The Museum of Neoliberalism: full or empty?

A new occupation has sprung up in a disused museum in London. The occupiers have turned one floor into a museum of neoliberalism. But will it be a space for transportation to a future better world, or an embodiment of the end of history?
Niki Seth-Smith
29 November 2011

Last weekend I attended the opening of the Museum of Neoliberalism, part the new Bloomsbury Social Centre established in an occupied building on Gordon Square, London. Doors away from the house where the economist John Maynard Keynes lived his last 30 years, the building is a former museum, jointly owned by the University of London and The School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS). The occupiers entered last Thursday, saying in their statement that the building was ‘left vacantly to rot’ and that they are providing ‘a real community resource’ and ‘the material instrument’ required to build for the UK-wide strikes against the government’s proposed pension reforms, predicted to bring 2.6 million to the streets tomorrow.

I’m let in by a woman with black cropped hair and bright lipstick, who gives me an appraising look (I’m young, with a backpack and a can of beer, explicitly non-threatening) and points me up the broad flight of stairs to the Museum of Neoliberalism, on the fourth floor. First to hit me is the music: Blair’s victory anthem, D:Ream’s ‘Things can only get better’. Bleak. And even starker is the room, filled with floor-to-ceiling display cases with scrawled labels in felt tip –POLITICS, ECONOMY, CULTURE… all of them are empty. A lone ‘artifact’, a Lehmann Brothers’ branded cap, lays discarded in one corner.

People float in and out, the majority students, a group of whom is arguing about whether the cases should or should not now be filled. It turns out all ‘museum guests’ were supposed to bring ‘remnants of the near-forgotten age of neoliberalism’ – they’d just left off that instruction from the facebook invite. But the choice is enough entertainment of itself: to fill or not to fill.

It’s a pertinent question.

Those who wanted the cabinets full envisioned a collection assembled by a future society in which the moral, political and economic philosophy of neoliberalism plays no part; the artifacts filed into categories with academic detachment (The Tortuous Final Years 2008-2012; Late Capitalist Art; The Eurozone: from birth to demise).

Those who wanted to keep them empty saw an a-historical space, manifesting the neoliberal end-point: the absolute hollowing out of culture, politics and the state, where a museum opening night offers nothing more than a handful of individuals moored to the drinks table, pummeled by the endless strains of a retro promise of progress (D:Ream, it turns out, is on repeat).

Both scenarios had their proponents, and their allure. Imagining a time when such objects as a Banksy painting, a self-help book, a Starbucks cup, would be scrutinized with untrammeled intellectual rigour, opens up a space for the clear thinking of retrospection. It’s a delicious up yours to TINA (There Is No Alternative). But I had to admit, as I joined a couple of guys compiling a Wall of Lost Vocabulary (blue-sky thinking; collateral damage; maximization) that I was tempted by the glamour of the ‘empty’ camp. “It’s cool, it’s post-post ironic”, one woman enthused to her friend. “We’re living in the end times, we may as well celebrate”. And behind the banter was the bait of a cynically approving nod from flavorpill or Vice Magazine. Readers around the country would lap up the ironic copy and think ‘How London’.

But, in the end, narcissism isn’t good enough. I hope the Museum of Neoliberalism is filled. It could understandably be left as a failed experiment: a talking point for an evening, now let’s move on. The Bloomsbury Social Group is buzzing with a more pressing agenda: supporting campaigns, organizing events, monitoring their legal situation – not to mention being a base for a pivotal day of action tomorrow. But there is something wonderful about occupying a disused former museum – whose owners plan to turn it into a new postgraduate centre including a luxury apartment for the dean – and reclaiming it as a space of transportation to a different time: not to the past, but to a future better world.  

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