Museums and Social Justice

The museum field is currently experiencing a paradigm shift which places people, not objects, at the core of a museum’s purpose. This new paradigm responds to changing ideas about cultural authority, in which the community’s voice is as important as the expert’s voice. But, legally, museums have long existed for the public good and hold their collections in trust to serve the whole public. What the new paradigm really means is that museums and other public-facing institutions need to listen to more of their communities in order to be relevant and serve them.

Museums operating within the new paradigm empower their communities by fostering dialogue, with the goal of re-evaluating the past and the present in order to envision a more just future. To help you reconsider your institution’s values and practices in its pursuit of this goal, we have prepared a set of questions that you can download and use as a Conversation Starter Tool. These questions also guide our content below and throughout the Social Justice section of Sustaining Places.

Social and Restorative Justice: Some Definitions

What does community mean to you? Who is your core public/audience/community? To what communities is the museum not reaching out? How does the museum address injustice? Is the museum invested in fighting racism and undoing colonial practices?

Social justice is a theory of justice that seeks social equity moving forward.

Restorative justice is a theory of justice that recognizes the harm caused by unfair treatment and practices in the past, and that aims at social healing. It is best accomplished through cooperative processes that include all stakeholders, including from communities harmed by unfairness. At the heart of restorative justice are the values of Diversity, Equity, Accessibility and Inclusion (DEAI). 

Antiracism is the set of policies and practices that actively fight racism, rather than only avoid being racist. Institutionally, it is about resourcing the building of a broader community through DEAI and the development of ongoing programming that aims to expose and undermine racism. Individually, it involves a personal commitment to continuing to learn about racism, to listen to the people it has affected, and to apologize when making mistakes that fall back into racist norms.

Decolonization is the undoing of colonialism, which consists of one people extending their dominion over another. U.S. colonial practices still manage Indigenous worlds, animals, plants and human beings. The calls to decolonize museums means not only making museums more diverse, equitable, accessible and inclusive but also returning the lands and repatriating the remains of native human beings and artifacts that colonizers took and keep in museum collections. Most museums are not fully decolonizing, which would require turning over their land to Indigenous communities. But many are acknowledging the indigenous tribes whose land the museum is on. In addition, though, museums need to overhaul exhibits in which native people and their material and spiritual worldviews are presented in “primitive” or “savage”  dehumanizing ways. A good example of decolonizing the museum is the Abbe Museum’s Decolonization Initiative, in which a task force is collaborating with tribal communities to press for restorative justice, incorporating truth-telling in their programming to address the museum’s history of colonization, and foregrounding Native voices and perspectives. The term that most accurately describes museums’ efforts to address socially just practices is “restorative justice,” not “decolonization.”

Mission/Vision Statements

How are the museum’s core values and mission reflecting the institution’s engagement with restorative justice?

The museum’s mission & vision statements should express the institution’s commitment to actively pursue restorative justice. Because museums exist for the public good and hold their collections in trust to serve the whole public, they have the duty to address restorative justice; their goal should be advancing a more inclusive, equitable, and fair future. Tackling this aspiration in the museum’s core document will ensure that all aspects of the institution remain committed to social/restorative justice principles and practices. 

Here are some examples that have community at the forefront of their statements and seek to connect and inspire people: 

  • Detroit Institute of Art. Vision: The DIA will be the town square of our community, a gathering place for everybody. Mission: The DIA creates experiences that help each visitor find personal meaning in art, individually and with each other. 
  • Oakland Museum of California. Mission: to inspire all Californians to create a more vibrant future for themselves and their communities.
  • Seattle Art Museum. Mission: SAM connects art to life. Through art, the Seattle Art Museum fosters creativity and builds community. As a leading visual art institution in three unique locations, SAM shares its global collections, powerful exhibitions, and dynamic programs to engage, educate, and inspire. Vision: Seattle Art Museum is a welcoming community where people find inspiration and discover our common humanity. We are committed to equity, exceptional art, and dynamic programs. At our three sites we offer enriching, fun, and rewarding experiences for all.