Discussion: The Activist Museum

How to get loonie left politics into museum spaces. We also learn a new acronym.

About this event

‘The Activist Museum’ brings together projects which share a concern for democratic practice, human rights and equitable museum spaces.

The Research Centre for Museums and Galleries (RCMG) in the School of Museum Studies at the University of Leicester is delighted to invite you to ‘The Activist Museum’.

The event brings together projects which, although addressing hugely different injustices and crises, share a concern for democratic practice, opening up space for multiple voices and creating more equitable museums. The Museum of Transology, Journey to Justice and 100 Histories of 100 Worlds in 1 Object partner up to share reflections on activist museum practice.

The panellists are recipients of the Activist Museum Award 2020, launched to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the Research Centre for Museums and Galleries (RCMG) in the School of Museum Studies at the University of Leicester. The projects reflect the ideas presented by Robert Janes and Richard Sandell in their recent book, Museum Activism (2019). Museum activism refers to, ‘museum practice, shaped out of ethically-informed values, that is intended to bring about political, social and environmental change.’ Together, the projects encourage, inspire and support similarly activist museum work throughout the museum community. 

This award was made possible by a gift from Robert R. Janes.

From the Eventbrite blurb


The event was attended by around 90 people, the majority of whom were from the museum sector or PhD students in related study areas. The host, Richard Sandell, told us of his hurt that not everyone agreed that activism had a place in museums, and that the word itself was beginning to be used pejoratively. And not just by the ‘right wing’ media either, but also amongst museum leadership itself! Sandell wants to reclaim the ethical roots of ‘museum activism’.

Sandell then introduced his colleague Robert R. Janes (or more familiarly Bob) who told us about his background and interest in setting up the award. Bob is from Canada and claims that he had taken on the world view of the North American indigenous people he had spent time with, including the understanding non-hierarchical social systems and was particularly interested in issues around climate change and poverty.

Another host, Ceciel Brouwer, warned us that a safeguarding policy was in place on the call and any hate speech or wrong questions would lead to people being kicked off the call. Interestingly her research ‘considers how museums in the UK can effectively negotiate the ethical and human rights issues involved in collecting and displaying contemporary photographs of children expressing bodily awareness,’ (my italics) which is weird when you can be almost certain she will be pro the agenda set out by Mermaids.


Each of the winners of the Activist Museum Award would make a presentation to the webinar through a pre-recorded video and then at the end there would be a Q&A.

Decolonising museums with 100 Histories of 100 Worlds in 1 Object

Mirjam Brusius, Benjamina Efua Dadzie and Alice Stevenson from 100 Histories of 100 Worlds in 1 Object, which developed a pilot project to facilitate conversations between researchers, heritage and museum practitioners in the Global South through their online platform, with the ultimate goal of addressing broader questions that concern the role of museums in the multicultural societies of tomorrow.

From the blurb

Ridiculous name, ridiculous objective; creating a museum without objects. Let’s just remind ourselves of the dictionary definition of museum. It’s important for the discussion.

So nothing to do with activism, and everything to do with appraising physical objects in person. Instead the 100 Histories of 100 Worlds in 1 Object (hereafter known as 100) project had produced 9 essays, 4 podcasts and 1 video posted to their website. I had a look, and one of the essays is essentially a basic description of what you can learn about if you go to the British Museum.

100 had asked themselves – what did the community need from decolonisation?

In a throwback to the time Empire Day was celebrated in this country, 100 had nostalgically revived the 3 Rs – but not Reading, wRiting, aRithmetic, rather Repatriation, Restitution and Reparation (which should really be the one R, given the similarity in meaning).  They repeated their desire to be a museum without objects, i.e. a digital platform.  It was remarked that the museums who were critical of their model were obviously the Western ones. 

Despite the presenters describing their physical characteristics to the audience at the beginning of the meeting, ostensibly to help those with sight loss, 100 put up the following slide and expected us to read it in our own time (which was no time). 

Big LOL for last question

100 wanted to emphasise that objects ‘don’t represent people’ but mean different things to different people.  Their main conclusion was that without people, objects wouldn’t exist. You can’t fault their logic on that one, I suppose.

I feel that 100, like so many others who bleat about ‘decolonisation’, have rather forgotten that many of the objects being held in places like the British Museum are overwhelmingly products of colonial forces. Take, for instance, anything that the Egyptians ever built, but obviously slave labour is okay when brown people do it.

How to do activism with Journey to Justice

Carrie Supple and Dr Abi Rhodes from Journey to Justice, a national human rights education charity. Responding to the widening wealth gap and deepening economic and racial inequality, Journey to Justice developed an online resource focused on Economic (In)Justice to be used by museums, in all education settings, local communities and the wider public.

