David Fleming addressed the plenary session at the ICOM General Conference in Milan on 6 July 2016. This text was originally published on the blog Musing on Culture.
Quote from our MOOC (Massive Open Online Course):
“This course has opened my eyes. Never before thought of museums as being harbingers of change in anything.”
The same person wrote later:
“Yes, my opinion has changed and I’m much more convinced that museums have a positive role to play in achieving and enhancing social cohesion. I had been stuck in my ‘sixties experience of the passive museum, storing items for the mere sake of storage. Today they are put to use to make a positive difference in the world.”
“Recent years have seen an explosion of interest in the relationship between museums, human rights and social justice…The idea that museums can positively impact individuals’ lives and bring benefit to society at large is one that has taken hold and gained increasing consensus across museum practitioners and policymakers internationally. In 2014 the UK’s Museums Association launched Museums Change Lives – a new vision for the social impact of museums. They can enhance the wellbeing of individuals. They can create and contribute to better places in which people live, and they can inspire people and ideas. Recent years have seen the emergence of an activist museum practice, one that seeks to use the resources of the museum to contribute purposefully and actively towards a more fair and just society” (Richard Sandell, ibid).
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.
Here are some American terms and definitions:
Social justice is…
Protecting the poor people, the downtrodden, those who can’t help themselves.
The ability people have to realise their potential.
Here is a rule that I learned in my study of Communist societies…Social justice means left-wing equality…There is no social justice if there are rich and poor
The term crops up in variety of contexts, such as faith, health, economics, politics and the environment.
What do I mean when I use the term “social justice”? Two things, really:
- Equality of access to what museums do – and how museums behave to create this;
- Addressing social ills, perhaps even campaigning to right those ills.
It is important to remember that it depends where you are; social justice in a war-torn region might look very different from that in a peaceful western democracy, for example.
Social ills and campaigning:
What, and how? These are some examples – racism, homophobia, modern slavery: these ills are found in all nations around the world.
The International Slavery Museum, Liverpool, for example, is a campaigning museum that fights against racism and other human rights abuses such as people trafficking, through its exhibitions, debates, events.
There are other examples still, including post-conflict campaigning.
And so we come to a key issue of our age – migration. This is a highly politically-charged issue, but there is a growing feeling in the museum world that we have a role to play in enlightening people about migration, not least because museums often take a long view of social and economic development. Because of this, museums are well placed to explore the long-term complexities of migration.
There are a number of museums around the world that look in some detail at different aspects of migration, for example those in Melbourne Australia, Bremerhaven in Germany, and Sao Paulo in Brazil. More are being created, for example in London and in Malmo, Sweden. In Liverpool we have for many years had an Emigration Gallery in the Merseyside Maritime Museum. These museums all look at identity and other cultural aspects of the movement of people which is, after all, and endemic part of the human condition. These movements have had a great variety of causes, and some of them, for example the movement across the Atlantic Ocean of Africans in the 16th-19th centuries, that is better known as the Transatlantic Slave Trade, and which is looked at in some detail in Liverpool’s International Slavery Museum, were enforced, not voluntary.
It is rare that mass migrations, such as that of Muslims and Hindus after the Partition of India in 1947, do not have a profound impact on nations; often this impact is such that ethnic and religious tensions survive for hundreds of years – the world is full of such tensions; modern migrations within Europe really are nothing new from this perspective, nor are the tensions they create.
As long as we have museums that are dedicated to human migration, run by people who are prepared for the challenges and opposition they will, inevitably, face; and who believe in the museum as a campaigning agent of change, fighting for social justice, then we can hope that those who argue against migration will lose the arguments and be shown up as the narrow-minded bigots and racists they are.
David Fleming is the Director of National Museums Liverpool. Before arriving in Liverpool, he was director of the multi-award-winning Tyne and Wear Museums for 11 years, where he led teams delivering major capital developments and massive audience growth. Prior to that he was principal keeper at Hull Museums, where his major projects included a new Transport Museum and The Old Grammar School. He started his museum career as founder-curator of the Yorkshire Museum of Farming, York. He has served on several Government committees and task forces and he sits on a number of boards and governing bodies, among which: President of Museums Association; Founding President of the Federation of International Human Rights Museums; Founding President of the Social Justice Alliance for Museums (SJAM); Special Advisor, Museum for International Democracy, Rosario, Argentina.