International Slavery Museum, Liverpool

Should museums promote social justice?

Rebecca Atkinson, 01.05.2013
Vote in the poll and have your say
The findings of a report into public attitudes to museums found that there was a high level of trust in museums and a perception that museums have a role to play in society.

But the findings also showed there was little public appetite for museums providing a forum for debate, fostering a sense of community or promoting social justice. 

The findings have sparked debate in the sector about whether museums should promote social justice issues.

Vote in the MJ poll and have your say.


Should museums promote social justice?


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Gordon Jones
MA Member
Chairman, Queen Mary's Hospital, Roehampton Archives & Museu
10.05.2013, 17:05
Social justice impinges on the daily lives of all of us,now more than in the past. Our exhibitions and related activities should bear in mind the principles of social justice held at the relevant time and how they compare with today.
I am against prescription in this case because museums have so many different roles it would be unreasonable to impose an overarching obligation
08.05.2013, 22:54
Museums should listen to the public and both entertain and educate in a subtle way when necessary. Stimulating awareness is an important social activity but social issues should never dominate their interpretation of history. Pointing out the "links" stimulates society,
Specialised collections are often seriously unexplained and require promotion. Museums often forget that they are dealing with a public that is now far better educated than in the past.
This subject hardly needs surveying. Museums stand and fall on their own ability to encourage public comment and to attract people. Watch the cost of special exhibitions when charges have to be made and step up the internal training of guides. In particular make sure curators are available to attend to those possessed of special knowledge.
Most of this is common sense, if such a faculty exists. suitable
Alec Coles
MA Member
Chief Executive Officer, Western Australian Museum
02.05.2013, 15:55
This debate is another illustration of the unnecessary distractions begat by the well-meaning but poorly executed public attitudes survey.

If we were to reverse the question and ask “Should museums tolerate social injustice?” - would anyone really speak in favour of that?

Promoting social justice should be in a public museum's DNA.
Maurice Davies
MA Member
Head of Policy & Communication, Museums Association
03.05.2013, 09:04
Alec, your unhappiness with the findings of the public attitude research is understandable (I am far from delighted with what the public thinks) - but it's unfair to blame the quality of the research. BritainThinks, who did the work, are leaders in deliberative research and they were overseen by an advisory group that included experienced research experts from Arts Council, Heritage Lottery Fund and Museums Galleries Scotland. It's also quite wrong to describe it as a 'survey' - as the report explains it was in fact a series of six day-long workshops with members of the public carefully selected to be representative of the UK population as a whole.
Alec Coles
MA Member
Chief Executive Officer, Western Australian Museum
03.05.2013, 11:11

You are missing the point: whilst, like you, I am not uplifted by the findings, I do believe that they were entirely predictable given the apparent methodology.

What I am unhappy with is a methodology that, it appears, provided participants, at least in some cases (for example ‘Protecting the Environment’), with inadequate or misleading information with which to make their responses.

I also question the conclusions that have been drawn in the report and the proposed responses to them.

