A tiger by the tail?: Museums as platforms for Freedom of Speech – by Alec Coles, CEO, Western Australian Museum

Alec Coles, CEO, Western Australian Museum
Alec Coles

It is not uncommon for Museums to be described as safe places for unsafe ideas. It is a phrase perhaps not coined, but certainly reinforced here in Sydney by Dr Fiona Cameron, a research fellow at the University of Western Sydney, in her paper: Safe Places for unsafe ideas? History and science museums, hot topics and moral predicaments1.

Whilst it may be a good line, what do we really mean by ‘safe places for unsafe ideas’?  Whose ideas? What ideas? How unsafe?

As it embarks upon one of the most significant museum redevelopments in the Southern Hemisphere, The Western Australian Museum’s avowed intent is to share the stories and experiences of all West Australians, and ensure that many different voices are heard and perspectives presented.  We believe that this is laudable, sensible and essential in a 21st century museum – but no one ever said it would be easy!

Along the same line as Cameron, Tony Bennett2 claims that museums have always acted as places of social transformation and social responsibility.  I am not sure that I would agree that this is the case, but even if it is, at times the role has been pretty subliminal.  This is borne out by a recent report on public attitudes to UK museums (Britain Thinks3) which revealed that whilst there was a high level of positivity and trust in museums, very few people identified activity such as fostering a sense of community, or protecting the natural environment, as priority areas for museums to address; furthermore, several respondents challenged the very ideas that Museums should provide a forum for debate, or promote social justice.

Clearly, if we wish to claim these roles for museums, and many of us do, we have a lot of convincing to do.  Even if we do claim this territory, can museums really claim this as a unique selling point?  Could not playwrights, filmmakers, authors and journalists all make similar claims for their respective works, media and the places they are presented?

If the Britain Thinks report is to be believed, possibly not. It seems that amongst cultural institutions, public Museums (and archives, of course!) enjoy an impressive reputation for trust and integrity built upon their status as collecting institutions, as (often) publicly accountable bodies, and as (supposedly) objective commentators. They are also much more than cultural institutions – covering, as they do, sciences, art, history, culture and creativity and many other aspects of our lives and our planet: I call them whole of life institutions.

It is this claim to objectivity that confers upon museums their apparent authority.  One of our industry partners often says to me that he prefers to work with the Museum above all other organisations because it has no axe to grind, no hidden agenda and he can rely absolutely on its integrity.  This is something borne out by Cameron’s paper – those that she surveyed largely felt that museums should be apolitical and should not take a stance – in effect they should just present information and let people make their minds up.  In the same vein, some commentators have suggested that museums should be neutral spaces – I certainly hope not.  ‘Neutral’ conjures up images of banality, safety and lack of ambition – please don’t let our public museums aspire to that!

Many museums, of course, take a very strong position, in some cases it’s their raison d’être: few of us, I suspect,  would deny the right of the Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg to tell the story of an oppressive regime, and a country’s emergence from it, through the testimony of those affected. If you visit a Holocaust museum or exhibition you are unlikely to expect or desire a ‘neutral space’.

It is always easy to accommodate multiple voices when dealing with issues that appear incontrovertible (at least in the eyes of the vast majority). It becomes a much more complex task where histories or events are truly contested; where perspective is everything; and where disparate voices may express views that are distasteful, extreme, offensive, or a combination of all three.

We should also not forget the controversy over the interpretive policy of our own Australian National Museum, in Canberra, when it was built.  Some would say that this particular battle in the ‘History Wars’ remains one of the most notorious examples of political determinism defining a Museum’s policy.

We are committed, in Western Australia, to create a Museum that encourages debate that does not shy away from difficult issues and, above all, gives a voice to the people of Western Australia, allowing them to express their views: a Museum that aspires to be owned, valued and used by all Western Australians and admired by the world and in doing so, remains true to the Museum’s mission to inspire people to explore and share their identity, culture, environment and sense of place and contribute to the creativity and diversity of our world.

By encouraging the maximum contribution from the widest possible audience, we are recognising that there is far more knowledge existing outside the Museum than could ever exist inside it.  But, of course, just as there are practical, intellectual and libertarian justifications for taking such an approach, there are also pitfalls, notably relating to accountability, accuracy, artifice and being accused of having an agenda.

Already the Museum grapples with these issues, notably accountability and the use of diverse voices.  There is a video footage in the Western Australian Museum’s Maritime Museum in which a young Aboriginal man refers to the European invasion (of Australia).  The piece is scripted, but that is not the point.  One erstwhile visitor has taken issue with this to the extent that he has conducted a sustained campaign of letter-writing against the Museum, and me, suggesting we should both be closed down unless the ‘error’ is corrected because ‘there was no invasion’.  Attempts to explain that whether, or not, there was an invasion rather depends on your perspective, have been met with frosty derision.

By the same token, I have been told by one senior Aboriginal elder that ‘…there is only one truth’, and it is his.   It is apparent that the concept that there may be more than one, and often many, versions of history is as alien to someone who feels they have been terribly wronged, as it is to someone who believes that history is no more than a procession of established facts.

