Museums and tragedy
Sharon Heal, currently director of the Museums Association (MA), with a background in journalism and policy development, comments on how museums can act in times of tragedy and disaster.
We are barely half way through the year and already so much has changed. The snap general election brought results that few expected and more uncertainty than any could have predicted.
Terror attacks in London and Manchester and the horrific fire at Grenfell Tower have left their mark on those cities.
Khadija Saye was one of the victims of Grenfell Tower. She worked in the learning team at London Transport Museum, was an active member of Museum Detox (a group set up to provide networking opportunities and support for BAME museum professionals) and an artist.
Earlier this year she exhibited at the Diaspora Pavilion at the Venice Biennale. The pinned tweet on her Twitter account reads: “It’s been a real journey, but mama, I’m an artist exhibiting in Venice and the blessings are abundant!”
Her tragic and untimely death made me wonder what, if anything, museums can do to respond to contemporary events or when tragedy strikes.
Two museums did respond to the Grenfell Tower fire, albeit in different ways.
While Tate Modern put one of Khadije’s works of art on display, the Museum of Homelessness blogged about the disaster.
Under the heading Enough is Enough the co-founders of the museum wrote that the tragedy could have been avoided: “Our thoughts are with all those affected and we will do what we can to help in the aftermath.
“We are aware, through our research and that of our partners that ordinary people have been being cleansed out of social housing in London for a significant number of years, often being moved to appalling accommodation.
“Now, in Kensington and Chelsea, through negligence people have lost their lives in housing that was originally meant to transform them.”
Volunteers from the museum attended the Justice for Grenfell demonstrations and collected leaflets and placards from the protest.
Museums in Manchester have also responded to the recent terrorist attack in the city by retrieving flowers and tributes laid by the public in St Ann’s Square and preserving them in the conservation studio of the Manchester Art Gallery.
A recent debate on Twitter run by #museumhour asked if museums could help people in times of grief. Many of the respondents backed the idea that museums can work effectively with community partners in the wake of trauma and provide a safe place for people to reflect, share and support each other.
The world is changing rapidly around us and museums, staff and communities are not immune to that change. Museums and our collections can provide the insight, safe spaces and understanding that people need to cope with difficult and divisive issues.
The Museums Association recently launched phase two of Museums Change Lives, our campaign to support the positive difference that museums can make in society.
It says that museums can inspire engagement debate and reflection:
“Museums help us to understand and negotiate the complex world around us, encouraging us to reflect on contemporary challenges such as discrimination, poverty and climate change.”
And if we are to avoid getting stuck in the past, that’s exactly what we need to do.