Leading Museums, Museum Leaders

Freedom of Speech in Museums

Alec Coles, Museums and Freedom of Speech, a speech delivered at the National Museums Australia Conference, Sydney, May 2015

Freedom of Speech

Alec Coles OBE - Photo 3

Alec Coles OBE, Director, Western Australian Museum.

As it embarks upon one of the most significant museum redevelopments in the Southern Hemisphere, the Western Australian Museum’s avowed intent is to share the stories and experiences of all Western Australians, and ensure that many different voices are heard, and perspectives presented.

Implicit within this, is the intention to open up the Museum to diverse and sometimes conflicting views: it is important that we do not impose our views upon our visitors and that we embody the principles of freedom of speech and expression.

We believe that this is laudable, sensible and essential in a 21st century museum.

Freedom of speech is a less precise concept than many of us would like to think.  In a global context, it certainly does not mean, nor should it, that anyone can say anything, to anyone, anywhere, at any time.

In the first place, there has to be some limit to the licence we have to offend, to discriminate or indeed to compromise public safety and security: in the second, every day we observe examples of free speech exercised, denied, defended or punished – sometimes brutally.

It seems to me that there are many dimensions to this issue affecting museums, but of particular importance is the museum’s own position – the stance it may take in an argument, and also, the degree to which it facilitates, encourages or constrains the views and the voices of others.  This is where the concept of many voices is exciting but also challenging.

Freedom of speech, almost always, is one of the first human rights to be defined in a state’s constitution.  It is part of the First amendment of the US constitution.  It is also, of course, engendered in Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human rights.

Interestingly, as Professor George Williams observed, last year. [1]

“So far as I am aware, there is only one democratic nation of the world that does not expressly protect freedom of speech in its national Constitution… That nation is Australia.”

Williams was speaking at a Constitution Day event hosted by the National Archives of Australia and the University of New South Wales.

I was honoured to be asked by the National Archives of Australia to participate in this event entitled  Say what you like: a constitutional right? , it was mediated by the ABC’s Paul Barclay and later televised on the ABC Big Ideas series.  The panel of five speakers, as well as Professor Williams and myself,   comprised Tim Wilson, the Human Rights Commissioner; Kirstie Parker, Co-Chair of the National Congress of Australia’s First Peoples, and Louise Allen from Amnesty International Australia.

I was delighted that the National Archives had recognised the strong role of Museums in this space, but still unsurprised when Paul’s first question to me was what was a museum director doing on the panel.

It was my cue, of course to launch into an exposition of museums as; places of debate and discussion; places where many voices should be invited and heard; as one colleague describes them – the new town halls, occupying the democratic vacuum once filled by those buildings that now tend to be populated by bureaucrats and where, these days, debate is the last thing on their mind.

It was also opportunity to invoke that telling phrase ‘Museums as Safe Places for Unsafe ideas’ a favoured phrase of Museum guru Elaine Heumann Gurian [2], and also coined here in Sydney by Dr Fiona Cameron, a research fellow at the University of Western Sydney, in her paper: Safe Places for unsafe ideas? History and science museums, hot topics and moral predicaments [3].

‘Safe places for unsafe ideas’ is a phrase that, I suspect, many of you, like me, have used to describe the power of museums. It is a very effective piece of short-hand that seems to crystallise the role of a contemporary museum.  It impresses colleagues – particularly those in other parts of the cultural sector.

But in reality, how accurate or how defensible is the claim?  How safe are those places?  How unsafe the ideas?  How prepared are we, as a sector, to embrace these principles? How prepared are our public and stakeholders to engage and support us in this endeavour? What are the implications of providing a platform for moderate and extreme views which may dissent widely from our own philosophies?

Festival of Dangerous Ideas

With a mix of serendipity, coincidence and not a little irony, as I arrived in Sydney, last year, to participate in the Constitution Day event, the Opera House was hosting the 2014 Festival of Dangerous Ideas.  Established in 2009 by the Opera House and the St James Ethics Centre, The Festival, has an international reputation and over the years has featured such luminaries as Christopher Hitchens, Germaine Greer, Julian Assange and Salman Rushdie.  From my selfish point of view, it could not have been better timing  – The Sydney Opera House – a public building – acting as a safe place not only for unsafe ideas, but positively dangerous ones!  Well, it didn’t quite work out that way because as you may remember, the Festival became embroiled in controversy, firstly because of its decision to include a particular speaker and subject on its program – and then for banning him.

