Joanna Williams Joanna Williams

How museums lost their way

(Credit: Getty images)

What’s the point of museums? According to researchers at the University of Leicester, museums should help children explore their gender identity. Academics have issued 44-pages of detailed guidance on how museum directors can tackle ‘growing uncertainty and anxiety surrounding trans-inclusive practice’ while stimulating ‘positive explorations of gender’ for children.

The University of Leicester has got this all wrong. Whether it is school sex education classes, TikTok videos, libraries hosting drag queen story hours, picture books about grandad attending Pride, or television programmes about boys who want to become girls, children are bombarded with opportunities to explore their gender identity. Yet despite almost every area of life having already been colonised by transgender activists, Leicester’s academics clearly think museums and art galleries have further to go. Cultural attractions should be ‘places not just where trans kids can go, but where they want to go’, according to their guide.

Having abandoned the past, museums need a new justification

Poor kids. They must be bored silly of rainbow flags, fetish gear and mastectomy scars. Children do not lack ‘positive explorations of gender.’ They cannot escape people asking them if they are happy in their body and whether they feel more like a boy or a girl.

If there is something children do lack nowadays, it is ‘positive explorations’ of the past. All too often, a child’s first lesson about history is that it was ‘horrible’. Schools and museums teach that the past was all slavery, colonialism and war with people who were racist, sexist and homophobic. Without an opportunity to see the objects that connect them to past generations free from this relentless negativity, children grow up alienated from their own history.

It was, of course, museums that once provided children – and adults – with this vital link to the past. The British Museum was founded in 1753 and opened its doors in 1759. The Victorian era saw an explosion of museum building, collecting and curating. Museums were a source of pride for local residents well into the second half of last century and, judging by the queues to get into the British Museum today, people are still interested in the past.

It’s not the public then, but museum directors who have been suffering from a prolonged, collective confidence crisis. The idea took hold several decades ago that simply displaying objects was boring and, in order to stay relevant, museums must become interactive playgrounds. Out went dusty old artefacts, in came dressing up clothes and computers. This process was made easier by problematising artefacts; decolonising curators wanted objects removed, returned or – failing that – accompanied by acres of text highlighting the sins of ownership.

Having abandoned the past, museums need a new justification. This is the real problem we face today: if museum bosses were confident in their commitment to the past, Leicester’s report could be met with an eye-roll. But they are not, so it needs to be taken seriously.

The University of Leicester report has been endorsed by a host of cultural sector organisations representing ‘thousands’ of museums, galleries and archives, including the International Council of Museums UK, Association of Leading Visitor Attractions and the Museums Association. It has the backing of the National Lottery Heritage Fund, the largest provider of grant funding for the UK heritage sector. Museums in need of money will no doubt feel obliged to tick the trans inclusion box. This should worry us all.

Being turned into places where children are encouraged to question their gender identity will spell the end of museums. The Leicester report is a call on museums to introduce an explicitly political agenda into their work. This will impact the way staff relate to each other and to the public. Claims that ‘outspoken objections to trans content frequently intersect with homophobia, misogyny and racism’ is a clear directive to pick a side in an unresolved and ongoing debate.

The report calls on museums to show ‘unequivocal’ support for trans inclusion, particularly when faced with protests. Last weekend, gender critical feminists Helen Joyce and Maya Forstater spoke at the People’s History Museum in Manchester amid noisy and intimidating protests. Do Leicester’s academics want museums to side with the protesters? Their report demands changes to the way that museum buildings are used, including allowing children to use whichever toilets they prefer and placing menstrual products in the men’s facilities.

‘This will send an important trans-inclusive message to everyone who works in and visits your organisation,’ the report says. But for many women, it risks turning museums into no-go zones.

Ultimately, even museum exhibits are politicised by the Leicester guidance. The report notes that ‘trans’ can be used as a useful ‘umbrella’ term ‘to signpost today’s audiences to instances of gender nonconformity, gender fluidity, gender variance and gender crossing’. But this risks foisting currently fashionable labels onto people who never saw themselves as anything other than men or women. It exploits the past to assuage the sensitivities of people today.

Once, people went to museums not to find themselves but to find the past. Museums, in turn, united people through a shared sense of history. Today’s identitarian curators seem determined to destroy this vital, unifying link with our past.

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