Paradigms of Publicness Part I: The Case for Social Justice

Last week on our blog we heard from Incluseum blogger nikhil trivedi who wrote about oppression and how work to end oppression is distinctly tied to the goals of museums who wish to serve “everybody.” On The Incluseum blog we often talk about socially inclusive practices that museums can use to combat oppression – reinvest their resources in  internal change and staff training as well as trust, relationships, and services to historically underrepresented communities. But what does the concept of social justice add to discussions about museum inclusion? The following article draws on the sources I used to frame my graduate thesis research. In an upcoming post (Part II) I will share a summary of my research findings on emerging curatorial practices which indicate shifting understandings in the field about how curation can be aligned with social justice. – Aletheia


The concept of social justice refers to the idea that everyone should have equitable access to rights, opportunities, and wealth in society. In Justice and the American Metropolis, editors Hayward and Swanstrom state that what they call “thick injustice” calls for a culture of, not only moral responsibility, but also, political responsibility for “the past injustice that shapes current relations of power.” Political responsibility they define as “a matter less of blameworthiness then of the shared obligation to work to understand, criticize and change those unjust outcomes to which multiple agents contribute, even if unconsciously” (1)

The way injustice can be reinforced unconsciously (microaggressions, bias etc) and be rooted in past injustice (slavery, genocide, colonialism and institutional policies/ practices/codes that are structured to exclude some groups) are key aspects of understanding the concept of oppression.

I have found the idea of “thick injustice” used by Hayward and Swanstrom to be very useful when imagining the nature of practices required to work toward social justice.  If injustice is “thick” it requires that to get to the heart of it and change it we must “go deep.” Thus, recognizing injustice through its outcomes; disparities in education, incarceration, housing security, food security necessitates action in the form of accountability to change the systems of power that reinforce the privilege held by some groups over others. When museums see injustice in the form of racial and economic disparities in museum attendance, the next question is how the museum field can play a role in ending oppression.  So, if museums are seeking to be in service to everyone, and consequently, are troubled by the disparities in who attends their institution, who staffs it and who leads it, then museums must engage head on with social injustices, and their underlying foundations, that leave us with these realities.

A speech that has had a huge impact on me is Gloria Ladson Billings’ “Pushing Past the Achievement Gap: An Essay on the Language of Deficit.” Ladson Billings states:

The poverty that exists on one side of town is related to the affluence on the other side. When one segment of society regularly and consistently has access to the best schools, the best health care, the best communities, and social resources, it means that other segments lack or have limited access. (2)

What Ladson Billings is arguing for is an understanding of injustice that implicates systems determined by some groups and which operate at the expense of others (here referring to how our educational system was created to serve white folks and still operates in favor of white folks, often at the expense of communities of color.)  Ladson-Billings goes on to say that we should reframe how we talk about “gaps” and “lacks” in educational achievement to speaking in terms of “debts.” This term refocuses attention on the fact that, for large periods of its history, the US has excluded groups from the political process where they might have had a say in democratically determining how systems (like education) should operate in their communities.

Jennifer Barrett writes, “Museums have sought to attract sectors of the public that do not historically attend museums. In this way they have acknowledged that they have neither acted as, nor been perceived as, being ‘for the public’ despite a history of being public institutions.”(3) Museums, Barrett argues, have been reflective of the culture of the groups who have maintained social and political dominance in the public sphere.

Habitus is the concept that IMG_0762Pierrre Bourdieu coined to describe the social and psychological realms of familiarity and comfort experienced by different groups. Bourdieu concluded from his visitor studies of art experiences in museums that, rather than being accessible to all through pure aesthetic intuition, experiences are associated with learned cultural codes of conduct. Art experiences in the museums he studied were based in traditions of Western art production and viewing obtained through higher education, which is itself a feature of privilege.

The museum gives to all, as a public legacy, the monuments of a splendid past…but this is false generosity, because free entrance is also optional entrance, reserved for those who, endowed with the ability to appropriate the works, have the privilege of using this freedom and who find themselves consequently legitimized in their privilege. (4)

Bourdieu’s description gives us a view of museums as spaces of privilege and power. His study illustrates the cycle of power being consolidated amongst the privileged people who know the codes of conduct. “False generosity” is a phrase that particularly strikes me in this passage.  It reminds me of the actions museums often take to promote access and inclusion; well intentioned, but without deep impact on how the institution itself operates.

Using a framework of social justice prompts us to think critically about how 1) museums rarely address their role in the oppression of historically underrepresented groups or 2) disrupt exclusive museum models like those that Bourdieu studied where injustices are “thickened.” Social justice moves expectations for the field beyond the language of “inclusion,” a concept which does not necessarily require addressing the root of injustices, while working toward the goal of presenting as an institution that is “on track” to being more public, diverse and relevant.

Diversity as an institutional value has become a sometimes buzzword in the non profit museum field and the private sector. For an excellent look at the pitfalls of the concept check out Incluseum blogger Porchia Moore’s take on it. Diana L. Eck, a professor of religious studies and founder of the Pluralism Project, states that with the presence of difference or diversity there are three possible avenues available; pluralism, exclusion and assimilation. Americans have had all three reactions in the face of expanding religious and cultural diversity. She argues, “Diversity can and often has meant isolation and the creation of virtual ghettoes of religion and sub-culture with little traffic between them. The dynamic of pluralism, however, is one of meeting, exchange, and two-way traffic.” Eck identifies a need for venues in which intercultural dialogues can facilitate pluralism. Eck asks,” Where are those public spaces, those “tables” where people of various religious traditions and none meet in American society?” (5)

Can museums be those tables at which we acknowledge difference, privilege and power; creating the conditions for a socially just dialogue about the kinds of museum experiences everyone could benefit from? What emerging practices can point the way toward new paradigms for curatorial and community engagement with goals for social justice?

  1. Hayward and Swanstrom, Justice and the American Metropolis, P. 19
  2. Ladson Billings, “Pushing Past the Achievement Gap: An Essay on the Language of Deficit.” P. 320
  3. Barrett, Museums and the Public Sphere, P. 5
  4. Bourdieu, The Field of Cultural Production, P. 237 For a recent study that draws on Bourdieu’s framework as applied to museums, see Emily Dawson’s “Not Designed for Us”: How Science Museums and Science Centers Socially Exclude Low-Income, Minority Ethnic Groups”
  5. Eck, “From Diversity to Pluralism,” P. 4

A full bibliography for these titles can be found in the Incluseum resources page.


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