Museum Activism  book cover
1st Edition

Museum Activism

ISBN 9780815369974
Published January 23, 2019 by Routledge
436 Pages

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Book Description

Only a decade ago, the notion that museums, galleries and heritage organisations might engage in activist practice, with explicit intent to act upon inequalities, injustices and environmental crises, was met with scepticism and often derision. Seeking to purposefully bring about social change was viewed by many within and beyond the museum community as inappropriately political and antithetical to fundamental professional values. Today, although the idea remains controversial, the way we think about the roles and responsibilities of museums as knowledge based, social institutions is changing. Museum Activism examines the increasing significance of this activist trend in thinking and practice.

At this crucial time in the evolution of museum thinking and practice, this ground-breaking volume brings together more than fifty contributors working across six continents to explore, analyse and critically reflect upon the museum’s relationship to activism. Including contributions from practitioners, artists, activists and researchers, this wide-ranging examination of new and divergent expressions of the inherent power of museums as forces for good, and as activists in civil society, aims to encourage further experimentation and enrich the debate in this nascent and uncertain field of museum practice.

Museum Activism elucidates the largely untapped potential for museums as key intellectual and civic resources to address inequalities, injustice and environmental challenges. This makes the book essential reading for scholars and students of museum and heritage studies, gallery studies, arts and heritage management, and politics. It will be a source of inspiration to museum practitioners and museum leaders around the globe.

Table of Contents

List of Illustrations

Notes on Contributors



1 Posterity Has Arrived: The Necessary Emergence of Museum Activism

Robert R. Janes and Richard Sandell

Part 1 Nurturing Activism

2 Detoxing and Decolonising Museums

Sara Wajid and Rachael Minott

3 Growing an Activist Museum Professional

Elizabeth Wood and Sarah A. Cole

4 Dividing Issues and Mission-driven Activism: Museum Responses to Migration Policies and the Refugee Crisis

Maria Vlachou

5 Access as Activism: Bringing the Museum to the People

Catherine Kudlick and Edward M. Luby

6 Fossil Fuel Sponsorship and the Contested Museum: Agency, Accountability and Arts Activism

Paula Serafini and Chris Garrard

7 The Activist Role of Museum Staff

Victoria Hollows

8 From the Ground Up: Grassroots Social Justice Activism in American Museums

Laura-Edythe S. Coleman and Porchia Moore

9 Spectacular Defiance

Julie McNamara

10 ‘I’m Gonna Do Something’: Moving Beyond Talk in The Museum

Bernadette Lynch

11 Feminism and the Politics of Friendship in the Activist Museum

Viv Golding

Part 2 Activism in Practice

12 Memory Exercises: Activism, Symbolic Reparation, and Non-repetition in Colombia’s National Museum of Memory

Cristina Lleras, Michael Andrés Forero Parra, Lina María Díaz and Jennifer Carter

13 Auto Agents: Inclusive Curatorship and its Political Potential

Jade French

14 Museums as Public Forums for 21st Century Societies: a Perspective from the National Museums and Monuments of Zimbabwe

Njabulo Chipangura and Happinos Marufu

15 Museums in the Climate Emergency

Steve Lyons and Kai Bosworth

16 Activism, Objects and Dialogues: Re-engaging African Collections at the Royal Ontario Museum

Silvia Forni, Julie Crooks and Dominique Fontaine

17 Museological Activism and Cultural Citizenship: Collecting the Hong Kong Umbrella Movement

Selina Ho and Vivian Ting

18 Museums in the Age of Intolerance

Sharon Heal

19 Activist Practice Through Networks: A Case Study in Museum Connections

Mercy McCann

20 Whose Memories for Which Future? Favela Museums and the Struggle for Social Justice in Brazil

Marcelo Lages Murta

21 From Vision to Action: The Journey Towards Activism at St Fagans National Museum of History

Sioned Hughes and Elen Phillips

22 Inside out/outside in: Museums and communities activating change

Moya McFadzean, Liza Dale-Hallett, Tatiana Mauri and Kimberley Moulton

23 Quiet is the New Loud? : On Activism, Museums and Changing the World

Åshild Andrea Brekke

24 Heritage and Queer Activism

Sean Curran

Part 3 Assessing Activism

25 The Activist Spectrum in United States Museums

Dina A. Bailey

26 Up Against It: Contending with Power Asymmetries in Museum Work

Kevin Coffee

27 Taking a Position: Challenging the Anti-authorial Turn in Art Curating

Lynn Wray

28 Memory Activism and the Holocaust Memorial Institutions of the 21st century

Diana I. Popescu

29 Advocacy and Activism: A Framework for Sustainability Science in Museums

Sandra L. Rodegher and Stacey Vicario Freeman

30 Narratives of Transformation: Stories of Impact from Activist Museums

Jennifer Bergevin

31 Memorial Museums at the Intersection of Politics, Exhibition and Trauma: A study of the Red Terror Martyrs Memorial Museum

Bridget Conley

32 ‘I Attack this Work of Art Deliberately’: Suffragette Activism in the Museum

Nicola Gauld

33 Museums, Activism and Social Media (or, how Twitter challenges and changes museum practice)

Jennie Carvill Schellenbacher

34 Unprecedented Times? Shifting Press Perceptions on Museums and Activism

Jenny Kidd


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Robert R. Janes is a Visiting Fellow at the School of Museum Studies, University of Leicester, UK, Editor-in-Chief Emeritus of Museum Management and Curatorship, and the founder of the Coalition of Museums for Climate Justice. He has devoted his career to championing museums as important social institutions that can make a difference in the lives of individuals and their communities.

