Reforming Museums Through Radical Joy

Robin Stones, Art History Student and Artist

The answers to the problems facing society today lie in the experiences of ordinary people.

Myles Horton

Hello, my name is Robin. I’m a 29-year-old art historian in training and aspiring artist. Obviously, charity shops are my idea of a good time. I’ve lived in the Scunthorpe area for much of my life. Until, in 2023, when I suddenly found myself face to face with the reality of homelessness, I made a choice. With my untouched, decade-old college diploma (and optimism/scepticism?) off I went to the University of Leeds.

Guest author Robin Stones.

I come from a working-class family, and I’m queer. But don’t worry, this article isn’t as angry as you may assume. It is written from a place of positivity. I hope that it can generate some interesting thoughts on why inclusivity and de-colonial thinking are necessary for the survival of museums. Including our beloved North Lincolnshire Museum.

This positive method of activism is generally called ‘Pleasure Activism’. Pleasure Activism works towards the joy of being your authentic self through autonomy and liberation. Grounded in black feminist theory, it works to reframe thought, practise, and strategies towards social change. It reframes them as activities we can take joy in. Knowing we are working towards destabilizing harmful structures to create a better society.

I have a deep love for museums, but it seems museums do not have a deep love for me. What do I mean when I say this? I mean that within museums both the working class and the LGBTQ+ community are under-represented. As well as many other marginalised groups. Museums now seem to want to undo some aspects of this colonial blueprint. But they often rely on those disenfranchised by the system to provide them with some kind of answer.

Why is this? I think it is due to museums taking a fictional stance of ‘political neutrality’ and the trust we put in this image. We trust that the objects and stories within museums are factual, historical, and true. Displaying objects and stories helps show us what is both acceptable and valuable. At the same time supporting the desirability of an object or trait in a self-perpetuating ritual system. For example, the conversion of the Louvre. The Louvre was the French royal palace. It became a museum during the French Revolution. The conversion saw the overthrown king’s crown on public display. This meant the crown retained material value but changed its political meaning. It now could symbolize the efforts and values of the French population. So, we have to ask ourselves, whose values are museums representing?

The unifying force of the museum did not go unnoticed at the time. More than a little terrified of Revolution brewing within their angry populations, countries across Europe took to building museums and monuments. These spaces were dedicated to shaping a desirable and unifying public identity. Oil paintings, classical sculptures, and other treasures are held in high esteem by the social elite. When museums opened, such things went on display. Telling visitors “This is society. This is your culture.” This is one reason for museums still attracting low numbers of working-class visitors. We can be wowed by these treasures because we are told we should be, but what’s the point when we can’t relate to them?

What happens when you visit a museum and cannot find an object or exhibition that includes your own identity? What happens when you do, and you find misinformation? Along with clear political messages, we often take away the sense that we are not considered part of society, humanity, or even the world. Generally, these days marginalised communities can use other platforms to speak up against such ideologies. So we ask “Why?” We ask for change, representation, and acknowledgement. We protest, we beg, and we create our own spaces where we can when this falls on indifferent ears.

Museums are keepers and tellers of human history. It only makes sense that all humans must be welcome to contribute on all levels of the museum. Museums across the world are endeavouring to change to welcome marginalised communities. As part of this push for a better society and social change, museums are inviting marginalised communities to be involved. Museums do this by asking them what they need to see to better represent them and their needs. The fruits of this work are often seen in:

  • Community-led exhibitions.
  • Audio guides.
  • Objects interpreted from other aspects, and some returned in acts of restitution.
  • Living history performances.
  • Interactive displays.
  • Changes to the building to better accommodate mobility across the site.

Clearly, the times of the museum label, glass case and shrine-like displays are numbered.

These steps towards inclusion happen in relatively small bursts. Mainly due to the hard work of passionate individuals. Generally, this invaluable labour from said communities often goes unpaid. You’re reading unpaid labour right now. This contributes (purposefully or not) to upholding the perception that our time, labour and lived experiences are not part of society. It apparently has no value. This passes the responsibility of fixing these deep-rooted imbalances back onto marginalised people. Our very existences are politicised. Museums are not, in their ‘politically neutral’ stance. So, museums act as bystanders if our efforts fall flat. Why are we asked to dedicate our time and experiences to fix a system we didn’t create, or break? After all these efforts, it remains a fact that museum staffing does not reflect the population they serve. Until these structures change, museums may find themselves failing their community.

Now don’t get me wrong, I still love museums, especially North Lincolnshire Museum. I don’t want to see these buildings that hold such immense social influence fall behind the times. Or worse, face closure because they cannot get a wider range of people working in and visiting them. I want to see marginalized communities become fully integrated within society. Part of this process must be trusting communities to tell their own history. As well as structural changes that sustain flexible ways of supporting disadvantaged communities.

Social change can only happen within the museum when intersectionality towards activism is adopted by all. Especially by those who are in positions of decision-making. A simple ‘yes’ can open a wealth of opportunities. Showcasing the success of such methods pleasure activism nurtures. Museums must embrace any failures and try again in exercises of joyful experimentation. Where everyone teaches, and everyone learns.

Despite challenges, I know this change can come about. Some art collectives, scholars, museum professionals and creatives are already putting in the work. Developing simple tools that institutions can use in fostering an optimistic approach to achieving meaningful spaces. Spaces which offer liberation and autonomy. As a collective approach, providing meaningful spaces that also represent us.

Further Reading

Sources and projects for your intrigue:

You can find Robin Stones on LinkedIn here.

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