THE BLOG

What the Human Zoo Tells Us About Online Engagement

30/09/2014 21:29 BST | Updated 30/11/2014 10:59 GMT

Last week the Barbican announced it would be closing down the controversial art installation Exhibit B before it had opened following a campaign, including a 22,988 strong petition on change.org, condemning it as racist.

This has led to much comment about the campaign and Barbican's actions. There has been fascinating debate and points from both sides, questioning the concepts of art and racism. These debates are important - in a democratic society it is important that we question things and each other.

But the reception of the Human Zoo protest led by activist and journalist Sara Myers, has also been met with hostility by some, including the Barbican. Following closure a spokesperson for the Barbican said:

"Given that protests are scheduled for future performances of Exhibit B we have had no choice but to cancel all performances of the piece. We find it profoundly troubling that such methods have been used to silence artists and performers and that audiences have been denied the opportunity to see this important work."

The Human Zoo campaign has engaged people across the country on both sides of the issue. Sara - who is based in Birmingham - created enough noise that hundreds travelled to the Barbican in London for each protest that was organised and her campaign was reported across national media. Her supporters included politicians, academics and artists including Lord Boateng, Britain's first black cabinet minister and Simon Woolley of Operation Black Vote. This kind of grassroots campaigning and mobilising is impressive in an age when politicians are failing to get people excited about politics.

The web and sites like Change.org means that people can speak out and have more impact than ever before - proving wrong the assumption that the public don't care about politics. They care about the issues that matter to them and when institutions like the Barbican are challenged - we should celebrate that disruptive behaviour, whether you agree with Sara's campaign or not. It's crucial that we protect that right to protest rather than demonizing those who have the courage to be heard.

It also means that powerful institutions have a great opportunity to respond in real time to debates happening about their work. This year an animal rights campaigner started a petition calling on British Airways to stop selling trips to SeaWorld, after learning that the sea park keep killer whales in captivity. BA could have ignored this campaign or slapped it down with a generic press statement. Instead they have invited the petition starter to meet with them to discuss the campaign. BA understood that thousands of people coming together and attempting to have a dialogue with them shouldn't be viewed as an attack but as an exciting opportunity. Taking the time to actively listen to the public will set organisations apart and strengthen public opinion in them.

Brett Bailey had a right to create and exhibit his art. And Sara Myers and her supporters had a right to have their voice heard and protest. The Barbican had the chance to embrace this debate, to involve the campaigners and create a space for them to explore the questions raised. Instead they closed the show and vilified the campaigners.

The Barbican still have an opportunity on their hands. They can re-engage in this debate, rather than slamming it down. As an arts institution they should relish, encourage and embrace these conversations. They now have almost 23,000 people who want to be heard on this issue, who care passionately about what happened, if I were them I would start listening.