From the blurb

The ladies who lunch of Journey to Justice (hereafter J2J) described themselves as a ‘human rights charity’ run by volunteers.  Their aim was to galvanise people into activism and a key activity was telling the stories of people in the UK and the US.  With their travelling exhibition they have visited over 15 places in the UK and claim to have had more than 200,000 visitors (I imagine those are revolving door visits).  They want to address economic injustice in the UK, but we never really learnt what they thought this was, or how it could be remedied, though apparently the pandemic had made it worse.  Somehow I suspect their critique doesn’t involve telling people to get off benefits and into work. 

They were in the process of creating a ‘physical suitcase’ of their online materials for those who don’t have access to the internet.  This is still making me laugh two weeks later.

Of course the barriers to economic justice were all the usuals.  They had made a mini documentary featuring ’40 diverse voices’, 21 of which were in their stories section, and then we were shown micro clips of these.  Black to Nature was one, set up by a posh 17 year old girl (everyone is welcome on their trips out to nature, unless they’re white).  A woman who saved her local bus route another.  A football fan who urged people donate to a food bank every time they attended a match.  Noble causes maybe, but what does it have to do with museums?  All I heard were lots of middle class voices using suspect phrases like ‘lived experience’. However, I think my favourite was the dude who complained about gentrification in Brixton, who was clearly a first wave gentrifier (there’s nothing worse than getting excited about the new independent organic fair trade coffee shop to find out you can’t actually afford that). 

Their website is all over the place and includes everything you would expect to see really, pledges to be anti-racist and details of their outreach work of ‘training the trainer’. They have been the lucky recipients of grant money from multiple charities and lottery companies, including Garden Court Chambers and the cosmetic company Lush. In the learning materials they have produced for schoolchildren, the focus is overwhelmingly on the American Black Civil Rights movement. I have no idea how their work relates to that of a museum.

However, no one is yet salaried and until they are, they can’t really guarantee that everyone will have access to their resources.

Making exhibits intersectional with the Museum of Transology

E-J Scott, Museum of Transology, which used the Activist Museum Award to pilot a new collecting strategy that uses a combination of film and objects to deliberately and measurably increase the visibility of QTIBIPOC communities within the museum’s collection.

From the blurb

Last, but not least, was the presentation from EJ Scott (aged 33 ¾), sporting a moustache which looked like it didn’t want to be there. The Museum of Transology (hereafter MoT), Scott reckons, was the most significant collection reflecting trans, non-binary and intersex people’s lives in the UK, if not the world, and is often used by students and researchers.

Scott used the image below of a lipstick, as a typical example, but I feel overall the collection is typically more focussed on the body and body modification. 

See here for a more typical Museum of Transology exhibit – be warned that it is a large scale photo of a 7 inch dildo – with a label testifying that it made a female’s dysphoria worse (hardly surprising). The exhibition currently has a home in the Bishopgate’s Institute, in Spitalfields, London.

But how much historical value does an object and a tag have really, we hear ourselves asking. Might not the contributor simply be telling a story about themselves, a version of a personal history that they would have liked.  Scott believes that it is two parts of a whole – the object and the voice, and that people are the curators of their own stories. Having the label attached to the object meant someone couldn’t come along years later and write over that story.

It is fair to say that the Museum of Transology is therefore designed to halt the erasure of transcestry by transing the museum sector, via community curation as a methodology to learn from and to study. It is designed to tackle the misrepresentation of trans people in the Global North and to challenge the non-consensual pathologising of gender variants by simply showing the sheer breadth of experience of the donors. Finally, it’s also really a conscious effort to combat the spectacularisation of trans lives and bodies by the UK media, which is touted widely as being the most transphobic media in the world.

EJ Scott, aged 33 3/4

The project will put a stop to people saying that trans people didn’t exist in the past.  Scott says she understands the charges of ahistoricism, but felt that there was a dark evil underbelly to the argument that historical figures should not be labelled trans. Doing so erased the trans people of today and robbed them of their sense of societal belonging.

Trans people had been ridiculed in the museum environment as little more than Greek mythology and, more curious still, been ‘haunted by after death dissection’. Trans people had also not been shown as functioning members of the broader community.

Scott gave the example of a ‘trans man’ called James Howe, who ran a pub in 1729. Naturally, Scott did not address the counter argument that Howe may have dressed as a man in order to live her life independent of men, which was near on impossible at that point in history. Scott argued that if Howe couldn’t be labelled as trans then ‘our people will be lost’ and ‘homeless in history’. Moreover, if trans, non-binary and intersex young people today don’t hear these stories, then they will think their lives aren’t worth living. Therefore, the MoT is an activist project.

Despite the roaring success of her initial project, Scott now realises the brown packing labels she provided weren’t big enough to include details about trans intersectionality. She also revealed the new acronym she had thought up – QTIBIPOC (pronounced cutey-by-poc) – which stands for Queer, Trans, Intersex, Black, Indigenous, People of Colour. The new project would allow these ethnic groups (i.e. anyone who isn’t white) to talk about what it’s like being QTIBIPOC. Scott told us that ‘black trans women’ experienced ‘heightened misogyny’ and ‘disproportionate levels of violent attack’. Equally black women who had transitioned to being ‘black men’ experienced fear at becoming visibly male and suspected of criminality.