Arguing over the semantics of whether this was research, a survey, or a report is immaterial: the findings are what they are and one cannot be critical of them – only how they were arrived at and how they will be interpreted.
02.05.2013, 11:22
Museums should support social justice. People's appetite for this depends on how it is put over. Nobody wants to be preached to or made to feel guilty, but there are ways of engaging audiences with social justice issues. We can partner with organisations and charities working in this field to highlight current issues - this already happens in many galleries. Museums should not be purely fluffy places where everything is portrayed as lovely and pretty, this is not true to history. What about the communities who supplied the objects we hold? If we have an exhibition on diamonds, should be ignore the issues faced by people in mining communities? I don't believe we should. Where I work we have a painting that shows young children working in a field; through this piece we talk about child labour today, with primary school children. They get it; they understand that this is a real issue, in the real world. If we can't use our objects to highlight social injustice, when appropriate, I think it's a wasted opportunity to engage audiences with global issues and only serves to keep our profession stuck in the past. We must be relevant in the world.
Victoria Barlow
Manager Conservation and Heritage, Wiltshire CC Heritage Services
02.05.2013, 11:16
Richard is quite right. Curators and managers make decisions on what exhibitions to mount, which objects to display and how to interpret those things. These are not neutral actions. Anonymous refers to making objects accessible and even that is a loaded term. By opening our collections to "the public" we deal with different views and concerns. Social justice is what keeps museums for all instead of cabinets of curiosity for the few.
02.05.2013, 07:45
Given that museums house either the accoutrements of human life, or the context of human life (world and nature), and that galleries house the representation of both, it is impossible to see how you would separate them off from the notion of social justice.
Therefore to not promote it is to voluntarily cut off a limb. It is probably more the case that many museums are unsure as to how to actively promote the amorphous idea of social justice. Many are probably already unwittingly doing it.
01.05.2013, 19:20
Museums are unique institutions that can provide space for communities to address issues of social justice, whether through historic artifacts, contemporary art, or community gatherings.
Richard Sandell
MA Member
Professor of Museum Studies, School of Museum Studies
01.05.2013, 15:59
Museums aren't neutral - those who work in them make decisions about what to collect, what to display, how to display it and so on. Museums dont operate in a social or cultural vacuum - they offer visitors ways of seeing and understanding the world. As trusted institutions they play a part in shaping the kinds of conversations society can have about difference.

This role - and the responsibilities associated with it - are relevant to all museums - not solely those dealing centrally with issues such as slavery and human rights.

A concern for social justice then doesn't therefore mean forcing a link where one doesn't exist... But rather making decisions with an awareness that museums reflect but also play a part in shaping society.
Sharon Heal
MA Member
Head of Publications & Events, Museums Association
01.05.2013, 15:37
I don't see what the problem is; social justice can mean a variety of things from exposing injustice and inequality in society through exhibitions and programmes to reaching out to communities that that are excluded and marginalised and working with them to ensure they are included. Every museum could and should be doing either or both.
02.05.2013, 10:44
I completely agree. Social justice work doesn't have to be on a grand scale, it could be as simple as museum staff reaching out to even just one group in their local community who are excluded and marginalised - a reminiscence cafe once a month for older, isolated people, for example. The smallest actions can help to make positive, and far-reaching, changes for both communities and the museums that serve them.

Although the sector has suffered from cuts/lack of resources/lack of funding, I do not believe this should not be used as an excuse not to engage in social justice work. Small or large scale work to expose injustice and inequality in society, and/or to reach out to marginalised groups all makes a difference, and helps museums to both represent and serve all sections of the community.
David Fleming
MA Member
Director, National Museums Liverpool
01.05.2013, 14:50
Here we go again - someone who is intent on museums remaining the same as always, and telling the rest of us what a museum "should" and shouldn't do. By all means do your own thing, Anonymous MA Member, but please stop trying to limit the ambition of those of us who believe that modern museums have multiple roles, and that not all these roles need be collection-based. The last thing I expect to happen to museums that promote social justice is that their public support would be eroded.
MA Member
01.05.2013, 13:19
I was very concerned with some of the comments following on from the findings of the report into public opinion. First because people appeared to be saying that the public don't really believe that Museums shouldn't be promoting social justice issues they just don't 'understand' what we are doing - a somewhat arrogant suggestion.

Secondly there was a dismissive almost contemptuous feel when talking about 'traditional' Museums backwardly 'just' applying themselves to the difficult task of making their collections accessible, enjoyable and places of learning. Something that come across very strongly as the role in which the public saw Museums.

I see that you have used the evocative image of the International Slavery Museum at Liverpool on this page and, quite rightly, that Museum needs to deal with social justice issues, it is very much the right forum and I am sure that the public would agree. However not many Museums fit into this category.

It does not mean that social justice issues should never be raised in Museums but only in the sense where it is a logical result of the type of collection or part of the collection - as in the International Slavery Museum.

To try and fit in somekind of social justice theme or attempt to change society where there is no logical connection to the individual Museum could well erode public support and jeopardize the important role that the public feels that Museums should play in society.