Skip to content

Museums for Social Justice

Category: Museum Magazine
Four different options for the cover image of this issue of Museum magazine.

This article originally appeared in the July/August 2014 issue of Museum magazine.

Adapted from a Big Ideas presentation, May 20, 2014, at the AAM Annual Meeting in Seattle. In this spirit, the theme of the 2015 AAM Annual Meeting will be “The Social Value of Museums: Inspiring Change.”

The term “social justice” is contested. We all mean something slightly different when we use it, and a lot depends upon what country one is in and what political system one lives under. The term crops up in variety of contexts, such
as faith, health, economics, politics, and the environment But when I use the term “social justice,” I mean two things: how museums provide equality of access and how museums address social ills-perhaps even campaigning to right them. I want to talk primarily about the second of these roles, considering some of the ways that the modern museum has become immersed in social issues in Liverpool, U.K., and in some other nations.

Tracing the social, economic and political history of a socially diverse city, the Museum of Liverpool opened to the public in 2011. A £76 million project, it is the U.K.’s newest national museum and part of National Museums Liverpool. The museum received the Council of Europe Museum Award last year for our ability to involve people of all ages, backgrounds, and abilities; promotion of mutual respect between different parts of society; and emphasis on human rights through debates and dialogue.

The Museum of Liverpool is successful because of it:

  • is people- and story-led: opinion and debate are central
  • uses emotion: people are emotional, and museums about people must be emotional
  • is of Liverpool: it has an authentic Liverpool voice, especially in its use of humor and involvement
  • takes families seriously: museums are places for intergenerational activity
  • has variety: in medium and message
  • has changeability: this is essential to capture essence of a living, changing city
  • is a socially responsible museum that fights for social justice

All people should be able to benefit from museums. They are entitled to access to museums and to seeing themselves represented in museums. They should expect museums to make a contribution to their quality of life.

Over the past 30 or so years, museums worldwide have been changing fundamentally, adopting a more extroverted role and becoming more socially responsible. Financial pressure and the need for relevance have driven these changes, along with an evolving museum workforce’s enthusiasm for social and community history. As a result, the balance has shifted between objects and stories. Museums now have lots of roles. They research and collect. They contribute to economic development. Most important to the public, they play a social role that is audience focused, educational, community-oriented, democratic, open to debate and socially responsible.

Different museums in different places play different roles, depending upon all sorts of variables. No two museums are the same. But museums that are socially responsible all have one thing in common: they have a passion to create social value. They are not satisfied with merely collecting, preservation and research. They do value these activities; a museum that does not is illogical and absurd. But socially responsible museums regard these activities as means rather than as ends.

The socially responsible museum has at its core a powerful commitment to education. It also has a powerful conscience. It is committed to an agenda that rejects the notion that museums are restricted preserves. It wants to locate and engage with all manner of constituencies. In particular, it wants to engage with people who suffer from some form of disadvantage or discrimination- whether economic, social or personal-that renders them vulnerable.

The socially responsible museum sees itself as valuable to all, not a few, and will go out of its way through positive action to fulfill this inclusive mission. Positive action means that the museum is joining the fight against social exclusion, joining with other socially responsible agencies to make a difference at the personal, community and social levels. Social responsibility means being socially inclusive, leading ultimately to social value and the attainment of social justice. That’s our primary aim. Without achieving social justice, museums aren’t worth having.

National Museums Liverpool has a powerful commitment to achieving total inclusion of local people. We see ourselves primarily as a socially responsible museum. The socio-economic condition of Liverpool and the surrounding area, along with the nature of our museum collections, a redefining factor in how our museum service organizes itself. For four generations, Liverpool has suffered from chronic economic decline.

Once one of the world’s richest cities and probably the most successful port, Liverpool went into severe decline between the two world wars. Today the population is only half what it was in the 1930s. By the 1980s, there were real fears for Liverpool’s future, and central the government had to step in to try to rescue the city.

There are clear parallels with today’s Detroit. Liverpool recently appears to have turned the corner, with new shops, hotels, restaurants and jobs, to add to the city’s unmatched cultural offerings. Nonetheless, unemployment is still twice as high as the national average; Liverpool a nd neighboring Knowsley are ranke d as the two most deprived areas in England.

In our socially responsible museum, we tackle difficult, contemporary issues. We consider homelessness, prostitution, and gay rights; we face up to politics. Examples include the current exhibition, “April Ashley: Portrait of a Lady,” which traces the life of a transsexual woman who was born George Jamieson in Liverpool in 1935. A fter pioneering gender reassignment surgery, Ashley became a successful model and actress. Her life was often headline news, including the story of her divorce in 1970, when the judge ruled that Ashley remained a biological man, and therefore the marriage
was invalid a nd annulled. This very publi c divorce set a legal p re cedent for all transsexuals that re mained until
2004, when the Gender Recognition Act was passed to allow people legally to change gender. Throughout this trauma, Ashley has fought for her rights and provided advice and support for those suffering similar discrimination.
The museum co-produced the exhibit with Homotopia, an arts and social just ice organization that draws upon the LGBT experience to unite and regenerate communities throug h the production, promotion and commissioning of art, heritage and culture.

The Museum of Liverpool could not have staged the exhibitio n without Homotopia, illustrating a key tenet of socia l justice work: museums need to work with partners, drawing upon their ideas, expertise, resources, and contacts. There are plenty of willing allies who see the value in working with museums and have ready-made audiences. Social justice work is emotive and emotional stuff.

