Museums and freedom of speech: a reflection

As I stated in my previous blog, I have recently, and reluctantly, decided to leave the Western Australian Museum. However, I have stayed true to my word that I am still passionately following museums and collections.

So it was of great interest that a talk from my former CEO Alec Coles was published on the WA Museum’s website. The talk, Museums and Freedom of Speech (, was, as per all of Alec’s talks, an excellent reflection on the role of museums in society.

What was so timely about publishing this talk was its… well… timing.

In Australia we have a controversy with the National Broadcaster (the ABC). The federal government is, to say the least, unhappy that it allowed an individual with links to the Syrian conflict to speak on Q&A (a program where politicians and prominent persons can have a direct dialogue with the public).

It’s not my place to publically state a political view on the matter; public servant attitudes die-hard. Nor it is my role to state whether is was appropriate to allow this individual on to the program, nor reflect on whether the ABC should have repeated the program.

What I do want to do in my blog is reflect on how “dangerous” ideas, or things we don’t want to hear, are accepted in the public domain. As Alec notes in this talk: “[freedom of speech] does not mean, nor should it, that anyone can say anything, to anyone, anywhere, at anytime.” So where is the line? And where should these uncomfortable viewpoints be aired?

In our public discourse, it is my opinion that as a society we are becoming less tolerant of ideas that we don’t want to hear. This is not a reflection on the Q&A controversy, or the festival of dangerous ideas that Alec reflects on in his talk. It is my opinion (whoops, looks like I let one slip into this blog), that in public spaces, such as media, the internet and in our dialogues with our elected officials, as a society we are becoming more stratified, and less open to ideas that challenge us.

So where do museums fit in?

Well the GLAM sector is held (mostly) in high regard with its public. Museums are often viewed as independent from government and still valued by its non-visitors. Can the museum sector still hold a meaningful conversation about ideas we are not comfortable with, and even discuss ideas can’t be reduced to sound-bites designed to enrage one sector of the public?

Alec in his talk notes the sector have a long way to go, and their perceived objectivity may even constrain the sector from a taking a lead in having an uncomfortable dialogue. I guess more importantly, is this an area that museum sector wants to take a lead on? Perhaps the sector is better off collecting, and using the objects to tell stories to our future generations, objectively as possible.

I’d argue not. History is subjective, and objects derive relevance from context.

In a highly charged, partisan and divisive world, facilitating the discussions that surround our globalised world, in my opinion (whoops, that two in one blog), are just as important as the objects the sector collects to tell its stories.

Whether there are forgotten voices, contradictory stories, often-dismissed voices or uncomfortable viewpoints, if these are ignored, part of our history is lost. And by constraining freedom of speech, the sector risks not hearing or collecting these stories.

But if the museum sector were to take the lead, in say collecting the stories of asylum seekers and building exhibitions around these viewpoints, it will face pressure from the public about its priorities. Balancing these perspectives is a difficult task and I have the utmost respect for all the museum directors who must make these calls on a daily basis, many of which will have impacts on how we perceive ourselves in the future.

So in conclusion, I highly recommend reading Alec’s talk, and at the end ask yourself, in your opinion, where should these difficult conversations be occurring?