Citizenship, the V&A, and the Almost Impossible

Jan 19

Elke Krasny, Professor of Art and Education at Vienna's  Academy of Fine Arts, relates an "almost impossible" initiative at the V&A. This is an extract from her chapter in our recent "inspiring and challenging" book, Feminism and Museums: Intervention, Disruption and Change.

LONDON, NOVEMBER 2015: a group of women have gathered around two tables at the Victoria & Albert Museum. They have come to the Medieval and Renaissance Galleries. It is here, in the public space of the museum that they have their English class, taught by the Women Asylum Seekers Together group, which is supported by Women for Refugee Women. Both the appearance of the tables in the Medieval and Renaissance Gallery and the women’s appearance at the tables have to be considered rare, exceptional. Such appearances cannot be taken for granted. Many of the students had never been to the museum before, and, in this case, they did not just visit the museum, but much rather actively used it to study English in public. As they had their English class conversations at the tables, they claimed their right to the museum as a public space.

These appearances were part of More than one (Fragile) Thing at a Time by muf architecture/art (muf, 2015). It was their contribution to the exhibition All of This Belongs to You. Liza Fior from muf insists on the museum being fully understood as a public space, and being used accordingly. Owing to her insistence the public space of the museum was made inhabitable through muf’s spatial interventions, to which the two tables and the chairs around them bear witness.

Not an easy thing to do
Bringing new tables to the museum is not an easy thing to do. Bringing in new tables to take their place under the colonnades seemed an almost impossible thing to do. The first testing for the English class in November 2014 used rectangular tables, red just like the chairs around them. Yet, the tables did not fit the museum’s conservation requirements. So, instead of giving up, muf conceived of new tables that were curved and bent as to fit, as to not touch, not to damage, the marble of the precious colonnades. The feet of the table had to be lined with synthetic felt as to not leave unwanted marks on the floor. Muf’s work is a strong reminder that it is of importance to consider tables through the lens of political thought. Hannah Arendt has illuminated that tables, which she uses as metonymically to speak about the material world humans have in common, are constitutive to supporting conversations:

To live together in the world means essentially that a world of things is between those who have it in common, as a table is located between those who sit around it… (Arendt, 1988 [1958]: 52) 

Were the table to disappear, Arendt reasons, the “persons sitting opposite each other were no longer separated, but also would be entirely unrelated to each other by anything tangible” (Arendt, 1988 [1958]: 53). Therefore, the tables installed at the Victoria and Albert museum by muf are not only enabling such relations but also make them appear in public so they can be witnessed and understood. 

Addressing social justice and care
This example shows how emergent citizenship practices connect across multiple actors with different citizenship status. These transversal alliances across multiple actors are necessary for feminist acts as they relate to emergent citizenship practices including public awareness raising and addressing issues of social justice, and care. Curators Corinna Gardner, Rory Hyde and Kieran Long at the Victoria and Albert museum invited muf art/architecture to be one of the teams for the All of This Belongs to You exhibition. Muf art/architecture in turn extended an invitation to the Women Asylum Seekers Together who are supported by the civic society group Women for Refugee Women who “work to empower women who have sought sanctuary in the UK to speak about their own experience to the media, to policy-makers and at public events” and they demand “a society in which women’s rights are respected” (Women for Refugee Women). The students and their volunteer teachers together used the museum as public space for their English class. Such substantive citizenship practices form part of a long tradition of feminist strategies to engage with the politics of citizenship. “The practices of citizenship available to women in the realm of culture and society interweave in important ways with those of the political sphere” (Benhabib 2002, quoted in Friedman, 2005: 6).

The example shows that the institution of the museum can provide enabling conditions for emerging citizenship practices and support their right to public space. Yet, it also shows, that the museum is not easily ready to do so. Feminist acts are required on many different levels, architecturally, spatially, socially, and culturally, in order to transform the global museum into an arena for active citizenship practices as they form part of global citizenship struggles. The transversal alliance and collaboration between refugees, Women Asylum Seekers Together, Women for Refugee Women, and muf art/architecture addresses the different levels of political, cultural, material and spatial work necessary. The feminist act of More than One Fragile Thing at a Time showed that the museum belongs to all and serves as a public space in which “citizenship is partly produced by the practices of the excluded” (Sassen, 2003: 49).

You can see more information about
Feminism and Museums here



Subscribe to our newsletter to keep up-to-date with the latest releases, book extracts and free Reading Room chapters.