2 July 2018




On June 22nd, the Royal Ontario Museum released two announcements about two upcoming exhibits. From July 21st to October 21st, 2018, the ROM will display Modernism on the Ganges: Raghubir Singh Photographs, a touring photography exhibit that has recently been subject to controversy. Also on July 21st, the ROM will launch a series of programming titled #MeToo & the Arts, which will focus on the intersection of the #MeToo movement and museums. The shared launch date is no coincidence, as the #MeToo program is a direct response to the difficulties posed by exhibiting the works of Raghubir Singh, an artist who has been accused of sexual abuse.

Exterior image of the Royal Ontario Museum. Source.

Modernism on the Ganges: Raghubir Singh Photographs

On October 11th, 2017, the Modernism on the Ganges exhibit opened at the Met Breuer, a satellite location of The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Shortly after the exhibit opened, on a WYNC radio show, artist Jaishri Abichandani shared that Raghubir Singh sexually abused her in the 1990s. Abichandani’s allegation of abuse came in the midst of the allegations against Harvey Weinstein and the beginning of the #MeToo movement.

After Abichandani came forward about the abuse, she organized a “silent performance/protest” in front of the Met Breur, as a response to their exhibit of Singh’s work, and to “hold institutions responsible for their choices.” The protest was widely publicized, and brought more attention to the allegations against Singh.

After the exhibit closed at the Met Breuer on January 2nd, the exhibit was on display at The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, from March 3rd to June 10th. While other museums have cancelled exhibits featuring artists accused of serious crimes, the exhibit continued as scheduled in Houston.

Now, the exhibit in question is headed to the ROM, but unlike the other institutions that have displayed the exhibit, the ROM is creating programming that directly responds to the allegations, rather than shying away from the difficult subject.

The ROM’s Responsive Programming

The ROM has chosen to display the Modernism on the Ganges exhibit amidst the controversy. However, the museum has created a parallel display, and accompanying programming, that responds to the allegations against Singh. #MeToo & the Arts focuses on sexualized harassment and gender inequality in the arts.

The ROM’s Director expressed that the institution has a “responsibility to take on challenging topics that are shaping our society today,” and so far the museum’s approach has been commendable. When creating the #MeToo programming, the ROM consulted Abichandani, Singh’s family, and community members involved in women’s advocacy and the arts. The involvement of community members will hopefully further push the conversation beyond the walls of the institution.

Questions Remaining

The ROM is certainly taking a different approach than most institutions faced with controversial exhibits. The museum isn’t closing the door to the artist in question, nor is the museum displaying the work without contextualizing the controversy. The ROM has made the decision to use the exhibit to create a dialogue, but of course, this approach poses issues as well. Abichandani has expressed disappointment with the language and images used in the early draft of the display. While agreeing on language in an exhibit is familiar to most museum professionals, the issue of language takes on extra importance when dealing with such a difficult subject.

Then, there are the ideological issues posed by the ROM’s approach. On the one hand, the ROM is making an effort to make the museum a space for dialogue where the #MeToo movement is given the attention it deserves. My fellow Musings contributor Kathleen Lew responded to this issue back in October 2017, when the #MeToo movement was first gaining momentum, and she too considered that the museum might be a space to work through these difficult conversations. However, I am left wondering if displaying Singh’s work is justified. #MeToo is a movement about shifting the power dynamics and giving voice to the victims, so does displaying the work of an accused perpetrator further the power imbalance? I will have to wait to see the final displays, but this article itself is proof that the ROM has sparked dialogue before the exhibit has even opened.

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