How do you "Say the Unspeakable"? - IMD 2017

The worldwide community of museums celebrate International Museum Day on and around 18 May 2017 around the theme Museums and contested histories: Saying the unspeakable in museums.
This theme focuses on the role of museums that, by working to benefit society, become hubs for promoting peaceful relationships between people. The acceptance of a contested history is the first step in envisioning a shared future under the banner of reconciliation.

It’s that time of year – International Museum Day is here, and museums around the world are making extra effort to promote their mission, and encourage visitors to empathize with their story. This year’s theme is one that is hard to discuss, though relevant for all history throughout mankind. The theme is highlighting contested histories, and institutions who act to engage visitors with difficult histories in order to shape a better future. 

How does a museum effectively “say the unspeakable?” How does one approach past injustices with sensitivity towards those affected, while giving hope to visitors now for the future? Is eliciting empathy enough, or do museums have the responsibility to take that empathy a step further, by inspiring action? I think we can all agree, it our responsibility as interpretive professionals to connect people to history, art, and culture, for the sake of bettering all society. 

This can be easier said than done however, and at Antenna we feel that this mission is best accomplished through authentic storytelling, from those who are closest to these difficult histories. 1st person narratives, stories from original sources, and authentic voices are all great tools for respectfully saying the unspeakable. Afterall – if a story is not authentic, it does not beg empathy but instead alienates, and in the worst cases disrespects the injustices that have happened in the past (*ahem* #AAM2017SlaveAuction??) and the people who have felt the repercussions. 

Difficult histories cannot be ignored, or swept under the rug. They must be dealt with head on. For some, it may be hard. For others, it may make them uncomfortable. That is ok. Museums exist to be a safe space for audiences to connect with the past and grow for the future. 

This years theme is timely, relevant, and necessary. I am very much looking forward to following along how some of my favorite museums and Antenna partners embrace their missions and stand up more than ever to say the unspeakable.

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