Museums, Immigrants and Social Justice

Dr Sophia Labadi reports on her recent research findings:-

Museums have more important roles in society than generally perceived. They are possibly some of the most overlooked resources that can act upon the inequalities within and outside of the cultural domains for disfranchised individuals. The social justice roles of museums have been recognised in various declarations, including by the International Council of Museums, the largest body representing museums in the world. To engage with issues of social justice, museums have represented and interpreted immigrants’ histories, heritage and identities for over thirty years, in line with the New Museology approach. In recent years, a number of museums have also offered immigrants opportunities to learn the language of the host country, as well as acquire employment skills.


Little comprehensive and interdisciplinary research has been carried out on these more recent programs. Indeed, most of the existing publications on museums and immigration focus mainly on the representations of the history, heritage and identity of immigrants in museums. My research intends to fill this gap. The first aim of this book is to analyse critically whether and how a wide range of museums in three European cities have addressed major issues faced by immigrants: their representation in permanent and temporary galleries, issues related to language barriers as well as unemployment and employment discrimination. The second aim of this book is to analyse how immigrants have used the selected museums in order to address these major issues. The ultimate aim of this book is to identify proposals for research and museum practice that would contribute more effectively to social justice for immigrants. 

This topic is fundamental, as wide scale migrations have profoundly changed Western nations. It is essential to assess how museums have become more relevant for these changing societies, through building more equalitarian and respectful environment, as well as addressing the fundamental and daily problems faced by immigrants. Indeed, immigrants have been widely documented as facing major problems in host societies, primarily in accessing language learning courses and employment opportunities, due to discrimination and shortages of these courses. Conversely, there has been a shortage of skilled professionals in specific occupations in many European countries (nurses or doctors for instance) due in part to falling fertility levels and aging populations. This has led to schemes which encourage immigrants to apply for such occupations (e.g. the Green Card scheme in Denmark). Programs, such as those offered by museums provide immigrants with opportunities to learn the language of the host country and to acquire employment skills which are likely to facilitate their subsequent employment in these occupations.  

This research is based on in-depth case studies. My methods include participant observation, extensive interviews with diverse stakeholders, including immigrants themselves, as well as analyses of unpublished documents at the following museums engaging with immigrants: Manchester Museum and its partner Manchester Art Gallery (England), the National Gallery of Denmark and its partner Thorvaldsens Museum (Denmark) and the National Museum on the History of Immigration in Paris (France). Europe was chosen as a focus because social justice is one of its core and foundational values. Focusing on one social and economic zone also gives coherence to this project. Blog entry on my time in Denmark have published by the National Gallery of Denmark and preliminary research on the National Museum on the History of Immigration in Paris published in the Journal of Social Archaeology and reported on CBC news (Canada).

The capability approach by Amartya Sen has guided my understanding and interpretation of social justice and has provided the main theoretical framework for this research. The capability approach reflects the actual ability and freedom of people to choose to achieve what they want to do and be. Finally, I have adopted a resolutely multidisciplinary approach to analyze the data and engaged not only with academic publications in museum and heritage studies, but also with relevant research from sociology, migration studies, economics, education and philosophy.

Preliminary results on this research has been published in the Journal of Social Archaeology; mentioned on CBC news and the website of the National Gallery of Denmark.

Sophia Labadi is a Senior Lecturer in Heritage and co-director of the Centre for Heritage at the University of Kent.