Demonstrating the Social Value of Museums: Human Rights, Ai Weiwei and the Public Funding Debate

Ai Weiwei: 'Remembering', 2009

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.

Ai Weiwei: 'Remembering' partial view of installation at the Haus der Kunst museum, 2009

Ai Weiwei: 'Remembering' partial view of installation at the Haus der Kunst museum, 2009 © photo by Premier Art Scene

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.

Janet Marstine, University of Leicester, blog debate for Leicester ExchangesEvaluation 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).

If you enjoyed this post, you may also be interested in other posts within this debate stream.


  1. Posted 24/06/2011 at 14:10 | Permalink

    Yes, it will be interesting to see if and how this series of events creates momentum for embedding social responsibility in the art museum.


    Majime Sugiru Reply:

    Although authorities released Ai on June 22, the Walker Art Center is moving forward with a planned 1,001 Chairs event on July 12, which would have marked his 100th day of detention.

    “He may be out of prison, but he is not free. We must remember those who lack the most basic human rights and raise our voices in support of freedom.”


  2. Frank Dawson
    Posted 23/06/2011 at 18:09 | Permalink

    Great post and good to see Ai Weiwei’s release this week.


  3. Posted 22/06/2011 at 08:43 | Permalink

    For another perspective on the debate, see Tristram Besterman’s insightful essay on the Museums Journal website


  4. Janet Marstine
    Posted 21/06/2011 at 05:20 | Permalink

    I very much admire the institutional critique of Majime Sugiru, a member of the Asians Art Museum; this is not the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco but instead a guerrilla collective that critiques the politics of representing Asians and Asian-Americans in museums. As detailed in Christopher Steiner’s essay, ‘Museum Censorship’, from my edited volume, Routledge Companion to Museum Ethics: Redefining Ethics for the Twenty-First Century Museum (2011), the collective’s critique of the Asian Art Museum’s 2009 exhibition, ‘Lords of the Samurai’, produced substantive and impactful dialogue on western stereotypes of Japanese culture which, in turn, prompted the Asian Art Museum to create a self-reflective blog on the topic. Steiner asserts, ‘ . . .the intervention was a productive contribution that enhanced the exhibition narrative’.

    I also understand Sugiru’s position that art museums should play a more active role in protesting the detention of Ai Weiwei, as posted in Sugiru’s response below. In fact, artists from Anish Kapoor to Daniel Buren have driven much of the human rights campaign against Ai’s treatment by the Chinese authorities. Artists often function as the conscience of the museum sector and too often go unrecognized as champions of museum ethics. Institutional critique has made a unique contribution to these efforts. Ai, like Sugiru, engages in institutional critique. Ai’s performances breaking valuable Chinese antique vases, for example, challenge the fetishising of these objects by museums and collectors. In advocating for Ai’s cause, Sugiru is voicing his belief in the liberatory power of such actions.

    While Sugiru is correct in suggesting that only a handful of art museums and galleries have protested Ai’s detention in the highly visible way of Tate Modern and the De Cordova—hanging banners and signs, I would argue that museums’ activism in signing petitions and organizing relevant exhibitions, programming and performances on Ai’s behalf is also robust and meaningful, rather than ‘passive’, as Sugiru charges. Together these actions create a powerful debate, like Sugiru’s Asian Art Museum intervention did, on the freedom of artistic expression.


  5. Posted 21/06/2011 at 01:46 | Permalink

    Chris Williams makes an important point about the role of US debt and the impact that has on a policy of accommodation towards China and its human rights record. It’s also worth noting that the Tate Modern has followed through with an exhibition of ten tonnes of Ai’s “Sunflower Seeds” in addition to the “Release Ai Weiwei” banner hanging outside the museum.

    As an update to my previous comment, the Wall Street Journal has published another article, no less pointed in its critique of American museums: “U.S. Museum Directors to Ai Weiwei: Drop Dead,” Eric Gibson, June 21, 2011.

    The Art Newspaper continues the international dialogue in their June issue: “Are strong words enough to support dissidents?”


    LXmoderator Reply:

    It’s good to have you involved in this debate, Majime.

    Leicester Exchanges readers seeking more context may find the blog by the Asians Art Museum on this subject interesting…


    Majime Sugiru Reply:

    It’s been a privilege to be able to join in. This forum offers a rare and valuable opportunity to engage in dialogue so openly and directly with leading scholars on topical issues. Kudos!


