Museums as Safe Spaces For Conflict
By Ngaire Blankenberg
The Bardo Museum in Tunisia was attacked and 21 people were murdered while I was in the middle of the opening plenary for the United Cities and Local Government Culture Summit in Bilbao. As the details of the brutal and deliberate attack filtered to the conference participants, it served as a grim backdrop to one of the emerging themes of the gathering: the link between culture and peace, safety and security.
Many speakers showed how supporting and enabling people to express their cultures, speak their mother tongues, preserve their heritage led to a reduction in violence and peaceful co-existence in the city. Jorge Melguizo, former Secretary of Culture for the City of Medellin in Colombia spoke passionately about how his government used culture to significantly reduce their urban homicide rate- once one of the highest in the world. Others from Diyarbakir, Turkey’s largest Kurdish city, Mexico City and Paris reiterated.
But although protecting and celebrating ‘culture’ may be important to forge peace, cultural expression, whether art, history or science, is not necessarily benign, nor peaceful.
The spate of recent attacks on museums underscores how important it is that museums ARE safe spaces in our increasingly diverse cities, for what may be seen as dangerous ideas and their evidence. Security for objects not visitors has typically been the focus of museums, but the Bardo Museum attack, ten months after the murder of four people at the Jewish Museum of Belgium in Brussels, and an eery repetition of the murder of ten people on a bus outside the Egyptian Museum in Cairo in 1997, is a wake-up call.
Many museums, particularly those in zones of conflict, may be tempted to abandon any fledgling attempts at openness they may have initiated, and turn their buildings into fortresses or close them down all together. Certainly the admission by Tunisian politicians that none of the four policemen that were posted outside the museum complex- which also houses the parliament buildings- were actually there at the time of the attacks- does point to the need for museums to seriously consider the effectiveness of their security measures.
However, although violent museum attacks are frightening, they are relatively rare. What is much more common is museums shying away from controversy-yes for personal security, but also in order to placate their patrons, or attract more visitors. It is precisely at this time, when the threat to museums and their visitors is heart-breaking and terrifying that we in the museum sector need to re-affirm our commitment to showing, discussing, and facing conflict. Museums have a long tradition of preserving the untenable, presenting the unthinkable, and expressing the forbidden. We must continue to be a space in cities- particularly in cities where civil society has been weakened and tensions are high- where people can unpack their biggest fears, have their prejudices or values challenged, and physically stand side by side with people radically different from themselves. This MuseumWeek- let us do our utmost to stand in solidarity with the Bardo Museum by protecting and celebrating our own spaces for peaceful dissent. This is when we are at our most powerful.
For more on how museums are an important component of soft power in the city, order Cities, Museums and Soft Power by Ngaire Blankenberg and Gail Lord.
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