“ALIVE: In the Face of Death,” a 2013 exhibition at our Walker Art Gallery, was an example of emotional impact working in the cause of social justice. Photographer Rankin created a remarkable exhibition that took an earnest look at death, featuring images of people who have faced near-death experiences or have miraculously pulled through against all the odds, as well as those who work in the “death industry,” such as gravediggers and funeral directors. Visitor feedback on the exhibition was heartfelt. “Seeing beauty in death was not what I expected to see today,” said one. “A truly inspirational exhibition. It really does open your eyes to the beauty of life in the face of death,” said another.

At NML, we step outside the traditional role of museums. Our House of Memories training project raises awareness and understanding of people’s experience of living with dementia—an issue of growing global signincance as people almost everywhere are living longer. Few people anywhere are untouched by dementia most of us will encounter it in some form during our lives . The training is for health and socia l care staff, helping them use museums (dealers
in memory), starting with collection but also using music, dance and conversation.

Some museum people and observers would ask what this has to do with museum work. My answer is: everything. Where is the museum rulebook that says this is not a proper role for museums? Overwhelmingly, participants in our training program reported that their awareness and understanding of dementia had increased and that they had been helped to see differently those living with the condition.

Participants left the training with a belief that by listening and communicating more effectively with those living with dementia, they can make a difference and improve the quality of people’s lives. A different example of the emotional nature of social justice work is our approach to the 1989 tragedy at the Hillsborough football ground in Sheffield,
England, in which 96 innocent Liverpool FC supporters lost their lives. The causes of the tragedy have been controversial ever since. To this day, the families of the people who were killed have not had the truth explained publicly, though it has become clear that, shamefully, there was a long-term police cove r-up. An inquest into the disaster is in progress. The families of the dead football supporters have been waging a campaign under the banner of “Justice for the 96.” NML is the museum service for the city of Liverpool, and it is inconceivable that we would sit by and adopt a neutral position about Hillsborough. So we have overtly supported the “Justice for the 96” campaign, dedicating a part of the museum to it and creating a film about being a football fan in Liverpool, which features the
Hillsborough disaster. As a result of the museum’s stance, various objects have been donated to our collections that relate to the campaign, including a mosaic version of a celebrated photograph showing two children, holding hands and each dressed in a uniform of one of the city’s two major soccer teams, representing a city united in grief.

Social justice activity in museums is also taking place internationally. In the National Historical Museum of T irana in Albania, I recently saw an exhibition of artwork by Albanian teenagers addressing the issue of corruption in their country. In Taiwan, I encountered the Taipei Women’s Rescue Foundation, which has created an exhibition on “comfort women,” the 200,000 young women used in the Second World War by Japanese soldiers as sex slaves. NML is advising the fledgling Museum of International Democracy in Rosario, Argentina, as it creates its exhibits. Not
that long ago, Argentina was in the grip of an unelected military regime, and words like “oppression,” “persecution” and “psychosis” will inform the tone of this very brave venture assessing the development of democracy.

Former Soviet republics and satellite states are now fertile ground for examining the nature of life under communism. In Vilnius, Lithuania, the Museum of Genocide Victims is housed in former KGB headquarters.
In Bucharest is the Museum of the Romanian Peasant, formerly the Museum of the Communist Party, where a subtle satire of the former communist regime is located, symbolically, in the basement.

Some would no doubt argue that museums such as those in Vilnius and Bucharest a re little more than anti-communist and anti-Soviet propaganda. But through the medium of museums, people can fight for social justice in various ways. Different levels of democracy result in different conceptions of social justice. Interpretations in mature democracies will be different from those in newer democracies, or in nations where there is no democracy. Not all nations enjoy the same freedom of speech or of action as the U.S. or the U.K.

Working for social justice in any context can be construed as political. Someone won’t like what you are doing. People will reject, resist and disagree with you. This is very contested territory that many museums choose to avoid. That is our default setting: to be neutral, to take refuge in the “truth” of our collections.

But there are no truths in this context, because museums use and interpret collections in different ways. In many British museums, we choose to exhibit items that were acquired by controversial means from other nations at a time when we had a powerful, global empire. In my own museum service, we have Benin bronzes stolen by British soldiers during a “punitive” raid in what is now Nigeria. What is the “truth” of these items? Are they simply beautiful examples of art, as they are often displayed? Or are they evidence of colonial exploitation and the corruption of power, as they are rarely displayed?

The newly adopted mission of NML is “To be the world’s leading example of an inclusive museum service.” This statement captures the spirit of a museum that fights for social justice. It’s about inclusivity, which means doing the right thing, taking risks, being aware that many people feel excluded by the traditional museum ways of doing things. It is because we think like this in Liverpool that our audience grew five-fold between 2001 and 2012.

In order to become socially responsible, museums need to rethink fundamentally how we manage ourselves. This is happening, but not without pain and disagreement, as museums worldwide, continue to modernize.

AAM Member-Only Content

AAM Members get exclusive access to premium digital content including:

  • Featured articles from Museum magazine
  • Access to more than 1,500 resource listings from the Resource Center
  • Tools, reports, and templates for equipping your work in museums
Log In

We're Sorry

Your current membership level does not allow you to access this content.

Upgrade Your Membership


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Subscribe to Field Notes!

Packed with stories and insights for museum people, Field Notes is delivered to your inbox every Monday. Once you've completed the form below, confirm your subscription in the email sent to you.

If you are a current AAM member, please sign-up using the email address associated with your account.

Are you a museum professional?

Are you a current AAM member?

Success! Now check your email to confirm your subscription, and please add to your safe sender list.