The man in question was Muslim writer and activist Uthman Badar and his address was titled “Honour killings are morally justified”.

What was interesting were statements put out by the protagonists.  The Opera House contended:  “The Festival of Dangerous Ideas is intended to be a provocation to thought and discussion, rather than simply a provocation.  Mr Badar, on the other hand, claimed that the session’s cancellation “…is revealing of the extent and influence of Islamophobia in Australia.”   He blamed “baseless hysteria” for gagging the expression of ideas and tellingly said “It also highlights, once more, that freedom of speech is a tool of power and nothing more.

I, of course, am not defending the apparent premise of Badar’s assertion about honour killings (although, for the record, he claimed not to support them): and I would not have attended the session, even if given the choice. But on reflection, I do not believe that I would have cancelled it, either, and that is for three reasons: firstly, the cancellation gave Badar the oxygen of publicity that he desired; secondly, it gave him the opportunity to claim that he had been morally wronged; thirdly, I believe that an open debate would have better revealed the moral redundancy of any argument in favour of his subject. And this is why, even this extreme example, is instructive about the opportunities and the threats of setting ourselves up as places of open debate where the views and positions expressed will not always be our own and will not necessarily be mediated.

It teaches us that there really is no such thing as a safe place, and that sometimes the ideas might be just too unsafe – particularly when they drift into what we might characterise as hate speech.

Museums and Trust

In his 1995 text, The Birth of the Museum: History, Theory, Politics Tony Bennett [4] claims that museums have always acted as places of social transformation and social responsibility.  I am not so sure that I would agree with this assertion, but even if it is accepted, at times the role has been somewhat subliminal.

My scepticism is borne out by a 2013 report on public attitudes to UK museums [5] which revealed that whilst there was a high level of positivity and trust in museums, very few people identified activity such as fostering a sense of community, or protecting the natural environment, as priority areas for museums to address; furthermore, several respondents challenged the very ideas that Museums should provide a forum for debate, or promote social justice.  Clearly, if we wish to claim these roles for museums – and many of us do – we still have a lot of convincing to do.

It does seem that amongst cultural institutions, public Museums enjoy a particularly impressive reputation for trust and integrity built upon their status as collecting institutions, as (often) publicly accountable bodies, and as (supposedly) objective commentators. It is this claim to objectivity that perhaps confers upon museums their apparent authority, but also possibly constrains them – the ‘safeness’ that Gurian and Cameron claim.

Cameron’s work surveyed attitudes amongst the public, members of which, according to her results, largely felt that museums should be apolitical and should not take a stance – in effect they should just present information and let people make their own minds up.  In the same vein, some commentators have suggested that museums should be neutral spaces – I certainly hope not.  ‘Neutral’ conjures up images of banality, safety and lack of ambition – please don’t let our public museums aspire to that!

The WA Museum – and I, personally, grapple with these issues, notably accountability and the use of diverse voices.  Video footage in the Western Australian Museum’s Maritime Museum in Fremantle features a young Aboriginal man who refers to the European invasion (of Australia).  The piece is scripted, but that is not the point.  One erstwhile visitor has taken issue with this to the extent that he has conducted a sustained campaign aimed at our Premier to correct what he claims to be a ‘misrepresentation’ of Australian history.  Attempts to explain that whether, or not, it was an invasion rather depends on your perspective, have been met with frosty derision.

Many museums, of course, take a very polarised position, in some cases it’s their raison d’être: few of us, I suspect,  would deny the right of the Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg to tell the story of a previously oppressive regime, and a country’s emergence from it through the testimony of those affected. Similarly, if you visit a Holocaust museum or exhibition you are unlikely to expect or desire a ‘neutral space’.

It is, however, always easier to accommodate multiple voices when dealing with issues that appear incontrovertible (at least in the eyes of the majority), or place the voice firmly on the side of international law.

It becomes a much more complex task where histories are truly contested; where perspective is everything. More difficult, still, where the views expressed might become the focus of political interference: it is bad enough defending one’s own position, never mind someone else’s.

In this respect, we should not forget the controversy over the interpretive policy of our own Australian National Museum when it was built.  Some would say that this particular battle in the ‘History Wars’ remains one of the most unedifying and notorious examples of political determinism in attempting to define a Museum’s policy.

