Can Museums Save European Democracy?

Illustration by  Rosa ter Kuile

Illustration by Rosa ter Kuile


ON A SUNNY SATURDAY MORNING a surprisingly diverse crowd gathered at the Imperial War Museum in London. They had come for a pop-up “Conflict Café”: an opportunity to share food with Syrian refugees and exchange questions and stories about experiences of displacement. For many, it was the first time they had ever been face-to-face with a refugee, or learned about the reality of the Syrian civil war from someone who was forced to live it.

Beforehand, staff at the museum were afraid that arguments or even protests might break out at the event between those with differing views on migration, but when the conversations between the Syrian speakers and museum visitors began, the atmosphere in the room turned out to be extremely supportive. The Conflict Café turned the museum into a safe space where difficult conversations could be had and all voices were equally valued, even if they disagreed.

The buzzing conversations at the museum were in stark contrast to what predominates online, where fake news, social media echo chambers, and misleading clickbait not only create misunderstanding, but lead to political attitudes that feed chaos, fear and antagonism. Having a space in which everybody is allowed to have a voice and to be heard forms the basis of a successful democracy, and it is exactly that space that seems to be crumbling in our societies.

Europe’s museums are hoping that by embedding their work deeper in society and letting other voices speak, they can empower people to understand perspectives that might be different from their own.


Museums might seem like an unlikely contender to “save democracy,” having long been concentrations of affluent, white, elite culture. But over the last few years, European museums have set in motion a major change. They are quite bravely putting themselves forward as candidates for providing that “space” that democracy needs to function. Europe’s museums are hoping that by embedding their work deeper in society and letting other voices speak, they can empower people to understand perspectives that might be different from their own, to challenge established norms and to propose new values instead.

For a long time museums have proclaimed to be neutral, objective holders of information about the past, but as George Orwell wrote in 1984, “He who controls the past, controls the future.”

Museums hold our history, and are therefore in a powerful position. They are the narrators of the stories our civilization is built on and still builds on. They reflect the values we hold. They are repositories of our collective memory. As such, they ultimately decide whose history gets told. Which bits are included, which bits are left out, and whose voices will speak.

Many who visit the Louvre or the British Museum forget that they are presented not just with work of art, but also with a whole range of values and assumptions made by the people who selected those objects. Beyond the immensely problematic history of colonialism that is generally left out on the little captions next to the objects, museum displays also demonstrate implicit choices about what we think is “normal” and what we decided was worth keeping. One might wonder, for example, why we have such little artwork by women in museums. Or artwork that depicts LGBTQ+ experiences. Or even artwork by people who did not go to art school. If the stories that are told in most museums seem incomplete and elitist, that is no surprise: the voices that have recorded European history have been largely white, male and bourgeois.

Over the last fifty years, artists and academics have made attempts at breaking down the image of the museum as the elitist temple of intellectual life by challenging the boundaries of art institutions. But it is only recently that museums have started to push a new wave of change from within.

Calls for museums to acknowledge and rectify their colonial histories and to fill the gaping holes in their collections by including stories from underrepresented communities have pushed them to recognize that it is impossible to be neutral. Increasingly, museums are becoming aware of the voices they represent and are inviting the presence of new voices. As a result, they are building a new, more democratic picture of the history that has shaped our continent.

A new context for problematic histories: Humboldt Forum, Berlin

It is not often that a new major museum is founded, and so there is much anticipation around the soon-to-be-opened Humboldt Forum in Berlin. In a currently austere funding environment its scale is impressive, but the museum has broader theoretical designs as well when it comes to telling the stories of its exclusively non-European ethnographic collections, and interrogating its own role in the history of their acquisition.

As a consequence, the Humboldt Forum is working with the National Museum in Tanzania and artists from Dar es Salaam to tell the story of the German ex-colony from multiple perspectives. Moreover, housed in the former Berlin Palace, the museum actually calls itself “a palace for all” making a great gesture of openness towards including all cultures. How much of this is marketing and how much it will actually live up to its ambitious motto remains to be seen of course, when it opens later this year.

Giving the floor to other people: Tate Modern, London

The Tate brand is known across the globe as a bulwark of institutional power, persistently making its way up the top five most visited museums in Europe. Its exhibitions and other programs are highly curated, but in 2016 it launched a new project to challenge its own power and let other people be in charge.

Tate Exchange is an entire floor in the Tate Modern building that is completely handed over to about sixty “associates” who create a show, event or art installation around a topic that they would like to explore or talk about with the museum and its visitors. These associates can be members of community groups, activists, or staff from festivals, universities, or hospitals (to name but a few), and they collaborate with the museum to make their individual projects happen.

