The Protest Memory Network’s third workshop, on ‘Curating Protest Memory’, took place on the 28th March 2019. It was organised by Dr Red Chidgey at King’s College London and featured presentations by researchers, performers, curators and activist-archivists. The day had a specially curated ‘Protest Playlist‘, crowd-sourced over Twitter and compiled by Dr Dion Georgiou.
The first panel, on Protest Objects and Rapid Response Collecting, was chaired by Dr Nuria Querol. In this panel Dr Sian Rees argued for the need to see protest objects as performative: they are not just props to activism but actively constitute the shape of political protest itself. Seeing protest objects as performative leads to important questions of how these objects should then be collected, stored and displayed by heritage practitioners. How to keep these objects ‘alive’ in museum or gallery settings?
Dr Kate Antosik-Parsons introduced the Archiving the 8th project, which collects protest ephemeral and artefacts from the campaign to repeal the 8th amendment banning abortion in Ireland. Challenges here included capturing the personal, often traumatic stories that circulated in online media during during the referendum, as well as underrepresented voices on both sides of the debate.
Stella Toonen led a session on Remembering Activism through Co-Creation. Often used interchangeably with co-production, community collaboration and socially engaged practice, Stella outlined how co-creation involves two or more groups working together (such as museums and community groups), with each contributing something to the process and output, and each gaining something in return. Stella discussed how such work exists on a ‘public participation spectrum’, which can range from seeking advice from stakeholders to handing over decision-making powers and sharing resources.
Stella set out a framework for undertaking co-creation projects, challenging institutions to think about (i) why they want to use co-creation, (ii) where the project sits with the aims of the organisation, (iii) how the community partners are being selected, (iv) what is being created, and (v) to understand who holds power, and how.
Workshop attendees were then divided into groups and Red Chidgey presented a co-creation challenge: to design ‘small-world’ museums and exhibition spaces curating protest memory using toy figures and a toy museum. Group one created a dialogic space in Leave communities to help achieve reconcillation over Brexit – although questions about safety came up. Group two created an exhibition where whistle-blowing ex-police people would share their testimonies of being on the wrong side of protest histories – here questions of police violence emerged and the need to be clear on the objective of such an exhibition. And group three responded to a recent event at King’s College London. They proposed a teach-out remembering the targeting of student activists of colour by King’s College London during the Queen’s recent visit.
To bring the day to a close, the final workshop panel was chaired by Dr Richard Martin, and debated Future Directions of the Activist Museum.
Stefan Dickers from the Bishopsgate Institute discussed letting depositors reuse their materials, and the intrinsically political nature of archival work. Damien Arness spoke about his work with Queerseum, and the challenges of queering museum spaces, and creating opportunities for queer people to tell their histories.
Jane Trowell and Shezara Francis from Platform London spoke about the possibilities for ‘activating the archive’, with particular emphasis on issues of race and intergenerationality.
Dr Paula Serafini discussed environmental activism, introducing the audience to the work of ‘BP or Not BP’, which protests against the oil industry’s sponsorship of the arts, and Etcétera – Museo de Neoextractavismo, which memorialisies struggles in Argentina against neo-extractive capitalism.
Finally, Dr Cara Courage spoke about Tate Exchange, and its effort to provide a space for hosting activists and art, as part of a wider shift in the Tate’s pedagogical approach towards co-creation, pluralism and public access.
Key Take-Away Points
- Protest is often a temporary project or focus in museums. How to build a holistic approach to social justice? From exhibition content to contracts, including all staff who work at museums (fair pair and working conditions) to sponsorship. Institutions need to demonstrate accountability throughout their structures.
- New innvoations are needed to bring protest objects and stories ‘to life’ in gallery and museum settings.
- Rapid Response Collecting is a growing area of acquisitions and guidelines are needed to help steer practitioners and activists.
- Museums and galleries (and universities) are increasingly sites of protest themselves: activists are staging their protests within institutional spaces – often without permission. The sites and strategies of protest are changing and forms of institutional critique are on the rise. How can the arts and cultural sector respond to in-house protest – and how should museum and heritage organisations thoughtfully document and learn from these actions, to respond to the ‘activists from within’?