Social justice body launches - Museums Association

Social justice body launches

More than 20 organisations from across the globe that are passionate about museums' social impact sign up to initiative
Profile image for Gareth Harris
Gareth Harris
The issue of whether museums should promote social justice is back on the agenda this month with the launch of the Social Justice Alliance of Museums (SJAM) at the Museums Association conference.

The co-founders, David Fleming, director of National Museums Liverpool, and Maggie Appleton, chief executive of Luton Culture, have recruited more than 20 founder members, ranging from the Museo Arocena in Torréon, Mexico, to Barnsley Museum Service (see box).

Collective voice

The aim of the alliance is to give a collective voice to bodies and individuals that are “passionate about the social impact that museums have”.

Fleming links the need for SJAM to the funding cuts, stressing that they may threaten museums’ attempts to open up to diverse audiences. He says free admission is one element in the fight against “exclusivity and elitism”.

The founder supporters of SJAM include non-museum organisations that share social justice aims, such as the Liverpool-based gay arts festival Homotopia, and Claire House, a Merseyside children’s hospice.

Fleming says these organisations bring expertise, ideas and contacts to museums, and in return they can “gain real publicity, exposure and access to our audiences”.

But there has been some disagreement as to what social justice means for museums.

For Fleming, social justice in museums is about addressing inequalities and “trying to right wrongs”.

Iain Watson, director of Tyne & Wear Archives & Museums, says his service’s outreach work with Moving Forward, a project for people with mental health issues, helps people get off the treadmill of continually accessing the same social services, as well as being about social justice.

The new head of Derby Museums, Tony Butler, who is also director of the Happy Museum Project, says it is appropriate to link an individual’s wellbeing to social justice.

Mark Taylor, director of the Museums Association (MA), says the SJAM ethos chimes with the MA’s Museums Change Lives report, which places an emphasis on the social impact that museums can have.

Concerns over neglect

The idea of museums being agents of social justice or creating social impact has prompted criticism from cultural commentators, with some fearing that a change in focus may mean that core areas such as collection care could be neglected.

Sociologist Tiffany Jenkins says, for instance, that strengthening communities is not the primary role of museums.

“If curators think that they are meant to be raising self-esteem, addressing homelessness or improving mental health, their eye is not on research or finding out the truth about the past,” she wrote in The Scotsman.

But Fleming dismisses this, saying he wants museums to “be in the 21st century, rather than the 19th, becoming more relevant to more and more people”.

SJAM founders

Barnsley Museum Service; Beamish Museum; Bede’s World; Bristol Museums, Galleries and Archives; Diversity in Heritage Group; Egalitarian Trust (Galleries of Justice and National Centre for Citizenship and the Law); Glasgow Museums; Leicester University School of Museum Studies; Luton Culture; Memorial Museum of Dominican Resistance; Museo Arocena Torréon (Mexico); Museum of Amsterdam;
and others

Tetley tees off in Leeds

The Tetley contemporary art and learning gallery opens this month in Leeds. The inaugural programme for the Tetley, which is in the former Tetley brewery, will look at the building’s history and future use. A New Reality will launch on 29 November to encourage audiences and artists to imagine the role of a contemporary art gallery in Leeds.

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