The aim of Tate Exchange is to spark debate, propose new perspectives and reflect on the world through art, but what is really does is to show that a museum can be much more than just a gallery. It can serve as a center that brings together groups and individuals from all across society, working on very different things, to exchange their stories and learn from each other.

Tate’s commitment to letting people from beyond the museum contribute content is a real shift towards democratizing culture and has created a model for a new type of space in which public discussion can take place in a supportive setting.

Art as a tool for change: SALT, Istanbul / Van Abbemuseum, Eindhoven / mima Middlesbrough

Cuban artist Tania Bruguera once coined the term Arte Útil, or “useful art,” by which she meant a type of art project that responds to current social issues and that has practical, beneficial outcomes for the people involved in it. Her work illustrates this idea: she founded the Immigrant Movement International, a movement standing up for immigrant rights, which the Queens Museum in New York then hosted as an artwork by offering it a community space for its members.

The idea of useful art, and of art being able to create social change, inspired the Van Abbemuseum in the Netherlands and SALT in Istanbul, which decided to dedicate some of their gallery space to hosting exhibitions, archives and workshops around the concept of Arte Útil. The Middlesbrough Institute of Modern Art (mima) went even further and started describing their visitors as “users.” The goal of Arte Útil is that the museum becomes a useful space that serves the needs of the community, rather than deciding on its own, the terms of how audiences engage with it.

By promoting the idea of useful art, these museums hope to encourage people to use art as a tool for questioning society and shaping it for the better and to challenge the idea of what a museum should be. The open approach they take, shows the potential for museums to have a more civic role, as well as to play quite an important part in forming public opinion.

Museums as civic centers: Toplocentrala, Sofia / CulturePolis, Corfu / JADRO, Skopje

Alternative histories, diverse voices and social change often start as grassroot movements in small, independent forums—not big, national institutions. Toplocentrala in Bulgaria is a great example of a contemporary arts center that is being set up at the initiative of local artists and organizations. Scheduled to open later this year, even the center’s architectural design was approached democratically through an open competition. By involving the surrounding community from the beginning, Toplocentrala indicated its focus on maintaining a strong connection with its future users, and in its mission to stay relevant and democratically grounded.

Because many small art centers are independent of public funding, they have the freedom to be relatively radical in their approach. For instance, CulturePolis in Greece is a private organization that connects artists, arts organizations and civil society with the aim of setting up projects that use culture as a tool for improving the local area and strengthening ties between European citizens. Because of its independence, it can focus on the needs of those citizens and take a tailored approach.

Similarly, JADRO, in Skopje, is an association that brings together independent cultural organizations and civic groups across Macedonia to make the cultural offer across the nation more socially and politically relevant. It is working to set up the first hybrid socio-cultural institution, the Socio-Cultural Space Center, where arts and culture will support social change. It might turn out to be a useful blueprint for the socially engaged museum of the future.

The Museum as Parliament: the Van Abbemuseum in the Netherlands

So, it does seem that museums are changing. Where historically they were built on the idea that they should teach the people which stories about their countries and heritage are worth remembering and celebrating. Our current political climate demands that they play a very different role. In moving from a role as “educators” to one as “facilitators” or even “catalysts,” museums are offering people a platform for exchanging new perspectives and ideas and for forming their own opinions. Moreover, they are making space for different voices to be represented, and giving away some of their curatorial authority to let audiences decide what should be at the top of the cultural, social and political agenda.

The Van Abbemuseum in the Netherlands is taking its democratic role quite literally with their current exhibition, “Museum as Parliament.” The exhibit is inspired by the people’s parliament of Rojava—an autonomous Kurdish territory in northern Syria—and invites people to come together to imagine new models of democracy. While this is a temporary art project, it is a clear symbol of how museums and other cultural institutions have started to offer their spaces to those who want to move and shake our political systems and redefine our social structures.

While museums are moving towards a whole new realm of political engagement, asking critical questions to an extent that they have never done before, they are also still struggling with their historic image of elitism and static passivity. Many activists, however dissatisfied with the conversations in the media and on other public platforms, would not think to turn to museums for help. But with new, socially engaged museum projects popping up exponentially all over Europe, perhaps these “unlikely” places will show that they are waiting to be used by those who want to change Europe, or the world.


This article appears in Are We Europe #4: This Is Not An Elections Issue

This Is Not An Elections Issue
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