Geraldine Kendall Adams,
Institutions find overt and subtle ways to make their views known A number of American museums have added their voices to ongoing protests against the policies of the Trump administration, particularly its travel ban on refugees and immigrants from seven predominantly Muslim countries.
Following the president’s executive order introducing the ban last month, which has since been ruled unconstitutional by a federal judge, a number of high profile US institutions issued statements condemning the measure.
In a strongly worded response, the executive director of New York’s Anne Frank Center for Mutual Respect, Steven Goldstein, said president Trump was “beyond the wrong side of history”.
“He is driving our nation off a moral cliff,” said Goldstein. “When president Trump uses national security as a guise for racism, he doesn’t strengthen our national security. He compromises our national security by engendering disrespect for America by people around the world.”
The American Alliance of Museums issued a statement reiterating its core value to “seek out and embrace a diversity of people and cultures to enhance our understanding of the world”.
“History, art, science, and culture don’t stop at our borders, nor should the people who dedicate their lives to sharing and explaining these foundational elements of our society,” said Laura Lott, the alliance’s president and CEO.
“By helping us to understand this broader world, they help us to understand each other. We are gravely concerned that this executive order runs counter to these objectives.”
A statement released by the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington read: “During the 1930s and 1940s, the United States, along with the rest of the world, generally refused to admit Jewish refugees from Nazism due to antisemitic and xenophobic attitudes, harsh economic conditions, and national security fears.
“In our view, there are many legitimate refugees fleeing the Assad regime’s sustained campaign of crimes against humanity and the genocidal acts perpetrated by Isis against the Yazidis, Christians, and other religious minorities. American policy should fully address national security concerns while protecting legitimate refugees whatever their national or religious identity.”
US museums have also used their practice and social media to respond to the administration’s policies in less overt ways.
As part of its ongoing work in support of refugees, the Holocaust Memorial Museum launched an installation last week called the Portal, which enables visitors to hold real-time video conversations with refugees from Iraq and Syria.
The museum has also used its Twitter account to highlight “how US policy affected Jewish refugees from Europe”, and to trace the voyage of the St Louis, a ship holding 937 Jewish refugees that was denied entry to the US in 1939 and forced to return to Europe, where most of its passengers were murdered in the Holocaust.
Meanwhile the Museum of Modern Art in New York has replaced some of its existing paintings with work by Muslim artists from the seven countries on the banned list.
A note next to each artwork reads: “This work is by an artist from a nation whose citizens are being denied entry to the United States, according to a presidential executive order issued on Jan 27, 2017. This is one of several such artworks from the museum’s collection installed throughout the fifth floor galleries to affirm the ideals of welcome and freedom as vital to this museum as they are to the United States.”
Cultural, scientific and arts institutions have also signed up to participate in an international social media campaign, #DayofFacts, on 17 February, where they will share factual content in order to “remind the public that facts matter”.
“By not taking an overt political stand but simply sharing mission-related, objective, and relevant facts, we will show the world that our institutions are still trusted sources for truth and knowledge,” reads the campaign’s mission statement.
“This campaign is also an opportunity to reaffirm our institutions as welcoming places for everyone. Many of our constituents and visitors are part of groups that are feeling more marginalised than ever. Museums and cultural organisations are uniquely situated to serve as safe and welcoming places (physical or virtual) committed to their communities without exception.”
The international museum community has also expressed dismay about the travel ban. A statement from the International Council of Museums’ (Icom) US branch said: “It is the mission of Icom-US to facilitate and to increase US museum professionals’ participation in the worldwide cultural community as well as to represent and to advocate for US museums’ international interests and perspectives within Icom.
“Therefore, Icom-US will continue to collaborate with our international colleagues as an advocate for cultural exchange and welcome all in our community. We believe president Trump’s executive order of 27 January runs counter to our goals.”
The UK Museums Association (MA) also expressed concern. “Recent developments in the US are worrying and we need to think about the implications not only for colleagues who work there, but most importantly, for communities and for what it means for human rights internationally,” said Sharon Heal, the director of the MA, which this week published a Manifesto for Tolerance and Inclusion in response to the changing political landscape.
“Museums should be open and inclusive spaces that tell everyone’s stories. They should represent and celebrate the diversity of humanity as well as collecting and telling stories from our diverse communities.
Heal urged museums not to be silent about intolerance. “Museums are not neutral spaces – every time we make a decision about collections, audiences, or programming we bring our own values, experience, opinions, and bias to the table – whether we realise it or not,” she said.
“When it comes to discrimination and prejudice we don’t have to aim for balance – in fact we should be calling it out.”