  6. Chris Williams
    Posted 20/06/2011 at 19:27 | Permalink

    I am not sure there has been sufficient transparency yet for most visitors to unpack museum agendas or gain museum literacy skills. Clearly mine are sadly lacking but then, like the vast majority of people, I learnt about Ai Weiwei from television. As we learnt from Majime Sugiru, the response from museums in the USA has not been overwhelming but then the USA is most indebted to China. Transparencty has some way to go it seams. Perhaps like Rural Retreat, directors are considering their employment contracts first and freedom of expression a poor second.


  7. Posted 18/06/2011 at 07:04 | Permalink

    In the opening paragraph, Dr. Marstine refers hundreds of actions taking place at museums and galleries around the world in response to the detention of Ai. However, it was noted in the Wall Street Journal (Terry Teachout, “Have Our Cultural Stewards Abandoned One of Their Own?”, 5/27/11) that only one major museum in the entire United States has held a public protest (as of May 27), while the rest remain passive.
    (And subsequently, China has demanded from that museum the return of Ai’s newly acquired art, cf “MCASD: Chinese demanding return of Ai’s art,” Modern Art Notes, 5/24/11)

    I’ve only read of one other museum in the United States, the deCordova, responding in a visible way at the museum itself (apologies for my US-centrism, but that’s where I’m writing from)

    There are a couple US museums that support Ai on their websites, but as Philip Bishop noted in the Guardian on June 7 (“The art establishment needs to make its support for Ai Weiwei visible”), overall there’s not very much in the way of visible online support for Ai Weiwei from many major museums in general.

    Unless I’m missing something, it seems odd that when so many museum directors have signed on to the petition, that the institutions they work for have not responded similarly with much acknowledgment of what’s at stake, either on their websites or in the museums themselves.

    Milwaukee will be hosting a panel about Ai and artistic freedom, “Ai Weiwei: The Collision of Art and Politics” July 7, but that’s largely in response to all the controversy over the big exhibit they are hosting in cooperation with the Chinese government that opened last week. One panel discussion seems like but a small footnote to their “Summer of China” program that should be much larger, if the true intention is to provide visitors throughout the summer with a meaningful understanding of Chinese culture and history that does not omit the important reality that today’s China continues a history of criminalizing artists and intellectuals for some of the greatest cultural accomplishments in the present the world over (speaking here of both Ai and 2010 Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo). To omit that would seem to allow the exhibition to serve the Soft Power ends of the Chinese government, in a way that raises troubling issues of civic responsibility.

    Are there other major museums besides that Tate Modern and the ones I just mentioned that are engaged in meaningful actions to inform and educate the public about Ai’s detention and the issues involved? It would bring me comfort to know that there are more museums taking action to responding in meaningful ways.

    Thank you.


  8. Posted 16/06/2011 at 17:02 | Permalink

    Museum studies scholarship and a growing body of empirical evidence have shown that museums are not neutral spaces that document history, as Chris Williams alleges, but rather socially constructed institutions that express political and cultural values and have a highly significant impact on the way people think and talk about issues. Museums today are developing greater transparency, for example, by posting mission statements, ethics codes and financial information and by developing interpretive strategies that disclose museological processes. Transparency enables stakeholders to gain the critical museum literacy skills necessary to unpack institutional agendas and participate in decision-making concerning representation. Transparency is knowledge and power-sharing. Through its sign, ‘Release Ai Weiwei’, Tate is making transparent its human rights agenda for all to see and calling for public dialogue on the issue. Hopefully, this profound symbolic gesture will help us all to see the potential of museums to spark social change and the power of diverse stakeholder voices in setting museums’ priorities.


  9. Chris Williams
    Posted 13/06/2011 at 22:11 | Permalink

    Rural Retreat makes a good point. China knows the west will not stop buying it’s goods. It has lent the US trillions to ensure that won’t happen. It does not care what we say, only what we do. We will do nothing. Are museums valuable as instruments of social change? It isn’t through the Holocaust Museum that people know about the Holocaust. It is television and, in particular, the Time Life series “The World at War”. The same can be said for the Imperial War Museum. As for Tate Modern, it draws crowds because it is perceived to have little of value. It’s a 21st Century freak show.

    Museums document everything that has happened since the world began and almost all of human history. That is a significant contribution to human culture. Worth our investment for that alone. Let’s not pretend they have a significance beyond that.


  10. Rural Retreat
    Posted 10/06/2011 at 20:37 | Permalink

    Ai Weiwei’s treatment by the Chinese authorities is a major challenge to us all. Instinctively his imprisonment and treatment by the authorities is reprehensible and deserves condemnation. But as a sector (and increasingly as a country) we are reliant on China, Chinese students and trade with the world’s most populous country.

    Without China many British universities would have gone bust years ago.

    Do I like what happens in China? No. Should we speak out as a sector, condemn the Chinese regime and do all we can to fight for freedom in that country? Not sure I want my P45 just yet.


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