To Provoke debate or merely provoke?

I am grateful to Daryl Karp of the Australian Museum for Democracy for reminding me of the excellent exhibition ‘Behind the Lines’ which shows some of the best political cartoons of the year.  It is an example of a mainstream institution that is able to challenge and, in some cases, ridicule political sensitivities. These cartoons, and the exhibition that collates them, set out to provoke debate and discussion.  They also serve to humanise and make accessible serious subjects.  We were reflecting on the fact that the cartoon was once one of the last safe bastions to which we could retreat to express dissent.

But that of course is no longer the case. The most notorious recent example of provocation answered with reprisal did not involve a museum at all.   I suspect that before last December most of, at best, were only vaguely aware of the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo and even less so of the mercurial Stephane Charbonnier.  Charbonnier famously stated that “We can’t live in a country without Freedom of Speech.  I would rather die than live like a rat.”  Words, of course, that became tragically prophetic.

The week of the massacre, I wrote, in my staff newsletter about freedom of speech and defended the right of journalists and museums – in fact anyone –to express their views or provide a space for others to do so.

I do not agree with the brinksmanship demonstrated by Charlie Hebdo, which, I suggest, was approaching the promotion of Islamophobia, however, I do defend the magazine’s  right to freedom of expression, echoing the words of Evelyn Beatrice Hall, writing under the nom de plume S. G. Tallentyre about  Voltaire who coined the phrase, often misattributed to Voltaire himself: “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it”: I wonder, how many of us could truly live up to this maxim as Charbonnier did and even if we could, do we have the moral right to expose our museums and our public collections to reputational or even physical damage by courting controversy?

The question must be asked again, where does the division lie between the Museum’s role to provoke debate, or merely provoke…

For example, in contrast to the excellent ‘Behind the Lines’ exhibition in Canberra, the recent competition and exhibition held in Garland, Texas of cartoons of the prophet Mohammed was simply a deliberate, senseless and bigoted provocation: of course, it still did not justify the violent attack that it begat, but one got the sense that the organisers would have been disappointed had there not been such an attack.

Not all issues of freedom of speech in Museums are so visceral.  Some are positively prosaic.  As I said at the outset, freedom of speech is an imprecise concept: it need not focus merely on opinion – it may involve only the provision of information: so, for instance, one of the challenges of committing to a principle of many voices is the difficulty to control the accuracy or integrity of factual information: people can make mistakes or seek to mislead: in short, they can stuff up, or just make stuff up.

Community memories

A painful Western Australian example is outside the same WA Maritime Museum in Fremantle, and is the Welcome Walls.  The WA Museum was not the first and will not be the last museum in Australia to create a commemorative opportunity for 19th and 20th century immigrants arriving by boat.  In Fremantle, the 20,000 or so names on the walls were submitted by relatives and friends – sometimes distant in time, or geography, or both.  In some cases their sources of information might have been irrefutable and their attention to detail meticulous, but in others, the information might have been based on the rumour and sigh that transcends family generations.  Needless to say, people sometimes forget – and even when they remember, sometimes accounts are nuanced, varied, exaggerated, or fabricated as they are passed from one person to another.  So this early attempt at crowd-sourcing information – a laudable democratisation of the migration story – has created an enormous research backlog validating the veracity of the many accounts which are riddled with errors concerning dates, ships and even the spelling of family names.

As we commemorate Australia’s Centenary of Service expect much more of this.  Confused stories handed down the generations will be rife: of diggers who might, or might not have served; or who might, or might not have been in this battle, or that one; or who won this medal, or that one.  These are the things of which family legends are made, but with which the historic record has to grapple.

Last November, we were proud to complete the National Anzac Centre in Albany, WA.  The Centre features a significant amount of digital technology and content. Key to this is an on–site and on-line opportunity to add your personal contribution.  These are monitored daily, but it is impossible in the time available to check each piece of information for accuracy. There is also the question of how do we decide if a comment crosses the lines of decency, particularly in such a highly charged environment.

Management at SBS certainly considered that Scott McIntyre had crossed it when he posted a series of tweets critical of contemporary commemoration of Anzac, of Australia’s part in war, and of the nature of those who commemorate it. I believe his tweets were insensitive, ill-conceived, a little immature and, in at least one case, offensive – but should they have resulted in his dismissal? SBS, of course, claim that he breached its Code of Conduct in relation to social media.  Others claim, including McIntyre and his lawyers, that his dismissal was politically motivated.  It is, of course, a serious point: was he actually dismissed because he expressed an unpopular and anti-establishment view?

