Research Week - Human Rights, the Museum, and Lunch

Whislt we were having lunch, kindly provided by the department, Richard Sandell kindly gave a presentation related to his current research - the intersection of the discourses on human rights and museum representations.

Human rights, and the associated discussions surrounding social justice, are of great importance in global discourse. The recent past has also seen a significant rise in the number of museums which are explicitly dedicated to human rights. But it is not upon these museums which Richard is concentrating, but upon the impact which issues surrounding the concepts have upon the daily practices of museums.

Focussing upon the Gallery of Modern Art in Glasgow allows us to get a glimpse into the practical manifestation of the abstract concepts of human rights and social justice in a very particular setting. GOMA, as it is known, has for many years run biannual projects on a social justice theme, under the tag line of 'Contemporary Arts and Human Rights'. They have dealt with a number of issues, including asylum seekers, domestic violence and sectarianism, but it is perhaps the most recent which created the most controversy.

"Shout," which ran last year, showcased LGBTI art and culture, and discussed issues surounding the perception and treatment of individuals who identify as LGBTI. RCMG, the research centre at Leicester, were lucky enough to be able to investigate this project, and what happened surrounding it.

As is the case with each of the projects which GOMA runs, "Shout" involved professional artists of the highest quality as well as community groups, indivuduals, public discussion and workshops. Though it was a widely recognised public programme which involved deep collaboration with an advisory group, there was a vehement negative response to it, especially in the media, and particularly with regard to certain of the artworks which were shown. This reaction, however, is something by which the museum can measure its success, not its failure, for provoking reactions and pushing boundaries are precisely what projects like "Shout" are supposed to do. At this point it is interesting to note what happens which the rights of different groups clash, and what the role of museums is when this occurs. Can the museum have a role as abitrator between different groups?

It is interesting to consider, too, whether this kind of project would have occured anywhere else. I'm not sure that Leicester or Birmingham would mount such an undertaking, and I wonder why Glasgow is a context in which these issues can (and, more to the point, are, being discussed and debated.

Transgender representations were particularly pertinant throughout Richard's discussion. The rights of the transgender community are very often perceived as being at least twenty years behind that of the LGB communities. There is only one publicly funded transgender rights post is Europe - significantly located in Edinburgh. "Rendering Gender", which was one of the rolling displays that made up "Shout" was exhibited by artists who shared a desire to communicate their experience as transgender individuals. Some, it has to be said, were more politically demonstrative than others. Whislt some wanted to 'bring binary identities into the public eye', others wanted to help and inform other people like themselves, who may have little access to information and support.

These tasks are worthwhile, but they are not easy. The role of museums as agents in the discourses of social justice and human rights are contested and deeply political. How they can site themselves whilst retaining their position is something which is open to debate. But that some museums, such as the pioneering GOMA, are tackling issues which many would shy away from, is certainly something to be proud of.


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