A note on paternalism: ‘Are Museums Political?’ by Richard Hoggart.

This lecture was given in London in 1998. It was then put in a book called ‘Between Two Worlds.’ This collection of essays was published in 2001. While Richard Hoggart had a lot of expertise and experience in relation to the question, his attitude towards the subject made reading the lecture an uncomfortable and disappointing read.

It seems obvious that museums are political. They are part of the cultural economy. Moreover, their contents have sometimes been looted from diverse countries. Furthermore, what is included within their walls has an ideological impact on the visitors. However, Hoggart did not take this straightforward approach, perhaps because it would have raised really awkward questions about capitalism and imperialism.

Critical of other parts of the world, Hoggart believed in many of the values of the West in an uncritical manner. He claimed that we lived in “sophisticated democracies.” In addition, he argued that museums were places of “collective memory.” Nonetheless, he admitted that citizens were short of education. And he confessed that class played a role in this. Interestingly, his attitude towards value was not postmodern. He thought that museums could be a positive force in changing society. The fundamental problem with his lecture was that it did not question the type of formal democracy we have under capitalism. Hence it adopted a fairly paternalist perspective which did not engage creatively with how museums could inspire non-capitalist behaviour within capitalism. Nor did it advocate returning objects like the Elgin Marbles to where they had been found.

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