What does social justice mean to you? by David Fleming

26 August 2014

Photo Ken Walker Courtesy of April Ashley A few weeks ago I gave a lecture in Seattle, USA entitled Museums and Social Justice, which I subsequently wrote up for Museum, the Journal of the American Alliance of Museums. While I was preparing that paper I realised that the term “social justice” has vastly different meanings around the world. It may refer to education, housing, income, welfare, gender issues, health, human rights – pretty much anything where inequality or discrimination is an issue.

I concluded that it depends very much on a nation’s maturity in terms of democracy which version of social justice is likely to be seen as most significant. In an autocratic nation, where human rights are threatened routinely, then it is likely that social justice will be interpreted differently from how it is in a nation that is a mature democracy, for example.

In the USA it appears that the term “social justice” is seen by some (not by everyone, or even by a majority, I hasten to add!) as a subversive notion that threatens the concept of wealth inequality. Some American websites are devoted to the condemnation of social justice as a threat to the American way of life, not because it represents a view of the world where there should be equality of opportunity, but because it undermines the notion that there will always be rich and poor, or at least richer and poorer.

The Social Justice Alliance of Museums needs to be sensitive to these differences. During this year I have discussed social justice in a number of different countries, including Albania, Brazil, Denmark, Italy and Taiwan, as well as in the UK. In Albania we talked about the lasting effects that living in a dictatorship can have on society’s attitude towards challenging authority; in Brazil we touched upon wealth inequality; in Denmark and Italy we discussed the trials of growing old; in Taiwan we discussed democracy and the freedom of speech (see INTERCOM’s Taipei Declaration, below and FIHRM); in the UK we considered impact and measurement as well as democracy.

Museums make a central contribution to the democratisation of nations by encouraging free debate and confronting authoritarian versions of the truth.

What all discussions had in common is the role that museums can play as democratic and democratising institutions. They can be very powerful agents of positive change (see the UK Museums Association’s Museums Change Lives publication). And the best way to bring about lasting change is to partner with other organisations that fight for social justice. In Liverpool we work with Homotopia (gay rights), Anti-Slavery International, with health organisations, with many organisations that have expertise we may not have in museums, and which like the idea that museums can be a great public-facing ally in the fight for social justice.

Bringing organisations like these together with museums is what SJAM is all about, and the network’s greatest strengths are that it is knows no national boundaries, and it brings together a diverse community of values-driven organisations that are stronger when acting together.

Join us for a debate on Museums and Social Justice at the UK Museum Association Conference in Cardiff on Friday 10 October 2014.

David Fleming is Director of National Museums Liverpool and Convenor of SJAM.

Picture: April Ashley: Portait of a Lady is an exhibition at the Museum of Liverpool in partnership with Homotopia (Photo Ken Walker – Courtesy of April Ashley)