On Creating a New Museum: Never a Neutral Act

“This museum provides context for the debates of our time”, President Obama said. But it is also part of the debate, I add.

On September, 24th 2016, in Washington DC, the National Museum of African-American History and Culture was inaugurated at the presence of, among others, President Barack Obama, First Lady Michelle, and other 7000+ guests. Attendees gathered on the National Mall to celebrate the opening of a cultural institution which actual creation had been much fought for by its Director, Mr Lonnie G. Bunch III, and by the whole African-American community. The inclusion to the Smithsonian Institution of a new museum specifically dedicated to showcase the physical and immaterial heritage of African-Americans has represented the final step of a political and cultural journey that had started in the mid 1970s, and that ended up with a formal legal authorization to proceed signed in 2003 by then President George W. Bush. After more than 13 years, the new NMAAHC has been celebrated as the embodiment of a country’s acknowledgement of the crucial role played by African-Americans in shaping US history, culture, sport, science.

The difficulties encountered by its advocators in pushing the agenda of the new museum, however, are not just an example of how rigid, institutional bureaucracy can get in the way of new, costly projects ($540m have been invested in the completion of the museum), nor only as an illustration of the inherent disparity in terms of political representativeness experienced by minorities, still very much present in the country. More significantly, under the sociological point of view, the complex process which led to the inauguration testifies for the inherently political role that the museum as a institution has always played within society.

“You cannot be a director at a place like the Smithsonian without being political” (NMAAHC Director, Lonnie G. Bunch III)

Museums, in fact, have never represented an answer to an individual necessity, but rather, to a social call: until a couple of centuries ago, in fact, collections of rare and “artistic” objects were considered eccentric leisures of kings and nobles. It was only during the mid 1800s that, in Europe, public museums started to be purposefully created to host physical heritage from the past. To build a sense of national belonging, in fact, governments needed places where citizens could go, make sense of their existence, and acknowledge their role within society.

“Please, let me say that it is beneath its dignity for an ancient monument to be shown as mere ornament. Artefacts are the heritage of the whole human kind. Only by making them public and exhibiting them collectively we can make them available as a true subject of study, and every result so achieved would be to the advantage of humanity’s common good” (Aloys Hirt, Letter to the King, 1797)

The very existence of museums as we know them is a piece of evidence of how a community can deal with its past, and be willing to translate it into shareable knowledge. The actual nature of each museum, in fact, is inevitably influenced by the Weltanschauung of its time: museums are never objective nor neutral, as they are built by the time-specific version of how we structure ourselves into a community. They bear the signs of what a society believes is important to preserve from oblivion, and of how that same society wants to interpret and communicate them. Their mere existence, then, is a political, cultural, social statement: as Sharon Heal, Director of Museums Association, reported in a recent editorial on museums not being “neutral spaces”:

“Maybe the fear of addressing the recent past or anything that could be seen as political comes from the notion of treating museums and galleries as neutral or unmediated spaces”

Overall, then, the inauguration of NMAAH, despite institutionalized etiquette and bipartisan political presence (George W. Bush was there, with his wife Laura, who is also a member of the museum’s Council), has also indirectly shown that museums are not just architecturally impressive boxes for dusty relics: they are a cultural statement from the community which decide to build them. Their existence is the physical testimony of how a society is and, most importantly, would like to become. The event in Washington, then, has helped reminding us that the creation of a museum can be the most political, and yet peaceful, act a society can operate to move forward. We must never forget that museums are not neutral, nor infallible: they change with society, and, most importantly, they can contribute to change it.

We are a boutique consultancy firm, focused on putting Culture at the center of organizations’ sustainable growth.