Censorship versus free expression: where do design and cultural institutions stand?

Recent incidents in design-led institutions may call into question their current ability to stand by commitments to inclusivity.

Ahead of the Young V&A’s reopening on 1 July, the design museum aimed at children, formerly the Museum of Childhood, came under criticism for removing LGBTQ+ items in its displays and shop.

Among the items was a Stonewall-produced poster that reads “Some people are trans. Get over it!”

The news came at a time when an increasing number of brands were seen to be bowing to pressure to retract trans-inclusive products and messaging. There has also been a rise in anti-LGBTQ+ legislation in the US, and statistics show increased violence against LGBTQ+ people – while also coinciding with Pride month.

Images courtesy of Stonewall

Less than two weeks beforehand, on 15 June, there was an incident of anti-Palestinian censorship at the Barbican Centre, involving a guest due to speak as part of the public programming for design collective Resolve’s exhibition, Them’s the Breaks, taking place in the Barbican’s Curve Gallery.

Shortly before the event was due to start, the speaker, Radio Alhara co-founder Elias Anastas, was asked by a member of the Barbican team to “avoid talking about free Palestine at length”.

Following the incident, Resolve announced it was dismantling its exhibition in solidarity and ceasing its public programme, explaining that this latest incident had been preceded by a number of hostile experiences toward its members, their friends and family.

While both institutions have policies on diversity and inclusion and have responded to criticism of the events, these instances in practice may call into question the ability of design and cultural institutions to stand by their statements on inclusion.

“A serious error of judgement”

The Barbican apologised in a statement for its “editorial note” sent to Anastas, calling the action “a serious error of judgement, for which we are deeply sorry”. Via a second statement, Barbican CEO Claire Spencer and Will Gompertz, artistic director also apologised for the hostility experienced by Resolve, describing the incidents as “unacceptable.”

Spencer and Gompertz commented that they were “fully supportive” of Resolve’s decision, “are taking this situation extremely seriously and are currently working with the broader Barbican team to understand the details of what happened”.

The Barbican has previously come under criticism for a number of alleged incidents of racism experienced by its staff between 2014 – 2021, as documented by the book Barbican Stories.

Later in 2021, the Barbican released a statement explaining that under new leadership it would be conducting a series of “organisation-wide reviews into our culture and practices”, as well as diversifying its workforce and looking to “foster and inclusive culture”.

“Not intended to be exclusionary”

In the case of the V&A, a spokesperson says the removal of the items was “not intended to be exclusionary”, stating that the V&A “is fully committed to presenting an inclusive programme and visitor experience across all our museums”, which “includes trans representation as well as voices and perspectives from across the queer community”.

The spokesperson told Design Week that the removal of the poster was part of a “complex decision to remove several objects, covering a range of contemporary topics, from a display about how design is used as a creative tool to campaign for different causes.


“This decision was not intended to be exclusionary, and we do recognise the concerns that this has caused. We know that these are important topics, and our decision was taken as part of a wider programme that we are developing on how we present gallery content in a more considered and inclusive way for 0–14-year-olds at Young V&A.”

The age of its audience was stated as the reason for the removal of two books, which carry an age guidance of 14-18, whereas the Young V&A’s is aimed at an audience of 0–14-year-olds.

According to the spokesperson, the museum is currently “exploring alternatives for our target age range”.

“In the weeks ahead, we will be partnering with young people, educators and academics, as well as V&A colleagues including our LGBTQIA+ network to help shape this work.”

“Red flags”

The producer of the poster, Stonewall, and author of one of the books, Rowan Ellis, both allege that the actions are evidence of censorship of trans-inclusive messaging.

Stating the charity’s opposition to the decision, Stonewall director of communications and external affairs, Robbie de Santos commented that the removal of the poster was “disappointing and concerning.”

“It simply shouldn’t be controversial to be saying some people are trans, especially as a poster from the same campaign saying ‘Some people are gay. Get over it’ remains up. Primary schools are encouraged to teach that LGBT people exist as part of government guidance on teaching about different families.”

Ellis, author of one of the removed Here and Queer: A Queer Girl’s Guide to Life book, said to the BBC that while she could “understand” the removal of the books, the removal of the poster was a “red flag”, and “absolutely” transphobic.

“Despite the best intention of good individuals within the institution”

Both of the instances in question have displayed differing positions held by members of the cultural institutions’ workforces.

In a statement on its Instagram account, Resolve has commented on the support of individuals within the Barbican, including exhibition curator Jon Astbury. The collective explains it had taken the decision to cease its public programming “as we are unable to provide our communities and collaborators with the assurances we require to bring them into our exhibition and programme safely”.

Resolve concludes in the statement: “Today, despite the best intentions of many good individuals within the institution, young Black artists such as ourselves and other peers who seek to platform their communities, cannot be guaranteed to be treated with respect and dignity when working there.