It is a sobering thought for all of us in managing not only our own social media -driven lives, but also how we manage those of our contributors.

Refugees and Residents

This leads neatly to consideration of one of Australian political and media obsessions: the treatment of refugees and asylum seekers – particularly those attempting to arrive, illegally, by boat.

To illustrate this, I draw on another Western Australian story. In April 2013, a boat arrived off the west coast of Western Australia, eventually tying up in the port city of Geraldton. The boat was carrying refugees and asylum seekers from Sri Lanka.  To the Western Australian Museum this was an important moment.

Of the criteria that define what contemporary material a museum should collect, one tries to imagine how significant that material might be viewed in 100 years’ time. One way to second guess this is by monitoring what is dominating the news at the present time.

There can be few subjects that generated more column centimetres, or air time, prior to the last Federal election than the question of refugees and asylum seekers attempting to get to Australia by boat. It dominated political debate and many would claim that it determined the scale of the incoming Government’s victory.

Add to this the rarity value of this vessel – most boats are intercepted by the Royal Australian Navy and, either by accident or design, reach landfall at Christmas Island where they are destroyed.

After much negotiation, the WA Museum acquired the vessel.  Once this became public knowledge, a debate raged in the press and on social media. There was an even split between those who praised the Museum for its determination to document the contemporary history of Australia and those who accused us of either wasting public money, or of being part of a reactionary left wing conspiracy.  Being accused of being unpatriotic was particularly harsh in the context of the Museum’s major contribution to the Centenary of Service commemorations.

The Museum had become a platform for a vigorous and sometimes fractious debate about, what was then, the major news story in Australia. This supposedly ‘unsafe’ subject was clearly very appropriately addressed in a museum.  It had a major part to play in telling the story of our state and our nation.  Incredibly, the boat’s arrival coincided with a visit to Geraldton by the then leader of the opposition, Tony Abbott.  Of course, the arrival of an asylum seeker vessel was a political gift to him in his criticism of the Government.  News had got out about the Museum’s interest and he was asked, by an ABC journalist, whether it was really appropriate that such a vessel should be acquired by the Western Australian Museum: to his eternal credit, he said that that was a matter for museum curators!

In displaying the vessel, which we will, and inviting comment, the issue is, of course, which, and whose, ‘unsafe ideas’ should be explored or presented alongside this story? Freedom of speech is, a great ideal when the speaker agrees with you and your sensibilities, so whilst we might be comfortable giving voice to the refugees who have risked everything in search of safety, respect and employment, will we be as comfortable giving voice to the views of someone who would ‘send them back’?

Where do we draw the line – and who decides?  Will we give voice to reactionaries?   To racists?  To Holocaust deniers? Climate Change deniers? To creationists?

We should remember that the Constitution Day event, I referred to at the beginning of this session, was so themed because at the time, the Government was seeking to amend clause 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act.  It would have removed some of the protection against hate speech and racial vilification: it became known in some circles as the Bigot’s Charter.  The amendment was abandoned at an early stage to the relief of many: As Kirsty Parker opines: There is no nobility and no greatness in placing unlimited rights to free speech above the already limited rights of the vulnerable to be free from racist abuse. [6]

The Museum of Applied Arts and Science exhibition, Faith, Fashion and Fusion is currently touring WA.  Many of you will be familiar with the exhibition on the theme of contemporary Muslim women’s fashion: nothing controversial here, or so you would think.  However this opened in our Geraldton Museum shortly after the horrific siege here in Sydney. Consequently we received anti-Islam sentiment and even calls for the exhibition not to open at this time: our reaction, of course, was that there could not be a more important time to show such and exhibition, particularly if we were to be true to our aspiration to in inspire people to explore and share their identities and culture.  It was salutary reminder, however, of the capacity to offend and be offended.

Relevant  here, are the comments of Kenneth Roth, Executive Director of Global Human Rights Watch, speaking on Q&A in 2014,when he noted that “… offence is very subjective and the offence that tends to govern is the offence of the powerful, not the weak”. [7]

The WA Museum with Curtin University has recently completed a momentous and, I am pleased to say, very successful expedition to the wreck sites of HMAS Sydney (ll) and the German raider HSK Kormoran.

