I can’t get over the statement released this week by leaders of some of the world’s biggest museums — British Museum, Louvre, Metropolitan Museum of Art, Museum of Modern Art, you name it — opposing the recent wave of climate protests targeting major works of art. In their open letter, they said they were “deeply shaken” by the recent protests, warning that the activists “severely underestimate the fragility of these irreplaceable objects, which must be preserved as part of our world cultural heritage.” I’ll explain why I think this embarrassing statement is a resounding failure of leadership.
But first of all, “deeply shaken”? Do you need a hug, museum directors? What’s more “fragile” — the artwork or you? And where’s that sensitivity when you accept donations from opioid manufacturers, fossil fuel lords, war profiteers, and the like? You know that your boardrooms are the biggest laundromats of ill-begotten money. Furthermore, why aren’t you “deeply shaken” by the systemic racism, sexism, and classism in your institutions? Why don’t your delicate hearts quiver when you hear from your workers that they’re struggling to make ends meet?
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It’s worth reminding the signatories that young protesters gluing themselves to or splashing food at glass-protected artworks are not a danger to society. They’re not anti-art saboteurs but rather media-savvy people who are aware of the power of spectacle. If anything, this statement proves that their new tactic is working.
The bigger problem here is that these museum directors have a severely narrow understanding of their positions. In their own words, the museum’s primary responsibility lies in “collecting, researching, sharing and preserving” cultural heritage. No, we need you to do more than that. We need museum directors to become actual cultural leaders who know how to identify and address society’s most pressing problems, and actively engage in solving them. I’m calling on you to stop thinking like caretakers and start acting like changemakers. Start representing your community, not just your board of trustees.
I’ll give some examples of how to achieve that: Lead the conversation on repatriation, instead of just waiting for the authorities to knock on your door; build your programming around examining the colonial provenance of your collections; kick the toxic billionaires out; reinvent the use of your endowment; help foster a new generation of cultural workers from overlooked communities; open your doors to protests instead of fearing them. In fact, you should be leading these protests.
Maybe that would turn your institution from target to ally.