Protest Placards in the Museum? – Its possible!

Who says historical exhibitions only has to take place in the museum? An out of the museum suggestion on how the rakyat can take charge of the historical narrative of their own country.

There is a saying that goes: “History only celebrates brilliant failures and successes.” Another goes further declaring: “It is not in the essence of the poor to be part of history.” History has been described as a collection of selective memories of the past written by the winners or owned by the powerful. So, is there is no place for the marginalized, the vulnerable or the secluded from history? Do we have to be brilliant (at either end of the spectrum) before we could be part of history?

A motley crew of Goldsmith post-graduate students thought otherwise. Interestingly, a school project that at this point, might credit them with a big fat juicy “A” was no longer a mere classroom fascination with Arts and Politics. This volunteer can vouch for that.

Historical images from previous social protests in England | Sourcepic: Museum of London

Historical images from previous social protests in England | Sourcepic: Museum of London

On 26 March 2011, a 250,000 strong crowd marched across the London city, protesting against the government’s decision to cut the national budget where it would affect jobs and social welfare. At the same time, the Save Our Placards (S.O.P) team from Goldsmith University was busy collecting memorabilia used by the protestors as well as distributing placards with historical images provided by the Museum of London as part of their S.O.P project. The memorabilia that ranges from home-made placards, banners or effigies will then be donated to the Museum of London’s political change and protest collection.

Museums in the United Kingdom have a long interesting history of political interaction with the society. Museums such as the Walker Art Gallery and the National Museum were identified by suffragettes or the National Unemployed Workers’ Committee Movement (NUWCM) as strategic sites for political actions circa 1900s. It is difficult to foresee museums in Malaysia treating materials or objects derived from social movement and political change as valuable historical artifacts. This is because the ruling government does not respect an individual’s right of assembly. The current memorialization culture found in our museums, more often than not, glorifies the grandeur past of our monarch or the public’s thirst for mysticism (read: jenglot, toyol and others).

Placards ready to be given away to protestors

Placards ready to be given away to protestors

The de facto spoke-person of the group, Guy Atkins indicated in his interview with the BBC, “Britain has a rich heritage of protests, from the suffragettes, to the poll tax demonstrations, to the Iraq War protests… But how these movements are remembered has largely been decided after the event, and not by those involved with the protests. We want to challenge that.”

He made a crucial point about how the masses have always been excluded from offering their dimension or understanding of history. Memorialization of the past appeared dictated by the supposed experts: politicians, aristocrats, intellectuals or dedicated historians. During the protest in London, it was spiritually uplifting for me to see people from all walks of life come to the tree where we compiled all the memorabilia and donated their pieces; pieces were evidently made with dedication and passion. And it was even more moving when a small girl came over slowly to the giant circle of beautiful placards, and submitted her small organic  “placard” that was made of a daffodil tied to a thin stick.

My placard. Was stolen for good a cause by a demonstrater-cum-fan before the protest started.

My placard. Was stolen for good a cause by a demonstrater-cum-fan before the protest started.

Perhaps before we even talk about encouraging public participation in history revisionism or discourse, we need to cultivate a culture of appreciating history and museum in our society. Maybe that is why the museums in Malaysia need to have exhibitions with popular themes that appeal to the public. But using the valuable space of history institutions such as museums  to propagate superstition or one-dimensional historical documentation would only degrade the quality of historical discourse and appreciation not only within the museum fraternity but also the public at large.

The S.O.P Project not only made me realize the important role and function of public institutions such as museums in documenting events. That it has a significant contribution to our society’s history. That it is crucial for such institutions to provide more space and recognition for the common man’s stories and testimonies especially in the context of contemporary social movements. These valuable records will be a catalyst for including the voices of the marginalized or the neglected in our current historical narrative. Doing so would allow history to flourish as a democratic documentation of the past, as opposed to a tyranny of information that would be used to justify historical injustices.

Art, history and freedom of expression and assembly in action fascinates me!

Art, history and freedom of expression and assembly in action fascinates me!

As the S.O.P initiative demonstrated, the memorabilia collected during the cut protests are powerful depictions of the people’s opinion about their government’s economic policy. Each placard is a historical artefact, just as valuable as an Emperor’s crown, or any colonial agreement.

Another facet to the whole initiative worth reflecting is the question of autonomy and independence that a museum should have, especially if it hopes to embark on such a provocative and progressive project such as the one undertaken by the British Museum.

A protester showed interest in one of the historical placards.

A protester showed interest in one of the historical placards.

Undeniably, a project that documents social protests would create debates around redefining a museum’s policy or other lackadaisical matters such as budget, formal relations with government or corporate rebranding. However these issues, in my view, are crucial to helping a museum review and rebuild its institutional independence and direction.

I would love, for example, to see the Muzium Negara put together an exhibition on the country’s history of social uprising, without having to fear whether the exhibition will ruffle some feathers or threaten the powers-that-be’s status quo. If they are uncertain how to start they could get some help from the Malaysians who were involved in the S.O.P projects.

Having said that, it is inevitable that while we hope for refreshing exhibitions from the Muzium Negara curators the “show must indeed go on”.  Limited space for memorializing and documenting alternative histories and testimonies have compelled some of our local talents to utilize their creativity through mediums such as theatres, documentaries, music and visual art to challenge historical interpretations and representations.

Part of the S.O.P team demonstrating while identifying interesting placards for the project. The team chased more demonstrators than the police officers on duty!

Part of the S.O.P team demonstrating while identifying interesting placards for the project. The team chased more demonstrators than the police officers on duty!

In keeping with the museum’s goal of preservation of history, I would like to suggest that we, the rakyat, manifest this tradition in the streets. We can start tagging public locations where crucial political and social events took place. These can serve as our efforts to remind ourselves of the social injustice that needs to be addressed and documented but will never make it to the sophisticated altars of our local museums.

We can start immediately by putting a sign post where Teoh Beng Hock fell in front of the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission building in Shah Alam stating: “A mere witness to corruption cases mysteriously jumped from this building and was found dead here.”

Shazeera would like to thank Mark Teh and his team in Goldsmith University for letting her be part of this meaningful project. It reignited her interest and passion to visit museums again especially after the trauma of Pameran Keranda in 2002.


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Shazeera is a Malay Muslim that is still unable to understand why groups like PERKASA exist. But as long as they are around, she will be around too.

Posted on 16 April 2011. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0.

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