Social justice vs wellbeing

Maurice Davies, 26.02.2013
Are they just different means to the same end?
Increasingly museums want to be more explicit about improving people’s lives and strengthening communities. In the UK this has led to two different approaches emerging: social justice and wellbeing.

Museums in the UK known for their social justice work include National Museums Liverpool, Glasgow Museums and Tyne and Wear Museums (interestingly, all based in northern cities).

Best known for pursuing wellbeing is the Museum of East Anglian Life, whose director Tony Butler leads the Happy Museum Project. Other rural museums - such as the Chiltern Open Air Museum - are involved, and so are some based in cities, such as the London Transport Museum and Reading Museum.

Social justice museums and wellbeing museums aim to do pretty much the same things and achieve the same ends. They use their assets of collections, buildings, knowledge and networks to help create a fairer society, in which people live better lives. But there are some philosophical differences.

Social justice focuses on areas such as human rights, inequality and poverty. It believes the state should strongly intervene in communities. With origins on the left, it is perhaps red.

Wellbeing prioritises concepts such as self-help, local organisation and relationships. It stresses the role of civil society organisations, such as charities and community groups, to complement the work of the state, whose main role is to help local communities flourish so they can find their own solutions. It has its recent origins, at least in part, in the green movement.

Personally, I may be colour-blind, but I can’t see very much difference between these versions of red and green. Yet in my work on Museums 2020 I sense rumbling disagreements between the groups, with social justice people thinking wellbeing people are a bit wet and naïve about the realities of disadvantaged people’s lives. Conversely, wellbeing people think social justice people are a bit too top down and doctrinaire.

Essentially the disagreement is about language and approach, particularly the role of the public sector and the state. All are after pretty much the same outcomes, so it’s probably best to see social justice and wellbeing on a spectrum rather than in opposition to each other.

One thing that’s clear from responses to the 2020 consultation is that although some people see social justice as a rallying call for museums, others find the phrase off-putting. Many in museums seem much more comfortable working with the terminology of wellbeing.

Me, I’m happy with any conceptual framework that helps museums have a better impact on individuals, communities, society and the environment.


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Patrick Steel
MA Member
Website Editor, Museums Association
04.03.2013, 15:24
And another interesting point of view from Bridget McKenzie:
Patrick Steel
MA Member
Website Editor, Museums Association
04.03.2013, 13:11
What do people think about the views expressed in this piece?
Maurice Davies
MA Member
Head of Policy & Communication, Museums Association
01.03.2013, 10:41
I have to confess I'm a bit confused about this debate, but as Sharon says - good to get it out in the open. I agree entirely with Iain about the intimate connections between social justice and wellbeing, and their largely common aims. Can't quite see what all the fuss is about, but I do see some of the leaders of our profession in what seems to me like quite unnecessary disagreement.

I'm an old leftie and when I was a teenager in the 1970s witnessed the fierce disputes between tiny groups on the Left that achieved very little apart from heated debate. It's common political sense that division is destructive.

So, at the risk of sounding like a wet liberal, I'd like to propose a truce - a coalition? - between Tonyist Wellbeing and Davidist Social Justice. Ditch the increasingly obscure and excluding terminology and instead focus on the outcomes want museums to have. Perhaps together we can encourage more museums to do more good.
Sharon Heal
MA Member
Head of Publications & Events, Museums Association
28.02.2013, 10:03
I agree with Iain - it's good to have the debate; far too often these issues rumble away in the background without being properly aired. To me there's nothing frightening about social justice but if people don't understand the term, let's unpick it. Do we want museums that have audiences from all sections of society? Do we want equal access for all regardless of gender, class, ability etc? Do we want museums that confront the broader questions of inequality and injustice in society? If the answer is yes, then we want social justice. And btw just because Iain Duncan Smith has used the term doesn't make it a dirty word - reclaim the name!
Iain Watson
MA Member
Director, Tyne & Wear Archives & Museums
28.02.2013, 08:49
Dear Maurice

Here at Tyne and Wear we don’t agree with your premise about social justice and wellbeing but your intervention has sparked off some good debate amongst colleagues, so thank you for that! We find it a bit bizarre that the two ideas have been placed in opposition - if the social justice approach is an attempt to redress an imbalance in people's life chances, then addressing health and wellbeing has to be part of that. So, for example, our Outreach work with Moving Forward (a service which supports adults who experience mental health needs) sets out to improve individual well being, in order to prevent the 'revolving door' syndrome of people needing to access the same services again. Surely this is equally about social justice. The approach we are developing of encouraging people to independently access adult learning and volunteering is very much about social justice. There is perhaps a difference in how they are presented – the social justice approach by its nature needs to be targeted at specific sectors of society (who are experiencing societal injustice), whereas wellbeing can be seen as a population level benefit, and therefore not necessarily targeted. Is what you’re referring to not about methodology but about target (i.e. scarce resources should be targeted at greatest need) rather than an assertion that wellbeing and social justice are not intimately interconnected? Projects such as the North East’s digital storytelling initiative, Culture Shock (, which you might characterise as about social justice (explicit aims to increase citizenship, cohesion and tolerance), delivered some of its greatest measurable outcomes in terms of individual wellbeing. That personal wellbeing often came in partnership with greater personal confidence and engagement in civil society.

