About a year ago, we came across the Social Justice Alliance for Museums (SJAM), a project led by National Museums Liverpool. SJAM is a growing international network of museums and similar organizations that have come together to affirm that museums can play a role in attaining greater social justice. The website hosts several examples of how museums have aimed to work on social justice related issues. We were curious to learn more about the Alliance’s work, so connected with them for an interview. Feel free to ask any additional questions in the comments section.
* * * *
Concretely, what does SJAM do?
The Social Justice Alliance for Museums was created out of the growing recognition of the importance of the social value in museums and its impact on the public. Museums should be relevant to everyone in society; be accessible to all and represent the local population. Museums can be ambitious about their role in society. All museums, however they are funded and whatever their subject matter, can support positive social change. The UK’s Museums Association has set out a vision for increased social impact in museums which makes clear museums’ potential for positive social change.
The aim of the network is to find a collective voice and promote social impact of museums, exchange knowledge and work together on joint initiatives. These might includes seminars and conferences, online debates, publications, research projects, lobbying initiatives etc.
Could you give us a brief history of how SJAM came into being?
The network was founded and is led by National Museums Liverpool (NML) in the UK. During 2013, NML Director David Fleming, drafted a series of key statements calling museums around the world and like-minded organisations to collectively support museums in the pursuit of social justice. Many national and international colleagues were consulted and agreed that the time was right for museums to speak about these issues collectively. And so the SJAM Charter was born.
SJAM was launched in a special event during the UK Museums Association Conference last November with 43 founding members. Since then, more than 200 members have signed up to the charter, including many in the US.
How does SJAM fit within the National Museums Liverpool’s context, your greater national context, and the international museum context?
National Museums Liverpool’s mission is to be the world’s leading example of an inclusive museum service.
NML’s has an international reputation for leading the way in new ways of thinking in museums focusing on the social, political and emotional role of the museum and as such its international work is multi faceted.
As a democratic and inclusive museum service we believe in the concept of social justice and we pursue opportunities to make cultural connections across the world that will benefit our local and international audiences.
SJAM is an extension of this new way of thinking in museums.
How do you define and understand social justice?
The definition of ‘social justice’ is fluid, and is different in different contexts. In particular, its meaning depends upon the democratic nature of the nation in which it is being used. In mature democracies it usually refers to the notion of equality of opportunity for all; in autocracies or immature democracies it can be far more basic, and refer to issues such as the freedom of speech, the subjugation of women or minorities, etc.
What social justice frameworks have you been using to guide and develop your work?
SJAM is organic and does not follow a rigid definition. In fact it would not be right to do so. On our website there are from many different types of organizations of projects suggesting that there is no one definition of social justice that fits all. These include the House of Memories a dementia awareness training programme, developed at the National Museum Liverpool and The Golden Age exhibition at the Amsterdam Museum which addressed the period of slavery in Dutch history. These examples show that social justice has different meanings in different parts of the world. What is clear is that there is a common denominator to fight injustice and promote equality.
You might want to read the first entry in our new SJAM blog by David Fleming where he reflects on the meaning of social justice for museums in different parts of the world.
Why “social justice” and not, for example, “social inclusion”, “democracy”, “plurality”, etc.?
“Social justice” connotes the need to fight for justice, and is far more active a notion than, e.g., “social inclusion’, which is more passive. “Democracy” has many meanings but is understood by most people to refer to a political system rather than a societal system of behaviours. “Plurality” tends to be used in the UK at least as referring to ethnicity rather than the broader range of discriminatory issues that “social justice” connotes.
What has been the biggest surprise since you launched?
We have had a hugely encouraging response and the enthusiasm is evident in the ongoing number of new members and supporters. We have recruited over 200 members since the founding of SJAM 10 months ago.
What feedback have you gotten from people in the field?
Here are some quotes from a couple of our founder members:
Our work is based on creating art that challenges the social exclusion we as disabled people face on a daily basis and constantly inform people of our social justice remit. We are delighted that you have included us into this great opportunity. Ruth Gould, Artistic Director, DaDaFest
Te Papa is very pleased to support the launch of the Social Justice Alliance of Museums, and is delighted to be part of this initiative. Our new vision to change hearts, change minds, and change lives shares common philosophies with the Social Justice Alliance of Museums – acting as a proactive forum for change through sharing collections and learning experiences. Te Papa looks forward to being an active member of this international community of museums. Te Papa Tongarewa, Museum of New Zealand
What are your biggest hopes with SJAM? What kind of impact would you like to see this initiative have on the field?
To sign up thousands of supporters and lead the way in promoting the impact museums can have in working towards social justice, equality and access for all, across a wide range of nations.
Concretely, how can museum professionals and organizations connect? What is the “incentive” for connecting?
Connecting is easy. Simply sign up to the charter on the SJAM website and we will add you to our supporter list. You can sign up as an organization or as an individual.
The incentive is the promote access for all to museums and to celebrate the value museums and their collections have on society.
Is there anything else you would like to share with the Incluseum readers?
Museums change lives. Sign up now! www.sjam.org