Sector urged to embed social justice as a core museum value

Geraldine Kendall, 12.11.2012
Museums are in the "life-changing business", conference told
In one of the closing sessions of the Museums Association conference in Edinburgh last week, delegates were urged to put social justice, equality and community impact at the core of their work.

In the session, Cultural rights - irrelevance or priority?, Emma Varnam, whose Tameside museum service is located in one of the most deprived areas of the UK, told the conference that museums should be in the “life-changing business”.

The sector should focus on activities that impacted the lives of the most vulnerable and disadvantaged members of their communities, she said. “It’s not a question of outreach or opportunism. For me it’s a necessity.”

“Museums have got to seem kind of relevant. To stand in a meeting and defend the work I do merely on preserving the objects just isn’t cutting it anymore,” she said.

“We made a political decision that we wanted to be a core service for the council – a decision we made for the survival of the service and the objects.”

Varnam said that a good day at work for her had been when a visitor at one of her service’s community workshops had told her: “For the first time, I’ve been able to say what I want to say and you listened. And you provided me with a safe place to say it.”

It was essential that the venues were free to enter and easily accessible, that museums actively sought to have an impact on hard-to-reach visitors and that the staff were representative of the local population, she said.

“Treasures undiscovered have no real value,” she told delegates. “You and I have the best job in the world, let’s do something to make a difference.”

Sara Selwood, honorary visiting professor at City University London, said policies such as free admission at national museums had not had a significant impact on inequality, with visits from those in priority ethnic minority and low income groups actually falling 15.5% between 2009/10 and 2011/12.

Selwood also called on the sector to examine who benefits most from national lottery funding. “Lottery sales have increased during recession because people on low incomes spend disproportionately more on the lottery,” she said. “Some regard it as a tax on the poor.”

Selwood asked delegates to consider the question: “Has your museum ultimately helped to eliminate or actually encourage inequality?”

Mark O’Neill, director of policy at Glasgow Life, said some museums seemed to value the professional over the human, and avoided telling more inclusive, human interest stories out of snobbery: “You can see where bored staff have turned [‘boringness’] into a core value."

"Diversity is exciting – intellectually and emotionally," he added.

During an open Q&A at the end of the session, delegates called on the MA and other organisations to look at how they could support and embed social justice as a core museum value and said that the MA’s definition of a museum should be reviewed in light of the debate.


The article orginially stated that visits from priority groups had fallen 15.5% since the introduction of free admission in 2001. This figure relates only to the period between 2009/10 and 2011/12.