Thanks for starting the debate

David Anderson
MA Member
Director General, National Museum Wales
28.02.2013, 08:27
Sorry, Maurice, I just don't recognise your characterisation of social justice either. Most of the entitlements we now have - such as to universal free school education and health provision, not to mention the vote - were the result of social activism and community participation long before they became state action. You can't take the public out of social justice, however hard you try!
Brendan Carr
MA Member
Community Engagement Curator, Reading Museum Service
28.02.2013, 01:21
This does seem a little bit like splitting hairs, so I like the spectrum idea - to find a place to pin your colours! . Unfortunately I was unable to spend any of my time listening to debates at the MA conference in Edinburgh last year but I would nevertheless be inclined to challenge any notion of there being a world of difference between the values underpinning a social justice approach and the philosophy behind museums seeking to promote an agenda focused on well-being. I may be imagining things but North, South, East and West a lot of people already appear to be using museums in order to learn something new and have a good time/be well. Barriers still exist to prevent a large proportion of us from benefiting from these places and their collections on even this basic term. So I think a museum will be acting unjustly if it does not behave pro-actively to bring these walls tumbling down. Whether that is achieved through servicing or empowering or a combination of both is entirely optional in my book..

I would say that museums run by a central or local government department face particular challenges because historically social injustice almost invariably stems from political decisions. Such museums are part of the very organisations that have, in the past, been responsible for totally mad choices about, for instance; housing, planning and licencing. But perhaps as the state shrinks (because perpetual economic growth is probably a myth) the museum’s role in community relationship brokering through its material culture will become even more widely recognised as another of our unique selling points (USPs).
Tony Butler
MA Member
Director, Museum of East Anglian Life
27.02.2013, 20:51
Social Justice is not an unfamiliar or threatening term, in fact I'd say its a term which has been politically debased - Iain Duncan Smith's Centre for Social Justice anyone?

If the aim is to create a more equal and just society, and one in which natural capital is protected or genuinely distributed, shouldn't museums explore different ways of achieving this. There is plenty of 'justice' based museum activity which is very transactional - designed by the state or institutions to help people. I'm much more attracted to work which stimulates civil activism, a result of mutual relationships between people and organisations. Fair rents for the occupants of Arnold Circus in the 1970s wasn't achieved by institutional or political leadership, but by community activism. The Occupy Movement emerged because established political organisations refused to challenge the dominant economic model.

I also don't agree that a well-being approach can't help achieve socially just outcomes. For example the New Economic Foundation's well-being team is overtly concerned to tackling health and social inequalities.

We also shouldn't kid ourselves that the public view Social Justice as central to museums. I sat in on one the focus groups commissioned by the MA to gauge public understand of museums. Social Justice has apparently consistently come bottom of the list of what the public think museums should do. Surprisingly, well-being came much higher up the pecking order . Perhaps well-being is Trojan horse to achieve socially just outcomes!

David Fleming
MA Member
Director, National Museums Liverpool
28.02.2013, 10:02
Nobody is claiming that the public view "social justice" as central to museums. The point is, many of us working in museums have come to believe it to be so. To suggest that if the public doesn't understand something (and, let's face it, the concept of social justice is not a simple one, and it's not something that exercises the popular press, for example) then that something must be invalid as a museum preoccupation, sounds rather sinister to me.
Tony Butler
MA Member
Director, Museum of East Anglian Life
28.02.2013, 15:07
I don't think I said that Social Justice was invalid as a museum preoccupation and nor should it be. If the public don't readily connect the concept with museums, then surely its right for us to explore different ways of articulating a fair and more equal society. This may be through direct campaigning but it can also be through strengthening a community's capabilities through civil action especially when inequities are insidious or hidden. And its absolutely appropriate to link an individual's well-being to Social Justice

I think all this deserves interrogation even if it sounds a bit like Judean Peoples Front etc
David Fleming
MA Member
Director, National Museums Liverpool
27.02.2013, 13:45
No no no, Maurice! There's a world of difference between social justice and wellbeing - were you not listening at the MA's Edinburgh conference? Social justice is all about things like inequality, diversity, activity. Please don't allow the fact that 'social justice' is an unfamiliar and threatening term to some people ("top down and doctrinaire"?) cloud your judgement with regard to its centrality in the future of museums and their public.