These are stark reminders to those of us who might have been deluded or seduced (don’t worry – we weren’t) by the idea that sharing stories was just a matter of opening up the web site and letting everyone have their say.

Graeme Davison4 described a further consideration when featuring many unmediated voices in his critique of an exhibit of contested history at the Australian National Museum:  “Is our student likely to be challenged, or just confused by these dissonant voices? Is it enough for the Museum to say ‘we just allow the voices to be heard’? …Should the Museum have taken a firmer editorial position of its own…?”

Accuracy is another constant challenge when soliciting contributions. Outside the WA Maritime Museum are located the Fremantle Welcome Walls.  The WA Museum was not the first and will not be the last museum in Australia to create a commemorative opportunity for 19th and 20th century immigrants arriving by boat.  In Fremantle, the 20,000 or so names on the walls were submitted by relatives and friends – sometimes distant in time, or geography, or both.  In some cases their sources of information might have been irrefutable and their attention to detail meticulous, but in others, the information might have been based on the rumour and sigh that transcends family generations.  Needless to say, people sometimes forget – and even when they remember, sometimes accounts are nuanced, varied, exaggerated, or completely changed as they are passed from one person to another.  So it was that this early attempt at crowd-sourcing information – a laudable democratisation of the migration story – has created an enormous research backlog validating the veracity of the many accounts which are riddled with errors concerning dates, ships and even the spelling of family names.

As we enter Australia’s Centenary of Service commemorative period expect much more of this.  Confused stories, handed down the generations of diggers who might, or might not have served; or who might, or might not have been in this battle, or that one; or who won this medal, or that one, will be rife.  These are things of which family legends are made, but with which the historic record has to grapple.

Finally, there is the danger of being accused of having an agenda.  To illustrate this, I draw on another story of arrival by boat. In April 2013, a boat arrived off the west coast of Western Australia, eventually tying up in the port city of Geraldton. The boat was carrying refugees and asylum seekers from Sri Lanka.  To the Western Australian Museum this was an important moment.

Of the criteria that define what contemporary material a museum should collect, one tries to imagine how significant that material might be viewed in 100 years’ time. One way to second guess this is by monitoring what is dominating the news at the present time.

There can be few subjects that generated more column centimetres, or air time, prior to the last Federal election than the question of refugees and asylum seekers attempting to get to Australia by boat. It dominated political debate and many would claim that it determined the scale of the incoming Government’s victory.  Add to this the rarity value of this vessel – most boats are intercepted by the Royal Australian Navy and, either by accident or design, reach landfall at Christmas Island where they are destroyed.  Then there is the fact that this is a uniquely Western Australian story: it happened off our coast – the people of Geraldton unsuspectingly drinking their cappuccinos on the Geraldton waterfront witnessed the whole thing.

The WA Museum enquired as to the future of the vessel; whether it would be destroyed, and if not what the chances of documenting and acquiring it would be.  It was a confidential enquiry but word got out and within 24 hours there was a debate raging on–line and in the press as to whether, or not, the Museum should acquire the boat; as you can imagine, feelings ran high!  Almost unwittingly the Museum had become a platform for a vigorous and sometimes visceral debate about the major news story in Australia.

So was this an ‘unsafe’ subject for debate and treatment in the Museum?  Whether, or not, considered unsafe it has a major part to play in telling the story of our state and our nation.

There is still the issue of which, and whose, ‘unsafe ideas’ should be explored or presented? Freedom of speech is, of course, a great ideal when the speaker agrees with you and your sensibilities! But, whilst we might be comfortable giving voice to the refugees who have risked everything in search of safety, respect and employment, will we be as comfortable expressing the reactionary views of someone who would ‘send them back’?  And where do we draw the line – and who decides?  Will we give voice to right wing and left wing reactionaries?   To racists?  To Holocaust deniers? To creationists?

Will we risk eroding the trust that we appear to enjoy on the back of a perception of museums as apolitical pillars of ‘truth’?  Or, will we seize the opportunity to build new trust amongst those communities that previously saw us as organs of the establishment?

I staunchly defend the Western Australian Museum’s principle of many voices; of freedom of speech; of being that safe place for unsafe ideas.  But I do so in the full knowledge that we have a tiger by the tail, that we have to hang on tight, and that it may drag us into some dangerous and uncomfortable places that we might, sometimes, rather not have gone.

1. Fiona Cameron Safe places for unsafe ideas? History and science museums, hot topics and moral predicaments, in Michael Terwey (ed.), Social history in museums Opens in a new window, London, Social History Curators Group, 2008, pp. 5-16.

2. Tony Bennett, The Birth of the Museum: History, Theory, Politics, New York and London, Routledge, 1995.

3. Britain Thinks, Public perceptions of – and attitudes to – the purpose of museums in society, London, Museums Association, 2013

4. Graeme Davison, Conflict in the museum, in Bain Attwood & SG Foster (eds), Frontier Conflict: The Australian Experience, Canberra, National Museum of Australia, 2003, page 211)

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