Robert R. Janes & Richard Sandell | Museum Activism

Robert R. Janes

Founder, Coalition of Museums for Climate Justice

Richard Sandell

Co-Director, Research Centre for Museums and Galleries, University of Leiceste

Robert R. Janes & Richard Sandell

Canadian Museums Association Awards 2020 Awards of Outstanding Achievement / Research in the cultural heritage sector


Museums as Forces for Good




In 2017, we began to discuss the kernel of an idea for book that would explore what we sensed to be an emerging global turn in museum thinking and practice - the increasing prevalence of work that seeks to harness the unique resources, capacities, and potentials of museums as forces for good. Over a period of two years the project grew in scale and ambition. We drew on our own research and values-based practice to develop a clear conceptual frame for the book, and then issued an open call for contributors working in this emerging field to share their insights and experiences. We were overwhelmed with the response – a multitude of submissions that revealed a body of experimental, activist museum practice across the world – and began a careful process of selection, review, and editing.

Published in January 2019 by Routledge, Museum Activism is an anthology of research that brings together 51 contributors, including cultural practitioners, artists, researchers and activists from around the world who seek not only to draw attention to phenomenon of ‘museum activism’, but also to amplify, nurture and enrich it.

Underpinning professional and social philosophy

Only a decade ago, the notion that museums, galleries and heritage organisations might engage in activist practice – marshalling and directing their unique resources with explicit intent to act upon inequalities, injustices, and environmental crises – was met with widespread scepticism and often derision. Seeking to purposefully bring about change beyond the walls of the institution, through support for particular standpoints informed by moral, ethical, and scientific rationales, was viewed by museum workers, sector leaders and external commentators alike as inappropriately political and partisan. Such work was thought to be beyond the remit of cultural institutions, antithetical to fundamental professional values, and a threat to public trust.

Today, although the idea remains controversial, Museum Activism highlights signs of an irreversible shift in the way we think about the role and responsibility of museums as knowledge-based, social institutions. There is increasing recognition that museums are not, and never have been, neutral. A growing body of research is revealing the powerful part museums play in engaging visitors in dialogue surrounding contemporary social issues, and in shaping the way we see, think about and act towards others and the world around us. This, in turn, is stimulating professional debate and experimental practice around the potential of museums to bring about progressive change. Although relatively few institutions have taken this to what we would argue is its compelling conclusion – a recognition that museums not only have the potential to shape a more sustainable, equitable and fair world, but also an obligation to do so – these attitudes are also slowly changing.

Following our opening chapter, in which we present our case for activist, critically engaged, and purposeful museum thinking and practice, the chapters are divided into three sections: ‘Nurturing Activism’; ‘Activism in Practice’, and ‘Assessing Activism’. Each part includes 10-13 research papers selected from across the globe through an editorial review process to examine the leading-edge work shaping museum practice today. The first part, ‘Nurturing Activism’, assesses traditional museum practice and what could, or should, change for museums as they seek to take a stand on important issues. Part two, ‘Activism in Practice’, explores actions taken by museums around the world and lessons learned from specific case studies. Part three, ‘Assessing Activism’, delves into the challenges and issues to consider when museums make the commitment to contribute to positive social, environmental, or cultural change.

Museum Activism offers what is effectively a handbook for museum workers who are seeking ways to use the museum to move issues of social, environmental, and cultural change forward.

Since its publication, Museum Activism has helped to foster reflection, as well as stimulate and inform new ways of thinking and working with which to counteract and transcend the ‘immorality of inaction’. This recognises that, whilst museum activism involves work that is undeniably challenging and risky, there is a growing and irresistible imperative to redefine the contemporary museum as an active agent in shaping the world around us and making it a better place for all.

The Past is Now, at Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery.
Photo © Birmingham Museums Trust


Award for Outstanding Achievement in Cultural Heritage Research

Museum Activism was awarded the Canadian Museums Association’s 2020 Award for outstanding achievement in the field of cultural heritage research based on fulfilling seven award criteria:

1. Diffusion: promotes physical, intellectual, and social outreach. Fifty-one authors from six continents have contributed their voices to the important conversation about changing practice in the museum sector, thus ensuring a global reach and relevance. Decolonization, climate change, anti-racism and anti-ableism are all issues addressed within the book, demonstrating relevance to a variety of audiences and international contexts.

2. Inclusion: Reflects upon and represent both accessibility and diversity. This book explores access from multiple angles and challenges museums to take action. It puts forward everything from working with accessibility advocates to address universal access, to exhibition design and installation, to providing opportunities for sharing experiences of being disabled in an ableist world.

3. Innovation: Promotes new and creative ideas. Museum Activism immerses the reader in new and innovative ideas, experiments, and test cases, and offers practical ideas for change. Throughout the book, readers are constantly faced with the question “What will I do to actively and positively contribute to our changing world?”

4. Practices: Exceeds the current standards of museum practice. The intent of Museum Activism is to help museums move beyond current standards of museum practice and support the museum profession in becoming more mindful of the world around them, including their contributions to societal well-being. Museum Activism clearly articulates a call to action to reach beyond current standards in search of authentic community relevance.

5. Relevance: Demonstrates relevance to the communities served. Each of the 34 chapters in Museum Activism presents direct experience of community service within a museum context, including collections, education, and programming, as well as exhibition development and installation.

6. Resources: Demonstrates an effective use of available resources. The costs of publishing Museum Activism were covered by Routledge, and the ability to share the book through Google Scholar provides access to those who are not financially able to purchase a copy.

7. Vision: Advances a vision of the future of museums. At its very core, Museum Activism is an appeal to our collective imagination, asking us to advance the ideas of what museums are, and what they could be, around the world. It puts forward a clear vision for the future of museums, while offering case studies, potential new practices, and lessons learned to serve as a guide for getting there.

Book cover


We are honoured to have had this opportunity to make known the global contributions of museums and galleries as key civic and intellectual resources. In a world increasingly beset by complex social and environmental challenges, this book clearly demonstrates that museums and galleries have a fundamental role to play as forces for good. The nomination for the Canadian Museums Association Award stated:

‘It is a truly visionary publication which endeavours to shift the paradigm of museum work, and the role of museums in society, by demonstrating how this work can be done, and done very successfully by institutions around the world’.


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