Dr Janet Marstine, University of Leicester
On the front of Tate Modern a prominent sign reads ‘Release Ai Weiwei’. This is but one of hundreds of actions, including protests, petitions, exhibitions, learning programmes, performances, speeches, publications and sit-ins, that museums and galleries around the world have staged since the renowned contemporary artist was detained by Chinese authorities on April 3, 2011. Ai is being held in an undisclosed location and investigated for suspected economic crimes; formal charges have not been brought. Ai’s studio assistants, driver and even his cleaning staff have undergone police interrogation. Four of his associates have gone missing. Ai’s imprisonment is part of a wave of the worst repression in China in this century. Many artists, human rights activists and lawyers have disappeared.
Ai Weiwei is well known for his participatory projects involving digital activism that boldly challenge Chinese government policy and voice his commitment to freedom of expression. For instance, his 2009 installation Remembering criticizes the Sichuan government’s negligence and lack of accountability in constructing school buildings with inadequate safety standards in an earthquake zone. Composed across the façade of Munich’s Haus der Kunst with 9000 children’s backpacks, Remembering spells out, like giant pixels, in Chinese characters the words of a mother whose child perished in the 2008 Sichuan earthquake, ‘She lived happily for seven years in this world’. Simultaneously, Ai published on his blog the names of thousands of schoolchildren who died in the tragedy, despite the Sichuan government’s efforts to withhold this information.
Ai Weiwei suffered brain injuries when he was briefly arrested and beaten as he attempted to testify in court on behalf of an activist who had called for an investigation of the shoddily constructed school buildings. The artist saw the site of the Haus der Kunst, which was built by Hitler for nationalist exhibitions of German art, as a fitting context for Remembering.
The response of museums and galleries to Ai Weiwei’s plight demonstrates the inaccuracy of claims that museums are irrelevant, out of touch, elitist and dispensable, claims too often used to justify budget cuts to the arts. In fact, the emerging dialogue on Ai Weiwei and human rights shows that art museums and galleries are at the very centre of civil society. Museums have a unique ethical role to play in promoting social justice and are taking up this responsibility in the twenty-first century with strength and vision. A petition launched in April by the Guggenheim Foundation calling for Ai’s release with over 130,000 signatories including museum directors from Los Angeles to Bangkok makes this stance clear. Addressed to the Chinese Ministry of Culture, it states of Ai’s detention, ‘such actions and the obscurity surrounding them are diametrically opposed to our values’.
Museums’ championing of social justice is not a singular event spawned by the situation of Ai Weiwei though the social media-inspired revolutionary political climate of the spring of 2011 has undoubtedly inspired its growth. Similarly, the phenomenon of a socially engaged museum ethics does not function only on the international stage but is transpiring locally and nationally as well. For instance, over the last decade, the Gallery of Modern Art in Glasgow (GoMA) has developed a social justice programme to engage difficult issues and spark community dialogue on topics including violence against women, experiences of refugees, and lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex identities.
Evaluation undertaken by the Research Centre for Museums and Galleries at the University of Leicester indicates that visitors to sh[OUT], its 2009 project on GLBTI expression, found that the exhibition ‘attracted a diverse audience who found relevance in its presentation of LGBTI human rights’. The report cites evidence that audiences ‘attribute the museum/gallery with the ability to change minds, transform attitudes and increase awareness and tolerance towards the LGBTI community.’
Museums contribute new and significant insights to human rights struggles. As a centrepiece of civil society, museums must receive public support. Public funding is particularly crucial in these challenging economic times when museums’ strategies of social engagement can counter the polarizing impact of financial strains on society. Museums’ response to Ai Weiwei’s detention is a telling reminder of their potential to do good.
Dr Janet Marstine is Lecturer and Programme Director, Art Museum and Gallery Studies, School of Museum Studies at the University of Leicester. Her research focuses on the convergence of museum theory, museum ethics and art museum theory and practice to meet the changing needs of museums and society. Her 2005 edited volume New Museum Theory and Practice: An Introduction addresses critical questions about the construction of truth, knowledge and identity in museums. More recently, she has been engaged in articulating a new museum ethics, characterized by democratic pluralism, radical transparency and an ongoing negotiation towards social understanding.
Marstine, Janet. (ed.) (2011) Routledge Companion to Museum Ethics: Redefining Ethics for the Twenty-First Century Museum. London and New York: Routledge.
Marstine, Janet. (ed.) (2005). New Museum Theory and Practice: An Introduction. Malden and Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell. (Chinese trans. 2009; now being transl. into Macedonian).
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