Museums, Society, Inequality

By Richard Sandell | Go to book overview

1

Museums and the combating of social inequality: roles, responsibilities, resistance

Richard Sandell

Museums and galleries of all kinds have both the potential to contribute towards the combating of social inequality and a responsibility to do so. Though by no means entirely new, 1 such claims to social influence and agency are still likely to elicit challenges from both within and outside the museum. Within the museum and wider cultural sector, there are many who remain uncomfortable with the assignment of overtly social roles; roles that are perceived as imposed, extraneous and unnecessary. For the majority of those working in social, welfare and health agencies - those whose day-to-day work is concerned with issues of inequality and disadvantage - museums’ roles in terms of education and leisure are more likely to be acknowledged than their potential contributions to social equity. Museums are viewed as unlikely partners 2 whose goals are discretely cultural rather than social.

Claims to social agency - the ability to influence and affect society - may not be new, but in recent years these are taking on both a new form and a new confidence. First, claims are moving from the more abstract, theorised and equivocal to become more concretised and more closely linked to contemporary social policy and the combating of specific forms of disadvantage. For example, whilst there has been a burgeoning literature that explores the political effects of representation and the generative potentials of culture, this has focused largely on processes of construction within the museum, rather less on processes of reception and the tangible impact on audiences. 3 Here, the social impact of the museum is linked to outcomes such as the creation of cultural identity or the engendering of a sense of place and belonging (as well as negative outcomes such as the subjugation of minorities). These complex outcomes that are difficult to measure have been based, for the most part, on theoretical assumptions around the signifying power of culture. Alongside increasingly sophisticated conceptual development in the area of representation there are now increasingly bold and explicit claims that are beginning to explore the museum’s impact on the lives of individuals and communities and the role that cultural organisations are playing in tackling specific manifestations of inequality - such as racism and other forms of discrimination, poor health, crime and unemployment. 4

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