift. The V&A’s article about the Robin Hood Gardens acquisition does not indicate anything of a desire to be a shared space for unsafe ideas. There are no links to residents’ voices, no reference to the local people involved in the campaign (only the architects), and no invitation to express views in relation to it. Adding these would be positive steps to take.

Climate Museum UK is intended as both a museum in its own right and an agency for developing the capacities of museum workers to curate shared spaces. These shared spaces of museums will increasingly have to deal with more contested issues and sites, as the climate emergency comes home. They will need to embrace unsafe ideas in an incredibly unsafe global situation.

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