For a few days at the end of August, Prague, the capital of the Czech Republic, became a focal point of the global culture war.
At the International Council of Museums (ICOM) meeting, delegates from around the world debated whether museums should stay reasonable, stay slightly awake, or fully awake.
The question at stake was how ICOM should define the meaning and purpose of a museum. For many delegates, particularly from the Anglo-American world, the old definition, agreed in 1972, was far too old-fashioned and ‘white’. Apparently, it places far too much emphasis on things like curating a museum’s collection, educating, and entertaining the public. According to these delegates, a truly modern museum should focus on its “decolonization”.
Militant curators had tried and failed to get their vision of the museum across before. At ICOM Conference in Kyoto in 2019, they released a statement that sounded more like a manifesto than just a definition. He called museums “democratizing, inclusive and polyphonic spaces for critical dialogue about the past and the future”. He called on museums to safeguard “diverse memories” and to “contribute to human dignity and social justice, global equality and planetary well-being”. The purpose of this definition was to make the museum an institution of political indoctrination.
Fortunately, in Kyoto, this awakened definition of the museum was rejected by the majority of the delegates, who still took their role as guardians of museums seriously. But in the years that followed, the project of politicizing museums gained momentum.
By the time of last month’s meeting, the balance of influence had shifted significantly towards the Awakened activists. In the end, a compromise was reached between these delegates and the more traditionalist faction. The awakened influence on the new agreed definition is evident. The last sentence, for example, states that “museums promote diversity and sustainability”.
“It could have been worse,” a delegate from Eastern Europe told me. “Both parties came away feeling that this compromise served them well for the time being.” However, for many activist delegates, waking up a bit is not enough. Some claim that the new definition “still doesn’t go far enough to recognize the complicated histories of museums centered on white, male, and Western perspectives.”
In reality, despite the compromise reached in Prague, the transformation of the museum is already underway. In the Anglo-American world, administrators and curators tasked with preserving their nation’s heritage have imbibed a cultural script that views the past in a totally negative, even hostile, way. They promote a narrative that attributes negative connotations to objects in their collections, particularly if they symbolize and communicate values associated with Western civilization.
For example, in the summer of 2019, the V&A Museum in London posted signs outside an exhibition on the history of British humor, stating that ‘this exhibition confronts uncomfortable truths about the past’. Indeed, these signs condemned British humor as morally suspect.
The V&A exhibit did not feature any exotic colonial artifacts, nor did it glorify Britain’s past in a chauvinistic way. It was simply devoted to an exploration of British humor. Nevertheless, just in case a visitor decided to treat this exhibit in a light-hearted manner, a sign was there warning them of the “offensive historical materials and language” on display. For these killjoys, nothing is spared from the moralizing sermon.
At least the V&A allowed the public to see its “offensive historical documents”. In 2020, the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford retired its popular exhibition of shrunken human heads. The self-righteous fanatics who run the museum have decided that this exhibition reinforces “racist and stereotypical thinking”.
This vast collection of shrunken heads, decorated skulls, scalps and mummies from around the world delighted museum visitors for over 80 years until it was removed from view. Twenty-two years ago when I took a group of six-year-old boys to visit the Pitt Rivers, no one left with racist thoughts. On the contrary, most of the people who have seen this exhibition have probably discovered an interest in other cultures. But we have all now been deprived of the opportunity to embark on our own personal journey of discovery and make up our own minds about what to do with the exhibition.
In recent years, culture warriors have attempted to turn the museum into a hall of shame. Woke curators see their collections only through the one-dimensional narrative of racism and colonial plunder. Ostensibly, the campaign to “decolonize” museums is aimed at combating the perceived racism of certain collections or their links to colonialism. But the goal of the decolonizers is actually much broader than that. The real objective of “decolonization” is to question the entire history and cultural heritage of Western societies.
You can see it in the way activist curators seek to cancel any exhibit with even the faintest connection to colonialism. In September 2020, the Natural History Museum in London announced a “revision” of its Charles Darwin collection to determine if it might be considered offensive to some of its visitors. A curator has warned some may find Darwin’s display of exotic bird specimens, or his statue in the museum’s main hall, “problematic”. Why? According to this curator, Darwin’s trip to the Galápagos Islands on the HMS Beagle was one of many British colonialist scientific expeditions.
ICOM delegates in Prague may have refused to fully wake up. But the fact is that important museum collections are drawn into the culture wars anyway. Artifacts and collections that have been kept for decades or even centuries have suddenly been deemed “problematic”. Increasingly, Western cultural institutions, especially museums, judge cultural artifacts on the basis of their political relevance, rather than their historical value or their artistic or aesthetic qualities. Worse still, these institutions are now supposed to promote hatred of the past and denigrate any cultural symbol that celebrates the historical heritage of Western nations.
No doubt Western culture has its flaws, but when all is said and done, its achievements continue to enrich our lives. This is why we must defend Western civilization from the barbarians inside the gates.
Unless museum lovers raise their voices, it won’t be long before the museum is nothing more than a house of propaganda.
Frank Furediit is The road to Ukraine: how the West got lost will be published by De Gruyter in September 2022.