11 November 2012

Third international conference: Museums and Human Rights

By Helen Mears
Royal Pavilion & Museums, Brighton & Hove

The 2012 'Museums and Human Rights' conference held on 9 & 10 October 2012 at the International Slavery Museum, Liverpool, was the third in a series organised by the Federation of International Human Rights Museums. It opened with a keynote speech by David Fleming, Director of National Museums Liverpool, whose commitment to human rights and social activism led to the creation of the Federation. In his speech on 'The Political Museum' he challenged the idea that museums could stand outside politics or presume neutrality and objectively. 'All museums are political', he asserted, 'why do some pretend that they are not?'. He also challenged suggestions that engagement by museums in issues of relevance, of diversity and inclusiveness, was somehow the enemy of good scholarship. Museums can both 'provocative and scholarly' he noted.

Fleming's keynote speech was followed by a diverse and international range of speakers whose presentations reflected the wide range of issues that fall under the umbrella of human rights. The scope of this underlined how many museum organisations take the theme of human rights as central to their mandate – Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa (Wellington, New Zealand), Museum of the Romanian Peasant (Bucharest, Romania), National Museum of the American Indian (Washington, US), Iziko Slave Lodge (Cape Town, South Africa) and The Museum of Genocide Victims (Vilnius, Lithuania) amongst many others – and how, while the issue may seem in some ways remote to UK museum professionals, for others human rights abuses were much more immediate, in some cases current, and their effects all-pervasive. Papers by the curator of the National Military Museum in Ulan Bator, Mongolia, which was seeking to offer healing to those who suffered human rights violations during the communist era, and by the deputy director of the National Council for Arts and Culture in Lagos, Nigeria, who underscored the extent to which women are disproportionately affected by human rights infringements, in a country where it is still legal for husbands to beat their wives, as long as no injury occurs, represent the coal face of museums work in this respect. Nevertheless, it was the aim of the conference to give confidence to all museums attempting to grapple with issues around human rights. As Aiden McQuade, Director of Anti-Slavery International and day two's keynote speaker, sought to underline, progress in terms of human rights relies on lots of small actions, even if pursued for differing reasons.

Much of the discussion was of relevance to museum ethnographers. While our work often pertains to issues of perceived ethnic or cultural difference, issues of age, gender, class and sexuality are also often inherent in the collections we work with. The long-standing efforts by museums with ethnographic collections to develop partnerships with source and diaspora communities and to work together on developing collections and collections knowledge, are highly relevant to a debate on museums and human rights and it was a shame not to have this important work highlighted. In discussions about how museums and museum professionals can serve as social activists – and encourage their visitors to do the same – it occurred to me that many museum ethnographers have been quietly doing so for years. Given the changing landscape of museum practice, and the increasing demand for museums to engage in the social and political, museum ethnography has much expertise to offer the sector.