Museums and the Working Class
Adele Chynoweth, from the Centre for Heritage and Museum Studies, has been invited by Routledge to submit a proposal for an edited peer-reviewed collection provisionally entitled Museums and the Working Class.
On 5 January 2019, a neo-Nazi rally took place in the Melbourne suburb of St Kilda, in Australia. Counter commentary on social media shunned the participants as ‘white trash’ with ‘mullet’ haircuts. It is not that public displays by the far-right is not a serious cause for concern. What is interesting to note is that their racist politics were critically framed by signifiers associated with bad taste and poverty.
Within the Australian museum sector, in 2003, the co-founder of the Care Leavers of Australasia Network (CLAN), repeatedly contacted the National Museum of Australia requesting an exhibition about the experiences of non-Indigenous Australian children (known as the ‘Forgotten Australians” or “Care Leavers”) who grew up in orphanages in Australia. She was ignored for several years, despite, or because of, the fact the narratives pertaining to the Stolen Generations were already exhibited in the Museum. Preliminary anecdotal evidence suggests that the refusal to exhibit the history of the Forgotten Australians was informed by a view that these white children were not sufficiently griefworthy in comparison with institutionalised Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children. It is not that this observation is not apt. Historian Peter Read’s analysis that the colonial domination that separated Aboriginal children from their communities was, in effect, an attempt of cultural genocide is crucial and compelling. Instead, a belief that the contemporary white working class must fulfil legitimacy of victimhood before they can earn a place in the National Museum of Australia contrasts sharply with the plethora of exhibited material depicting the lives of middle-class, non-Indigenous Australians throughout the Museum.
UK journalist Gary Younge notes that the discourse of diversity pays little attention to economic difference, leaving ‘the white working class stranded without a sponsor… [T]hey are assumed to have no culture. They are told their whiteness is a mark of power they have never felt and a signifier for potential bigotry they may not harbor.’ 
Sociologist Michèle Lamont notes that neoliberalism is responsible for a growth in recognition gaps of low-status groups and proposes a research agenda for a ‘study of destigmatisation’ to support ways in which cultural membership may be broadened. 
On the other hand, Zoe Williams states that the white working class does not exist because society is multiracial. Economist Faiza Shaheen is also critical of a narrative that denies multiethnicity. She positions the white working class as a constructed scapegoat that enables the elite to disavow their own prejudice. American sociologist Matt Wray critically positions the term “white trash” as both an ‘ethnoracial signifier’ and ‘a signifier of abject class status’.
This volume aims to place a discussion of class within the field of museology. A variety of points of view within the wider discourse of class are welcome. How do museums deny and marginalise or, support and encourage representations of the working and poverty classes? Is this work framed in the past or connected with contemporary struggle and achievements? Do museums encourage an intersection between multiculturalism and class? Between class and other identities?
This collection may focus on the following key themes (but other areas will be considered, should contributors have alternative ideas):
- representations of the contemporary/historical working and poverty classes in non-specialist, mainstream museums (either in terms of presence or absence)
- critical analysis of museums that romanticise the working class and/or fetishise hardship
- public programmes/community engagement/activism
- endangered skills and trades
- labour museums
- workhouse/poorhouse museums
- prison museums
- foundling/orphanage museums
- house museums and narratives of domestic labourers/servants
- trade union collections
- museum responses to the seduction of the working class by far-right politics
- the working class and museum employment – what are the industrial issues? Observations/analysis re organisational psychology? Workplace culture? Obstacles to employment?