Scott had spent a lot of time building and gaining trust within the community, and name dropped Travis Alabanza and Munroe Bergdorf as consultees, describing them as activist/ models. Scott now realises her error in not being intersectional enough, and the new project was an attempt to ‘decolonise the Museum of Transology’, mainly in response to ‘Black Trans Live Matter’ movement. Scott admitted the past mistakes were probably due to her being a ‘white man’ with ‘white saviour complex’.

Another project Scott had got involved with was producing an exhibition in conjunction with Travis’ play Overflow, all about toilets, at the Bush Theatre, which included one of Travis’ dresses and a sign which said ‘STOP KILLING US!’.

‘The award enabled us to pilot a new collecting strategy,’ said Scott, which really meant that she had paid participants money to tell their stories for ten minutes of Zoom time. ‘The participants must not be asked to participate for free, and to give their labour for free, ever again,’ Scott intoned drearily. Scott wasn’t bothered by the low production values; what was important it was community produced.

It’s white privilege that needs to pay the price for labour now, not black and brown participants. So I was very grateful to be able to re-distribute the Activist Award prize money back directly into the community.

EJ Scott, aged 33 3/4

We might wonder how a fee for participation in a project, which invited people to talk negatively about race relations for a decolonisation project, may have possibly skewed the results, but obviously no one asked.  At the current time of writing, Scott has posted precisely two videos to the MoT website – see here, which begs two questions; how big was the prize money award and how much had Scott paid participants.


Sandwell reflected on the presentations and that it affirmed his belief that museums should be anti-racist, anti-colonial and tackle deeply entrenched discrimination, each project had shown how this work was possible in museums.

Question 1: Therefore the opening question was a return to Sandwell’s opening point, how did they feel about the word ‘activism’ being used in a pejorative way, and how had it affected them?

One of the 100 women said it was difficult times and it had been important to ‘keep people safe’.  Another wanted us to know that she was actually working in a real museum, literally in the archives, and waved her gloved hands in front of the screen and giggled.  It’s not clear why she needed to wear the gloves to attend the Zoom call. 

J2J said that they didn’t feel adversely affected by it as they were independent of institutions (conveniently forgetting their funding revenues) and reminded us that their tactics section explained how to create campaign materials and this helped reclaimed activism as something positive.  Sandwell agreed that people were nervous about speaking out and needed this kind of help.

Scott had put forward a proposal for the Museums Association Conference to do a panel on the weaponisation of community collecting. Scott invited someone from the Museum of Brexit to take part in the panel and in the email she sent she included the Activist Museum award logo and had gotten back a ‘diatribe’. Scott said, ‘it wasn’t just a radical left thing anymore’. Scott felt that the trans community had been unfairly centred in culture wars. Being an activist meant wanting to make changes for the right side of history.

Question 2: How can we engage with activism without fuelling the idea that there were culture wars, currently used by right wing media to polarise discussion?

J2J said it was about embedding the approach across all spheres, in education, local councils, and building up an allyship base.

100 said this is ‘how history works and the whole point of doing history is to rewrite it over and over again’.

Scott said it ‘wasn’t us’ who were fuelling the culture wars, rather they were responsible for ‘thoughtful caring community oriented work’. The idea of cancel culture was nonsense and how often do you hear a trans person on the radio being interviewed on issues about transphobia (erm, just two days ago on the LBC). It was the weaponisation of very good practice.

Question 3: Are objects necessary in activist museums, or museums in general, and if so what is their purpose?

Scott has got 500 of them! And there isn’t one curator of the MoT, each donor is also a curator. Scott feels the everyday objects in her collection ‘breakthrough the veneer of discrimination’ that the audience may be holding (because no museum ever displayed everyday objects like coins or bowls).

100 said something unintelligible, I couldn’t translate but it was about this guy – Wayne Modest, who sends my spidey senses into overdrive. They were also disappointed that auction houses sell stuff for a lot of money.

Question 4: What kind of risks were identified in these multi-disciplinary and sometimes conflicted territories of work?

100 said the policy of restitution was a governmental issue, there was a lot of politics but also personal risks and repeated the claim that their authors had had to be ‘kept safe’.

The presentations and the responses in the Q&A did nothing other than underscore the fact the panel were really only in favour of the type of activism which fell in with their own political views, and not activism per se.

Rounding up

Sandwell rounded it all off on time and made some final remarks; he thanked Bob for providing the money and the idea for the Award, and of course the three projects whose work the University department would be sharing with students and promoting. Scott said that the mentorship that Sandwell and his team had provided was invaluable.

The third round for the next Activist Museum Award was open, and Sandwell and his staff were offering ‘surgeries’ to help people hone their application, the application was really simple – just a side and a half and a few questions. Which brings me to a final question: Should The Lies They Tell apply? After all I’m not a museum.

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