Reframing Museums

The Federation of International Human Rights in Museums (FIHRM) Conference was hosted at Te Papa last week – three days of stimulating talks and workshops led by experts from around the world on the theme ‘Access is a human right’.

Melissa Gibson, from UN Youth, blogs about her experience at the conference:

The FIHRM Conference brought together a mixing pot of experts and academics in the museums and galleries field from across the globe. I am 19 years old, and live in Wellington, Aotearoa. I was, in comparison to the other delegates in the Icon conference room, a complete novice in the discussions at hand. But that did not last too long.  Each speaker presented their material in dynamic ways that captivated my attention.

Reframing museums

In reflecting on the conference, the holistic learning was on the reframing of museums.  The speakers at the conference completely transformed my perception of museums and art galleries, and the potential they have.

Before attending the conference, I had a healthy respect for museums like any other citizen, but did not see the applicability of museums to my own life much. However at the FIHRM conference I was able to witness to the emergence of a new brand of museums. Museums that aim to evoke and foster passionate and emotional responses from its visitors. Museums that focus on activism; elevating the stories of those whose stories are traditionally likely to be lost.

Activism and museums

Group of refugee background youth posing for the camera.

Refugee background youth who helped develop The Mixing Room (photograph by Kate Whitley, Te Papa)

Richard Sandell’s keynote lecture featured examples of activists already conjoining museums with their causes in the United Kingdom. Activists from the Art Not Oil group hosted a series of stunts to oppose the corporate sponsorship of the arts. This particular work of activism serves as a challenging reminder to museums to not take for granted the trust communities place in them to protect our cultural taonga. The Mixing Room at Te Papa itself serves as a form of activism, aiming to shift the negative public perception of refugees into one that exists within a more personal and human frame. Personal anecdotes and art created by refugees make The Mixing Room more than ‘just an exhibition’.

Museums act as frameworks for society reflecting the public mood and interest. In 2015 the public is more connected and knowledgeable than ever on global issues. Musuems have a duty to serve their purpose as informal educational insitutions and therefore are implored to have a social conscience and be willing to make bold political statements.

Telling unsafe stories in safe spaces

It also inspired me to hear the phrase ‘telling unsafe stories, in safe spaces’, become a buzz-phrase throughout the duration of the conference. ‘Access as a Human Right’ was the theme for all the speaker’s presentations, so naturally inclusivity was high on the agenda. Richard Sandell spoke in his opening address about creating an inclusive museum environment, specifically for those with access needs. Ramps, handrails, and wheelchair accessible lifts may be installed into a museum. However, the people who have access needs and have collaborated with Sandell on creating a more inclusive spaces said that the only difference these changes made was for them to be able to hear able-bodied peoples stories more easily.

Inclusive spaces as part of the reframed museum model must not only be inclusive logistically for non-mainstream communities, but must also be inclusive in their content. Museums and galleries need to tell the stories of everyone in their community that they aim to educate; this is the only way museums will then truly serve their purpose of connecting communities with the culture and pride that was once lost.

Museums in society

Every speaker’s research and points presented at the conference related back to changing the common view that museums do not talk to people. The intersection of human rights, universalism, activism, and culture is one in which museums are beginning to explore, and will need to keep exploring if they want to still serve as an important insitutional body in society. I personally, look forward to an ongoing relationship with my local museum Te Papa who so kindly provided the opportunity for me to attend the conference. I implore anyone and everyone who is reading this post to connect with their local museum also, and encourage the whānau and friends to do the same.

Museums exist to capture snapshots of society as it grows and evolves; we deserve to be actively included in creating those snapshots and museums deserve to have willing citizens to do so.

Melissa Gibson, UN Youth WHSMSC Coordinator 2015

Twitter: @missysmoments

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