Richard Sandell is Professor of Museum Studies at the University of Leicester, UK. His research and practice is concerned with the social roles and responsibilities of museums, galleries and heritage sites and, in particular, their capacity to shape the moral and political climate within which human rights are experienced.


'Museums have woken from their slumber. Here is a clarion call to leave behind the "immorality of inaction" and confront a troubled world, a threatened planet, and threats to cultural diversity, equality and justice. This volume documents the extraordinary range of ways in which museum activism, as an integral and necessary part of contemporary museum practice, is at work in the 21st century. Janes and Sandell marshal an impressive line-up of authors across the globe who are using the "civic resource" of the museum to bring about environmental, social and political change. The book is a handbook for this urgent task. Read it and join the struggle!'

- Conal McCarthy, Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand

'Are museums shrines to the past, hubs of engagement for the present, or shapers of the future? Assembling dozens of contributions by leading and new voices in museum studies, Museum Activism targets the core values and principles guiding museum practice today with the aim of transforming the way we think about the social role of museums. This book offers a deep reflection on the limits and potential for museum activism at a time of deepening economic inequality and environmental collapse, a bold call for action for the international museum community, and a field guide to museum activism in practice. Slaying the zombie myth of institutional neutrality that excuses institutional complacency and inaction, it argues for a vision of the museum as an ally and agent of change. Activists around the world are calling on museums to leverage their cultural power to help shape the future for the common good. This book is an insider’s guide to making it happen.'

- Beka Economopoulos, Founding Director of The Natural History Museum, USA, a traveling museum and museum transformation project

'Janes and Sandell have assembled a powerful volume of essays that encourages museums to transform themselves  from precious vaults into active agents of social justice. Museum Activism is a collective call for museums to become more mindful, moral, and courageous places of conscience. These timely essays challenge museums to become more aware of the toxic legacies and current devastation of colonialism, imperialism, xenophobia, homophobia, racism and sexism and to become unafraid in "addressing the big problems and the big questions" that confront us globally. This publication provides a needed wake-up call, a radical re-imagining of museums and a range of practical strategies for action!'

- Jennifer Scott, Director & Chief Curator of Jane Addams Hull-House Museum, University of Illinois at Chicago, USA

Museum Activism features 34 essays by 50 authors from 14 countries on six continents that look at how museums are working as activists on issues, such as climate change, decolonization, sustainability, the Holocaust, the refugee crises, feminism, politics and queer activism, human rights and poverty.

-Rob Alexander, Rocky Mountain Outlook

The 53 authors involved in this book did a fabulous job in translating their engagement and research into language for an academic publication that is understandable and able to convey the reasons behind their personal engagement. As the editors stated in the introduction, a book with such a big topic can only be “partial and particular” but the book is an valuable orientation within the discourse and will provide many points of reference for future research. I found this book comforting as I resonated with many of the frustrations shared in the chapters and it did make me hopeful to be reminded that there is a whole community out there doing important work.

-Anabel Roque Rodríguez, Anabel Roque Rodríguez Blog

The book is a strong collection of essays on activist museum practices around the world and it deserves a wide readership, not just by museum workers, but also by people who are unconvinced by claims that museums are entitled to and worthy of support[...] The world is full of racists, homophobes, misogynists and climate breakdown deniers. They continue to resist the notion that museums can never be, and should stop pretending to be, neutral[...] But resistance is rendered far more difficult as a result of the existence of this book.

-David Fleming, Museums Journal

"This publication is vital reading for those arts managers who are interested in progressing their own activist ideas or activism within their organisations. It is primarily suitable those working in the museums and heritage sectors, but as many of the case studies touch on wider fields, it is also highly relevant for those working in arts, community learning and science engagement settings...Altogether, it is an excellent publication providing theoretical and practical examples of how museums can embrace activism and be harnessed as a force for good."

- Arts Management, 2019


"Bringing together a well-selected collection of current and best practice activism by and at museums across a global community spanning six continents, Museum Activism builds upon existing linkages between social protest and reform movements and transformations within museum scholarship and practice"

- Kylie Message & Eleanor Foster, Museum Management and Curatorship


"Museum Activism is undoubtedly the most influential scholarly book I’ve read in recent times. It is a book that demands multiple readings, a resource that discloses new meanings every time it is consulted, a body of reference that untangles the complex interpretations of a concept which is still uncomfortable for many of us working in the museum field." - Andrea Bandelli, Executive Director, Science Gallery International