If there was an award for the most unlikely political activists of recent times, I’d nominate the collective of 18 moles preserved in a glass jar, one of the most popular displays in the Grant Museum of Zoology and Comparative Anatomy. Their Twitter account, @GlassJarOfMoles, shares a wide range of political content, in addition to advertising the museum and its displays. The moles may have won the hearts of their online audience, but should a museum exhibit act like an activist?

These moles are not the only museum object to gain prominence through social media. The Museum of English Rural Life, based in Reading, has embraced the use of pop culture humour to engage people with their (admittedly, otherwise niche) collection, which seeks to “record the disappearance of a sustainable rural way of life”, according to its mission. This strategy has been very successful, with 154.7k followers, and even tech magnate Elon Musk using one of their images as his Twitter profile picture.

This demonstrates a recognition from the heritage sector, which is typically a slow-moving one, that online engagement is essential for museums and heritage sites to remain relevant. Lockdown has meant that arts and culture have become even more essential to the maintenance of people’s well-being, offering much-needed escapism from statistics, employment insecurity and bereavement, and museums have had to digitalise to adapt quickly.

However, the Glass Jar of Moles has gone beyond just advertising the Museum where they reside: they make political statements online, including frequent criticism of the Conservative Party. Whilst many individuals use social media to comment on politics, it is striking for a museum object, that is representative of an institution, to do so. This has the potential to be particularly controversial in the present context. The Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport contacted the twenty-six museum groups and museums explaining the government’s position on “contested heritage” [their wording] representation in these museums:

 “You should not be taking actions motivated by activism or politics.  The significant support that you receive from the taxpayer is an acknowledgement of the important cultural role you play for the entire country.  It is imperative that you continue to act impartially, in line with your publicly funded status, and not in a way that brings this into question. This is especially important as we enter a challenging Comprehensive Spending Review, in which all government spending will rightly be scrutinised.”

This letter, which has unsurprisingly received much criticism from the heritage sector, heavily implies that any decisions made that the government considers too politically motivated could lead to a loss of funding for the museum.

This is wilful ignorance regarding the historical development of museums. Museums have always been political tools, complicit in the maintenance of European nationalism and empire. The practice of collecting objects for display was used as a “means of fashioning and performing the self via material things” (MacDonald, 2008: 85). This is not just the case for individuals: it is also used to symbolise a nation’s status. Nation states used displays of objects in museums to bolster the narratives that benefit their political aims. For example, coloniser nations displaying objects from nations they have colonised enabled them to position themselves as educated masters of the world, a method of legitimising the colonial exploitation they engaged in.

Museum displays were also used to represent colonised nations as inferior. Edward Said developed the concept of Orientalism to explain and critique western government’s controlling knowledge production and dissemination regarding non-western countries to further political aims. An aspect of this is the East-West false dichotomy: western countries portraying their culture as superior by ascribing values: “rational, virtuous, mature, normal”, and non-western countries in diametric opposition, as “irrational, depraved … childlike” (Said, 2019: 40).

Museums today still maintain this dynamic, as they hold a monopoly over non-western cultural artefacts, which was made through collections acquired through colonial exploitation and violence. The letter from DCMS is in essence stating that museums could be penalised for challenging this in their displays and interpretation, which contributes to the maintenance of neocolonialist power relations.

The moles’ Twitter has also been criticised for being too political. Another Twitter user (@miketaylor88) replied to their tweet encouraging followers to vote Labour, stating:

Glass Jar of Moles should be above politics and be a calm voice above the madness…. so sad.. so sad”

The moles replied:

“…How can one be above politics? Isn’t politics everything? Also, how does one remain calm when you have seen those closest to you suffering, and many many more, from the direct policies and actions of this gov over the last 10 years?”

The moles here are acknowledging that museum spaces are never neutral, and this is reflected in the resources they share, for example supporting the removal of a statue of a slave owner in Tower Hamlets and the #RhodesMustFall campaign.

However, digital activism is frequently criticised as a non-legitimate form of political participation, described by Morozov as “making online activists feel useful and important whilst having precariously little political impact” (2011: 189). Byung-Chul Han’s conceptualised this as a ‘Shitstorm’ to explain digital activism’s fleeting impact (Han, 2017: 10-12). Mobilised by outrage, online activism is called a ‘Shitstorm’ because the pressure is inconsistently applied and short-lived. The online presence of the glass jar of moles could consequently be understood as concerned more with curating online identity and image than the causes they advocate for: how is a glass jar of moles with a Twitter account going to meaningfully impact UK Parliamentary Politics?

The Grant Museum (the home of the jar of moles) has engaged with the political topics in its galleries. There is currently a temporary exhibition titled ‘Displays of Power’, exploring the colonial origins of and scientific racism in natural history museums. This demonstrates that the museum is concerned with acknowledging and challenging the colonial history of natural history disciplines. Many scientific museums distance themselves from the role they have previously played in the entrenchment of scientific racism, as the displays intended to disseminate these theories to those outside of the academic sphere. This is in addition to the processes through which collections were acquired: expeditions led to the mistreatment of indigenous people, for example Hans Sloane, who’s collections contributed to the British Museum and Natural History Museum, profited from slavery. Indigenous communities were frequently central to western knowledge production, however they were erased from the narrative by the people they assisted, and they remain overlooked.

Overall, there is clearly a huge need for decolonial and anti-racist critiques of museums and for this to be incorporated in museum displays and interpretation. If social media is the way this can be developed and shared, so be it! For example, the Horniman Museum has utilised social media and their online resources well, in particular regarding 60 years of Nigerian Independence and the ‘Rethinking Relationships’ project, both of which prioritise building trust around African collections through increased access to collections and decolonial interpretation. But it points even more to the concerning nature of the government’s letter about depiction of ‘contested heritage’: “when politicians turn curator and threaten cultural and arts bodies the slope isn’t just slippery, it’s an avalanche”, said Roy Clare (former director of the National Maritime Museum).  Dowden’s statement is contradictory, as urging museums to be ‘impartial’ is a political move. It serves DCMS’ political priorities of maintaining the status quo of downplaying the UK’s colonial wrongs and conflating this perspective with impartiality.