“This feeling was compounded by the unequivocal act of anti-Palestinian censorship against Radio Alhara.”


In the case of the Young V&A, the decision to remove the items was reportedly made by V&A director Tristram Hunt, according to the Public and Commercial Services Union (PCS), which claims to have received an email implicating him. The V&A was unable to confirm this.

The PCS says its local branch “has been working closely with the V&A Staff LGBTQ Working Group and our trade union comrades in Prospect to explore ways to have the popular poster returned to display, and the books to the Young V&A (YVA) shop.”

It says that the group met with Hunt to discuss the issue on 26 June: “The group stated that the object should be returned to display and the books to the shop. This request was denied”.

“Design can give people a voice”

At both the Young V&A and the Barbican, the displays and programming in question were concerned with using design as a tool for advocacy.

A V&A museum blog dating from 2022, Out at Young V&A: LGBTQ+ stories for children and young people, explains the reasons for acquiring the two Stonewall posters.

Written by Young V&A curator Kristian Volsing, who is also a member of the museum’s LGBTQ Working Group, the blog explains that the 2007 poster with the message, “Some people are Gay. Get Over it!” and the second from 2015, saying “Some people are trans. Get over it!”, were acquired to be part of a display “exploring how design can give people a voice” at the Young V&A.

The blog notes that the original 2007 poster was designed in-house at Stonewall and its slogan shaped in workshops with 150 school-age children, before being distributed to schools and displayed on public billboards.

Run by Stonewall and children’s charities Barnardo’s and the NSPCC, it was created as part of a campaign, Education for All, which sought to tackle homophobic bullying suffered by large numbers of school children.

For the 2015 edition, “the design of the original poster was made available to schools and organisations with the slogan “Some people are trans. Get over it!”, according to the blog.

Concluding the post, which introduces a number of other LGBTQ+ focused objects acquired by the V&A, Volsing notes the role the items were to take in the new museum: “In this vein, Young V&A will be an inclusive museum environment, with collections that speak to the multiple identities of our young visitors, in as broad and welcoming way as possible”.

Meanwhile for Resolve Collective, advocacy is carried throughout its multidisciplinary design practice.

“For us, design carries more than aesthetic value; it is also a mechanism for political and socio-economic change”, says the group.

In a release for the exhibition, which was due to take place at the Barbican’s Curve Gallery until 16 July, Resolve explained that the work represented “a fragment of a wider collective endeavour to rethink the role of our society’s institutions”.

A code of ethics and guidance for museums

The Museums Association, a not-for-profit organisation advocating for museums across the UK, has a published Code of Ethics on its website.

While unable to comment on specific situations, when approached for comment, director Sharon Heal referred back to the code.

“We hope all museums abide by our Code of Ethics which says that museums and everyone who works in and with them should treat everyone equally, with honesty and respect and should provide and generate accurate information for and with the public”, Heal says.

“The code also says that we should support freedom of speech and debate”.

One campaign by the Museums Association tackles the issue of self-censorship specifically – which it says is an issue faced by many “in an era when public organisations are so open to criticism via traditional and social media.”

“It is perhaps understandable that risk-averse management would wish to avoid any potential controversy in order to cover their backs”, it continues.

“However, to allow self-censorship to become the modus-operandi of a museum means undermining the role of the museums to challenge audiences with new and different perspectives.”

Today, design and cultural institutions have published statements on diversity and inclusion, including a renewed focus on anti-racism after the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement in 2020.

On the subject of trans inclusion, however, there is increasing need for specific guidance, according to the Research Centre for Museums and Galleries at the University of Leicester, which is currently developing guidance for museums and cultural organisations.

Its co-directors, Professors Richard Sandell and Suzanne Macleod, told Design Week that the centre is increasingly being approached by museums “amidst growing uncertainty and anxiety surrounding trans inclusive practice.”

Queries include “how to build understanding and support with staff and stakeholders; how to ethically share trans stories from the collections with visitors; and how to defend the organisation’s trans inclusive commitment in the face of complaints and protests”.

Working with “legal scholars and equality experts”, the advice will be “intended for anyone working with or in cultural organisations” and will “enable staff, volunteers, freelancers, managers and trustees to work together to positively impact the experiences of trans individuals and communities”.

Banner image by iam2mai from Shutterstock

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  • Neil Littman July 18, 2023 at 4:38 pm

    Without going into to many specifics I think this story indicates how confused everybody is in these organisations and by going overboard to avoid offending anybody or removing posters etc. are having the exact opposite effect and showing a lack of clear thinking. The fragmentation and conflict of different groups within the gay and trans community has led to this which is ironic when they have spent years fighting the prejudices outside in the wider world and If they had left things as they were would anybody have been the wiser? Think the poster headline sums it up perfectly ‘get over it’

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