There is insufficient time to tell the story of the two ships but suffice to say that Sydney was sunk by the Kormoran in 1941 with all 645 hands lost.  The only eye witness accounts came from the German ship and these were not believed.  As a result, the two ships, which were both wrecked, lay undiscovered, 2.5 km deep, for 67 years. Conspiracy theories abounded but this photograph, taken two weeks ago, should finally explain why a light ship like the Kormoran could triumph over the Sydney – this is the shell hole in the bridge that rendered the Sydney almost powerless.

Will this stop the conspiracy theories – of course not.  So should these people still be given a voice to pedal theories that are barely deserving of the name, and yet continue get traction in some of the popular press?  I am honestly not sure.

Irrespective of the rights of the conspiracy theorists, there is always a danger of just presenting a cacophony of unmediated voices: this can be as frustrating as the single unchallenged voice of authority.

Graeme Davison in Frontier Conflict: The Australian Experience [8] critiques a former exhibit of contested history at the Australian National Museum:  “Is our student likely to be challenged, or just confused by these dissonant voices? Is it enough for the Museum to say ‘we just allow the voices to be heard’? …Should the Museum have taken a firmer editorial position of its own…?”

It would be inappropriate to conclude without reflecting on the awful recent scenes in the Mosul Museum shown here, or indeed the appalling violence at the Bardo Museum in Tunis, where 21 tourists died.  The concept of safe places for safe ideas seems depressingly redundant in this context.  I know that I speak for all of us when I express support and sympathy for our museum colleagues in Syria and Iraq at the present time.

Despite this, there is no doubt that I, and others, will continue to use the phrase Safe Places for Unsafe ideas but we may have to accept that there really is no place that is completely safe, and that every idea is unsafe to someone.

The WA Museum was proud to host the Afghanistan exhibition last year.  The incredible story behind the exhibition and the artefacts was that they had been saved from the Museum when it was threatened by the Taliban.  Five curators had hidden these treasures away until the threat had receded.

The spirit of these people is crystallised in a plaque outside the National Museum in Kabul which state that a Nation stays alive when its culture stays alive: particularly poignant in that setting, it is, literally, a touchstone for all of us; it also reminds us that culture is expression and that freedom of expression is crucial.

We are committed, in Western Australia, to create a Museum that encourages debate that does not shy away from difficult issues and, above all, gives a voice to the people of Western Australia, allowing them to express their views.

We recognise that there is far more knowledge existing outside the Museum than could ever exist inside it.  But, of course, just as there are practical, intellectual and libertarian justifications for taking such an approach, there are also pitfalls, notably relating to accountability, accuracy, artifice, agendas and alternative viewpoints.

These pitfalls should stand as stark reminders to those who are consumed by the idea that sharing stories was just a matter of opening up the web site and letting everyone have their say.

The question before us is: Will we risk eroding the trust that we appear to enjoy on the back of a perception of museums as apolitical pillars of ‘truth’?  Or, will we seize the opportunity to build new trust amongst those communities that previously saw us as organs of the establishment?

I staunchly defend the Western Australian Museum’s principle of many voices; of freedom of speech; of being that safe place for unsafe ideas.  But I do so in the full knowledge that such a commitment may lead  us into some dangerous and uncomfortable places that we might, sometimes, rather not have gone.

[1] Freedom of speech as a basic human right – by George Williams AO, Anthony Mason Professor, Gilbert + Tobin Centre of Public Law, UNSW

[2] Elaine Heumann Gurian Civilizing the museum: the collected writings of Elaine Heumann Gurian, Routledge, 2006

[3] Fiona Cameron.  Safe places for unsafe ideas? History and science museums, hot topics and moral predicaments, in Michael Terwey (ed.), Social history in Museums. London, Social History Curators Group, 2008, pp. 5-16.

[4] Tony Bennett, The Birth of the Museum: History, Theory, Politics, New York and London, Routledge, 1995.

[5] Britain Thinks, Public perceptions of – and attitudes to – the purpose of museums in society, London, Museums Association, 2013

[6] Free speech does not equal racial vilification by Kirstie Parker, Co-Chair, National Congress of Australia’s First Peoples (Congress)

[7] ABC Q&A program 31 March, 2014

[8] Graeme Davison  in Frontier Conflict: The Australian Experience



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