Written by Nik Bullard, Curator Social History, Museums Wellington
The theme for this year’s International Museums Day is Museums and contested histories: saying the unspeakable in museums. Is it the role of museums to do this? Of course! But more on that later…
Telling controversial stories is the reason I am a social history curator! So I can talk about the huge amount of unspoken narratives around New Zealand, and the world, that are just not discussed. Not in the mainstream media, and generally not in museums either (except the brave and ambitious human rights ones!).
This theme, Telling Contested Histories, begs the question – if it’s not the role of the museum to discuss these issues, then whose is it? Academics are certainly aware of local and global issues and a balanced view is encouraged. However dissemination of this material to the greater population doesn’t generally occur; hence tertiary institutions are often considered to be ivory towers of knowledge.
I’d like to think it’s the role of schools to tell the story of dispossessed, marginalised, persecuted, colonised and discriminated peoples but, if you take New Zealand as an example, it wasn’t until recently that a balanced view of the NZ Wars emerged. Until then, we learnt about the colonisers story (the British), and not the colonised who lost their land, and almost their language and culture (the indigenous Māori). In fact Māori were often branded as rebels or traitors if they fought for their land! But this is usually the case, we hear the occupiers or victor’s account of the war (or strife) and not the subjugated. The cliché, history belongs to the victors, unfortunately, is usually true.
Now more than ever is the time for museums to tell contested stories. Donald Trump has entered the world stage as the leader of a very powerful country, with an unprecedented lack of political experience behind him. He is anti- freedom of the press (and presumably free speech) and believes anything said against him is ‘fake news’. He is fostering hate in America (and legitimising it in other places) and it is increasingly important that the truth and facts are presented to people to counter this. Museums are a natural conduit to do this.
The world is currently experiencing the greatest humanitarian crisis since World War II. Thousands of refugees from the Middle East and Africa are fleeing their homelands and embarking on extremely hazardous often life-threatening journeys. Migrants are leaving what is becoming increasingly unstable Central and South Americas. Why? I rarely hear or read a discussion in the mainstream media about how these countries have ended up in such a political mess. What are the historical conditions under which ISIS or Islamic terrorism have risen? What are the lasting social, political and economic effects of colonisation on Africa, the Americas, the Pacific and other places?
Can the West simply wipe their hands of their devastating colonising legacy? No they can’t as it has had a huge impact on those countries and this at least needs to be recognised. Or the role that the powerful countries play on an international militarist scale? Take America. It has had its hands (and munitions!) involved in many of the countries now affected by civil war/unrest, terrorism and so on but you wouldn’t know if you got your news from the mainstream media. My partner runs an American 20th century history course at his College but there is generally very little discourse around this (and what the students learn is usually new to them).
Apart from Trump’s anti-human rights policies (the Muslim travel ban, forceful deportation of migrants, cuts to Medicare and reproductive services, etc), and his ability to discredit anything he disagrees with, he and his cronies are also climate change deniers. The planet is currently not coping with the huge amount of refugees, I can’t imagine what will happen when climate or environmental refugees start fleeing their lands due to rising sea levels, drought, flooding, disease etc. Where are they going to go? Meanwhile these deniers are placing the future of our planet at risk.
There are HUGE issues that desperately need discussing. Right now we have the rise of the far right/fascism. If the horrors of fascism are not remembered and spoken of (Nazi Germany, Mussolini’s Italy), then the human mass consciousness forgets about it and unbelievably it recurs! And if the numerous dictatorships, (Pol Pot in Cambodia, Videla in Argentina, Marcos in the Philippines to name a few) and the massive human rights abuses that occurred in those places aren’t discussed – they WILL happen again.
So is it the role of museums to discuss these issues? Of course and it would be negligent of us not to. Museums have historically tried to remain politically neutral but to my mind, this is not serving the needs of our people and communities. They have the right to see and hear their own stories within the museum.
In New Zealand we have social issues that urgently need to be discussed in an open and non-judgmental way. The housing crisis and homelessness, the rising rates of suicide, the massive and increasing gap between the rich and poor, modern day slavery, settling in new migrants (and hopefully raising the quota), issues affecting lgbti+ communities… the list goes on…
To bring stories of marginalised groups of people into our museums are something we should all be striving for. To hear these stories, in the people’s own words, is a valuable tool in creating an inclusive and participatory museum, one that isn’t afraid of telling difficult or hard stories. I believe there is a social justice issue involved here – to tell the truth about what is happening on a local and global scale, thereby raising awareness and bringing about greater understanding, empathy and tolerance towards others.
The housing crisis and homelessness do get media attention. But it is generally focussed on the unaffordability of houses in Auckland. This discussion fails to mention that there are actually more renters in New Zealand than homeowners. As house prices increase, so do rents. Ask anyone trying to find rental accommodation in Wellington – they are often queuing up with 30 other parties for often substandard places with a huge price tag. We desperately need tenancy protection measures so that people have safe, affordable housing for as long as they need it. And no one should have to live on the streets. I feel Kiwis are becoming increasingly blasé about this issue, rather than rallying together to help solve it.
In the words of Chinese human rights advocate Chen Guangcheng: ‘I choose to defend human rights because I cannot maintain my silence in the face of injustice.’