Museums urged to do more for immigrants and social justice

Grassroots and militant movements have a role to play in making museums accountable for their claims to social justice through sit-ins, greater use of social media or greater engagement with the museums.

Dr Sophia Labadi, of the University’s School of European Culture and Languages (SECL), carried out in-depth studies of museums and art galleries in the UK, France and Denmark for her new book Museums; Immigrants, and Social Justice (Routledge Jan 2018).

The National Museum on the History of Immigration, (Musée national de l’histoire de l’immigration) Paris, was occupied by immigrants for 4 months between October 2010 and January 2011.

Dr Labadi argues more action such as this is needed because museums consider they play an important role to help immigrants settle into their new home countries but they need to do more.

Her research found that museums have made some effort to address daily issues faced by immigrants by offering language learning classes and employment skills. This includes, for example, regular free English conversation classes, entitled English Corner, offered by Manchester Museum, Manchester Art Gallery and the Whitworth Art Gallery. Manchester Museum also offered two volunteering programmes [the ‘In Touch Volunteer Programme’ (2007-2010) and ‘Inspiring Futures: Volunteering for Wellbeing’ (the ‘If Programme’ 2013-2016)], for a diversity of participants, including immigrants.

However, these programmes have tended to exclude less-privileged immigrants, even when it is this group that was the target of such schemes so Dr Labadi found they seem to reinforce the traditional elitist profile of museums.

Dr Labadi’s conclusion urges museums to:

  • understand better the needs of and issues faced by less-privileged immigrants, in particular the reasons why they do not attend museum programmes targeted at them
  • develop innovative provision for language and employment skills that tackle multiple forms of exclusion – this could take the form of greater integration and coherence between museum programmes
  • develop innovative interpretation of collections beyond their walls through greater engagement with social media and the opportunities offered by the internet
  • expand their activities beyond their walls to reach out to less-privileged immigrants.