Wellbeing and social justice in museums

Here’s a thought provoking article by Maurice Davies of the Museums Association, asking Social Justice vs Wellbeing? Are they just different means to the same end?

I find it interesting as it’s the first time I’ve seen such a definite claim that museums have two distinct approaches in their social change work, ‘social justice’ and ‘wellbeing’ approaches.

He says “there are some philosophical differences.
Social justice focuses on areas such as human rights, inequality and poverty. It believes the state should strongly intervene in communities. With origins on the left, it is perhaps red.
Wellbeing prioritises concepts such as self-help, local organisation and relationships. It stresses the role of civil society organisations, such as charities and community groups, to complement the work of the state, whose main role is to help local communities flourish so they can find their own solutions. It has its recent origins, at least in part, in the green movement.”

He talks about rumblings of disagreement between the two camps “with social justice people thinking wellbeing people are a bit wet and naïve about the realities of disadvantaged people’s lives. Conversely, wellbeing people think social justice people are a bit too top down and doctrinaire.”

However, he doesn’t see a great deal of difference between them, seeing the approaches as more on a spectrum, and fundamentally sharing the same goals.

I agree that these two approaches do share the same goals, basically the elimination of inequality and suffering. Kate Raworth’s Oxfam Doughnut model shows that all issues, whether environmental or social, are aspects of the same goal we are all driving towards, providing a safe and just space for humanity. A safe biosphere and justice between people. What makes it different from prior models, such as the Millennium Development Goals, is that it acknowledges the planetary boundaries being breached by human action. Humanity needs to thrive so that it can steward and repair the planet, for the sake of both humanity and other species. If inequality continues, conflict and despair will make it harder for us to tackle these massive problems of our environmental infrastructure.

However, I think that there is more to say about the philosophical differences that underlie these rumblings in museums. If these disagreements are more clearly understood they can be flipped towards productivity (and museums really need to work harmoniously together right now). I wonder if the disagreements arise more from deeply held passions and/or denial about the immensity of the environmental crisis than they do from differing views on semantics or organisational tactics.

Social Justice is actually one of the four pillars of the Green Party worldwide so it’s interesting that a green/wellbeing approach is held as being opposed to social justice. The Wellbeing movement is in part a response to criticisms of environmentalists that they focus too much on the planet, that green measures will deny people the chance to escape poverty. (For an example of this, see how this socialist article likens the wellbeing and resilience agenda to neoliberalism.) Wellbeing advocates explore the many ways that an environmentally sustainable lifestyle is healthier for mind, body and society. If people can become less obsessed with consumption and wealth, they will suffer less from exposure to relative inequality. In turn, fewer people will pursue excessive wealth which causes inequality. The economy can be sustained, even grow, if we don’t place further stress on the fragile planet but start to heal it.

Maurice reports disagreements between the statist (social justice) and localist (wellbeing) agendas, but I’m not sure this reaches the heart of the difference. In the political world the statist and localist camps are fairly closely entwined. The thinking behind Wellbeing groups such as Transition Towns comes out of the co-operative and unionist movements, very ground-up and local, that led to the foundation of the welfare state. On the other hand, the Conservatives formed the Big Society policy and are pursuing localism (although arguably as a smokescreen for privatisation). The three major parties all pursue pro-growth free market capitalism in which a controlling state gives free rein only to profiteers. The three parties will differ in the extent to which they promote this, admit to it, or repress it, depending on their election strategies or how much money they have to spend on welfare schemes.

I think the disagreements are more likely to hinge on whether museum people developed their social justice practice in loyalty to their local communities and to Labour policies (after years of Thatcherism, and in current austerity), or whether they are more motivated by bigger geophysical and global threats. This loyalty is quite understandable and generates extremely worthwhile practice. The latter is somewhat taboo, in the museums sector and elsewhere, and is therefore under-explored. This taboo relates to a general public failure to acknowledge that ecology is economy, that land is food is wellbeing and that broken systems of ecology break humanity. (For example, it’s not widely acknowledged, but proven, that the root causes of uprising around the Mediterranean and Arab world are climate change and mismanagement of environmental resources.)

The stimulus for Maurice’s post was the Happy Museum project. This explores the role of museums in transitioning communities to a ‘high wellbeing, low carbon’ society. The ‘low carbon’ sustainability dimension was an integral part of its conception. However, the project evaluation showed that museums really struggle with public programming for environmental change. Most funding applications to both rounds were about health, intergenerational learning or reminiscence, not about ecologically sustainable communities. Tony Butler reported that “Well-being in isolation is an ‘easier sell’ than the trickier implications of setting well-being in the context of less conspicuous consumption, low growth, or environmental stewardship.”

The vision for the Happy Museum project has been changed to Museums that foster wellbeing that doesn’t cost the earth. It suggests a shift from a potential model in which ecological sustainability is prioritised as the means to achieve widespread wellbeing. Maurice Davies doesn’t see much difference between social justice and wellbeing approaches, seeing them both as means to an end. Maybe that’s because, in the museums sector, there isn’t really any difference: there are just variants on generous and people-centred practice. Social change projects by museums have had great impacts on individuals and localities but they haven’t cured inequality and ecocide, mainly because museums are not powerful enough alone. Also, they can’t easily tackle the corporatised culture that supports landgrabbing, ecocide, food speculation and banker’s bonuses when they are so entwined in that culture.

Beyond museums, there is a gulf between those who can see no way beyond capitalistic social democracy and those who call for complete systemic overhaul to avert imminent biosphere collapse. We may not be aware of the gulf because the calls for systemic overhaul are not given a place in mainstream media. Raworth’s Doughnut model does reflect perceptions that environmental and social issues sit either side of the ‘safe and just space’, perpetuating a Red/Just and Green/Safe split. Her work is so important because it aims to draw them together, to stop fighting over what is a ‘chicken & egg’ situation. You can’t have biosphere safety without justice and you can’t have justice without safety. (Personally, I think, in museums and beyond, there has been too much ‘chicken’ – too much denial about losses in environmental security, and not enough ‘egg’ – seeding ecological innovation.) It would be good to see more museums and cultural practitioners coming together in campaigns and practical actions for a safe and just world.

PS Here is a toolkit I produced with Renaissance South East and eight museums, aiming towards such a goal, called Museums for the Future.

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