Further update on Birmingham museum story. A commenter pointed out the statement by Artists Circle. It seems fairly reasonable, actually. Debatable, but reasonable – not a mere taboo-invocation or shut up woman incident.

The individual was concerned by an image entitled: ‘Waiting’ which showed a couple of male bystanders looking at a partially dressed woman lying on the ground. The information available regarding the picture read along the lines of ‘This photograph was taken at the bus point.’ There was no other contextual information accompanying the photograph[,] which caused further concern.

The museum also mentioned the lack of contextual information in its email to Andy Gilmour. Miah said in the Guardian article, however:

The partially dressed figure in the image was actually a mentally ill woman who had made a home of a bus shelter. She was looked after by locals who made sure she was out of danger and fed. I think this shows a compassionate view of Islamic society.

But without contextual information (which the museum says Miah specifically did not want included), viewers have no way to know that the woman was mentally ill or that she was looked after by locals who made sure she was out of danger and fed, so they are not in a position to tell whether or not it’s a compassionate view of Islamic society. It could, from the description, look like the exact opposite. Pictures very often require background knowledge in order to understand their meaning, even their basic content (are those people playing? fighting? performing?). I pointed that out once in a discussion of pictures and language, and an opponent (so to speak) said nonsense and cited the famous picture of the children running down a road after a napalm attack during the Vietnam war. But of course that makes my point, not the opponent’s; he’d simply forgotten (apparently) that we already know what the picture is about, we have the background knowledge, but if we didn’t, we would have no idea what was going on in that picture except that the children were in anguish and probably fleeing.

Pictures can be enigmatic, of course; there’s no law that says they all have to be put in context; but it’s not self-evidently absurd to want a context for certain pictures in particular exhibitions. And in any case, if Miah’s argument is the one quoted, it’s not compatible with refusing to supply a context. She’s offering a substantive claim about the meaning of the picture, while at the same time making sure viewers won’t be able to discern that meaning. Those two things don’t mesh very well.

Andy has emailed Miah, and the museum again; it will be interesting to learn what, if anything, they say.

Update of update: the photograph in question and more discussion here; thanks to Don.

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