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UK museum sector addresses community tensions

Geraldine Kendall Adams, UK museum sector addresses impact of Israel-Hamas conflict, Museums Association, 6 November 2023

War has led to widespread protests and rising community tensions across the UK.

The Buraq Wall and Al Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem. Pixabay.

The museum sector in the UK has been addressing impact of the Israel-Hamas war.

More than 1,400 Israeli civilians were killed in the Hamas attacks of 7th October, with more than 200 hostages taken. At least 9,770 Palestinian civilians have been killed by Israeli military action, including more than 4,000 children, amid a worsening humanitarian emergency in Gaza.

Cultural institutions with links to those on both sides of the conflict are working to support communities suffering from shock and grief, and to combat rising tensions, antisemitism and anti-Muslim bigotry.

War in Gaza

In October, an open letter to the Museums Association signed by 378 members of Museum Detox, the network for people of colour in the sector, said: “We the undersigned members of Museum Detox […] write to express our solidarity with the people of Palestine, and urgently call on our cultural institutions to speak out against the collective punishment and crimes against humanity we are currently witnessing in Gaza.

“We reiterate that we oppose the actions of the state of Israel, but this must not be equated with antisemitism, which we abhor. We take this opportunity to condemn the killing of all civilians, whilst pointing out that the occupation and ensuing violence did not begin in October of this year.

“Museums and cultural institutions in the United Kingdom and around the world have recently been swept by a rhetoric of decolonisation. Yet the question of Palestine is woefully absent from these conversations and otherwise progressive shifts. As cultural workers committed to decolonising our practice, and to working within and beyond institutional parameters to achieve social and political justice, we hear this overwhelming silence and urge the sector to speak up.”

The letter said many of its signatories fear reprisals for speaking out in the current climate, and called on the cultural sector to “resist the weaponisation of Palestinian solidarity and stand up to political attempts to create a ‘culture war’ out of what the United Nations and multiple other humanitarian organisations have rightly identified as a systemic violation of human rights”.

In a rare joint statement, the heads of 18 UN agencies and non-governmental organisations this week urged Israel to call an immediate humanitarian ceasefire, expressing their “shock and horror” at the mounting death toll in Gaza.

It said: “An entire population is besieged and under attack, denied access to the essentials for survival, bombed in their homes, shelters, hospitals and places of worship. This is unacceptable.”

Impact on communities

Museums with Jewish connections have been offering support to their communities following the 7th October atrocities, amid a significant increase in antisemitism.

A sign at the Wiener Holocaust Library in London in central London was vandalised last week, with the word “Gaza” daubed on it in red paint. The incident has been reported to the police and the sign has been added to the institution’s collection.

Library director Toby Simpson told the Jewish Chronicle: “To use ignorance as a weapon against an institution of learning is stupid and wrong. To lash out against Israel by targeting a Holocaust institution is an action that can only make sense to antisemites and their enablers.”

In a statement calling for unity against hatred, the Wiener Holocaust Library said: “It is particularly distressing that this level of harassment has been targeted at communities already experiencing immense shock and grief. We urge people in Britain to stand shoulder to shoulder with us, and alongside all organisations working to prevent the forces of hatred from dividing us.”

The National Holocaust Centre and Memorial Museum in Nottinghamshire is due to launch an outreach learning programme, Stand Up to Anti-Jewish Racism on Campus, at the University of Nottingham, and a new Education Parachute Unit to help protect Jewish student populations on campus.

“Tension and fear is rife,” said Marc Cave, the director of the centre. “Morale in the British Jewish community is extremely low.”

Cave said the museum’s community of Holocaust survivors are “bewildered by the whiff of Holocaust denial detectable in today’s denials that Hamas did not perpetrate this horrific pogrom”.

Cave said it was vital to “demask” the antisemitism behind the 7th October attacks by Hamas. “Just as Hitler’s principal objective was not to defeat the allies but a Jew-free world, so must we expose the true genocidal ideology of Hamas,” he said.

Meanwhile, as thousands of people join pro-Palestinian marches across the UK calling for a ceasefire, the Palestine Museum and Cultural Centre in Bristol says it has seen an increase in visitor numbers since the conflict began as audiences seek to learn more about the situation.

Helen Watts, the museum’s volunteer treasurer and trustee, said: “The Palestine Museum and Cultural Centre in Bristol is a charity tasked with increasing knowledge about the history, heritage, culture and daily life of Palestine and its people.

“During the past three weeks, we have experienced a significant increase of visitors to our centre, indicating a need and willingness to learn more about the current situation, its origins and context. We engage in dialogue with visitors, direct them to a range of resources to continue learning once they leave the museum.

“With the current situation on the ground in Gaza, it is more important than ever for our visitors to understand the historical context in which the actions on the ground are taking place, and also how these actions are impacting on the daily life of Palestinians living in Gaza and the West Bank.”

Increased security

Museums have also increased security in the wake of the conflict, as incidents of antisemitism and anti-Muslim bigotry rise.

The National Holocaust Centre and Memorial Museum, which already has year-round security, has stepped up its police security presence in recent weeks and has had one school visit cancelled due to safety fears.

Manchester Jewish Museum confirmed that it has also increased security but says it has been able to proceed with all of its events as planned.

The Wiener Holocaust Library has said it is prepared for the likelihood that it will be targeted again.

The Palestine Museum and Cultural Centre says it has not received any significant threats.

MA Conference

In its response to the letter from Museum Detox this week, the Museums Association confirmed that a safe, facilitated space will be provided at its conference in Newcastle-Gateshead next week for museum professionals to discuss the implications of the conflict for museums and their communities.

The statement said: “The MA is opposed to all forms of antisemitism and anti-Muslim bigotry. We know that many in the sector in the UK are impacted by the war and we will provide a safe, facilitated space at our upcoming conference which will be open to all delegates attending in person to discuss the implications for themselves and their communities and what guidance and resources they would find useful in addressing these issues in museums.”