Written by Chris Whitehead,
Professor of Museology, Newcastle University

Mobility is a term with multiple meanings. Questions of social mobility examine the ease or difficulty with which people move between social groups and strata. Spatial mobility is often also used in a basic sense to describe the extent to which people move around the world: someone with low mobility might not move far, if at all from where she or he grew up, and may spend time in relatively few locations on an everyday basis over a lifetime; someone else might think nothing of commuting significant distances every day between a countryside home and a metropolis, having more than one home or flying often to foreign locations for leisure or work.

International political and border control systems are built to enable and disable forms of mobility. For example, the ‘Four Freedoms’ of the European Union enable certain forms of mobility (the free movement of goods; freedom of movement for workers; right of establishment and freedom to provide services; free movement of capital), while the Mexico-United States barrier and its policing form an attempt to disable some kinds of international mobility. The example of the barrier shows that often human mobility – in the sense of our freedoms to move around the world – is connected to legality and enforcement, and indeed to the measures that are taken to keep people in place.

In social science, mobility (or in the plural ‘mobilities’) is a paradigm that focuses on movement in the world, especially the movement of people, but also other things. In 2000 the sociologist John Urry pointed out the need to consider the ‘diverse mobilities of peoples, objects, images, information and wastes; and…the complex interdependencies between, and social consequences of, these diverse mobilities’. These interests have intensified since the late 1980s, partly to respond to the perceived effects of globalisation.

Related ideas also focus attention away from a view of people and societies as fixed in place. Sociologist Manuel Castells’ influential idea of the ‘space of flows’ seeks to overcome a ‘bounded’ view of social practice (a ‘space of places’) by focussing on the ‘technological infrastructure of information systems, telecommunications, and transportation lines’. This relates to ‘time-space compression’, a phenomenon discussed by geographers such as David Harvey and Doreen Massey, that is often used to refer to technological forces like high-speed transport and communication systems (including the Internet), that ‘speed up’ the world. For Harvey and others, this reduces the significance of places, which become uniform. In Massey’s view, however, mobilities mean that places themselves change dramatically, as new layers are added to their histories, leading her to propose a new ‘global sense of place’.

Mobilities research often connects these issues to questions about power and inequality in society. This is because people do not benefit equally from the increased ‘speed’ of the world; not everyone is in a position (often in a literal sense) to take advantage of the advances in infrastructure and technology that benefit mobility. People’s nationality and place of origin, their gender, sexuality, social group, education and relative wealth or poverty can – among other factors – all profoundly affect their levels of mobility. A key point made by Urry and by many other researchers is that forms of mobility are interconnected: the images and ideas that we can access and the goods and objects that we can consume are themselves ‘mobile’ and affect lifestyles, life choices and aspirations; people’s expectations about their own mobility may be framed by the social and financial situation and peer-group structures in their lives; social and spatial mobility affect people’s ability to travel to gain educational qualifications or to find work and settle in a new place; and the logistics, costs, technology and infrastructure of travel also matter profoundly for mobilities. Refugees and migrants may make long, dangerous journeys to a new country, losing all of their wealth to people smugglers, and then find themselves detained, unable to work or to afford travel, drastically limiting mobility. Also, mobilities make a difference in localized societies: some people may develop a ‘global sense of place’, but others do not and resist the incursion into their places of residence of new social groups and cultures, sometimes leading to antagonism and social divisions.

At another level for museums this means thinking about the range of issues that can limit audience mobility, like transport links and costs, childcare provision, gender, language competence, disability and socio-cultural norms. Educational programmes may increase people’s social mobility, and outreach activities can link to groups who are unlikely or less able to make museum visits. If you are hoping to attract or invite groups to the museum, or co-produce initiatives with them, their mobility must be considered. Think also about how mobility often relates to social change, which can be challenging and disconcerting for some audience groups. At another level, taking account of mobility means thinking about your museum objects as historically ‘mobile’: how did they come to be in your collection?

Where have they been, why, and what does this mean, not just for our understandings of the objects themselves but for what this question can tell us about historical, natural and social processes and relations between phenomena. You can also rethink your museum activity in relation to global processes, new or challenged place identities, the different social and structural forces that affect audiences, and the power structures and inequalities that affect people’s life experiences as they inhabit or move from, between and to places.


Castells, Manuel (1999). 'Grassrooting the Space of Flows'. Urban Geography 20 (4), 294–302.

Harvey, D. (1989). The Condition of Postmodernity: An Enquiry into the Origins of Cultural Change, Wiley-Blackwell.

Massey, D. (1994). "A Global Sense of Place". Space, Place, and Gender, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Urry, J. (2000). Sociology Beyond Societies: mobilities for the twenty-first century, Routledge.