Funding is Not Neutral

The London Design Museum, Hope to Nope, and a Defense Industry Event

I love off the beaten path museums. So, when I arrived in London in late June, I googled a bunch of travel guides to find the best museums in London. As a socially conscious museum nerd and design enthusiast, I was thrilled to come across the London Design Museum’s Hope to Nope exhibit. I excitedly jumped on the train to Kensington High Street.

Given the content and design of Hope to Nope, I could not have imagined the controversy that would erupt over the exhibit just a few weeks later. The exhibit aimed to show the public that social media platforms are “democratic tools that provide easier access to content for a greater number of people, but they can also be used as tools of control or misinformation.” It contained thought-provoking artifacts, such as the All-Seeing Trump and Dread Scott’s “A Man was Lynched by Police Yesterday.” The space was built to mirror social media. There was a ton of color blocking. Content was plastered all over the room at different heights. Multiple videos of the same event played on different screens at once. The exhibit employed infographics in addition to classic exhibit labels. I felt like I was scrolling through a mega Facebook feed. It was a really well designed exhibit.

The exhibit’s merits were overshadowed on July 17, 2018, when a company in the defense industry rented out the Design Museum atrium for a private event. Many artists who were featured in Hope to Nope and their allies from other institutions felt it was “deeply hypocritical for the museum to display and celebrate the work of radical anti-corporate artists and activists, while quietly supporting and profiting from one of the most destructive and deadly industries in the world.” The artists and their allies approached museum staff privately and the museum responded that it was “a private event for which there is no endorsement by the museum.” The artists decided to write a letter publicly demanding that their work be removed from the exhibit because they objected to the Design Museum’s claims about museum neutrality. “Museums are not neutral spaces,” the artists stated in their letter. “Every decision about what is displayed, how it is labeled and how it is funded is political, and reveals something about the underlying values of the institution.”

The Design Museum responded by delegitimizing the artists’ radicalism, which it had just celebrated in Hope to Nope. Deyan Sudjic and Alice Black, the museum directors, stated, “professional activists whose work didn’t feature in the exhibition took the view that the museum had acted wrongfully and were quick to exploit the situation.” This statement severely undermines Sudjic and Black’s credibility. They sound more like nervous dictators than museum directors.

However, Sudjic and Black made a convincing point regarding UK laws for educational charities in their letter. They stated, “as an educational charity, we cannot take an overt political stance…breaching the laws that regulate charities could put us at risk of having our charitable status removed.” Museums are not neutral, but museums need to maintain their charitable status. In the U.S., I believe it would have been simpler. As Mike Murawski stated in his brilliant article “Changing the things we cannot accept,” “we need to…begin working with new funding sources specifically seeking organizations dedicated to inclusion, social change, and building stronger communities. Some supporters may leave, but new ones will join in.” However, if Sudjic and Black are correct in their estimation of UK law – that if they had refused to host the event, they would have risked having the Design Museum’s charitable status revoked – there isn’t a clear path.

We all know that funding is not neutral, but what should the Design Museum have done?


2 thoughts on “Funding is Not Neutral

Add yours

  1. Thanks for the mention! In the US, the laws and regulations governing non-profits and charitable organizations would not prevent a museum from refusing to rent their space to a company for a private event. Overall, I think that non-profits try to use the “losing our charitable status” defense to try and put up the perception of neutrality, when they are anything but neutral. I have hope that more and more institutions will develop a set of strong core values and principles, and then stand up for those values in every area of their work (from exhibition and programs, to hiring and compensation practices, to revenue-generating operations and fundraising). And I commend those institutions currently in the process of making this happen (I realize it is not an overnight change, and some institutions get caught in the transition — they just need to be transparent and vulnerable about where they are in this transformation).

    Liked by 1 person

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