The definition of a museum revealed

What is the definition of a museum? You might have thought it goes without saying but international experts have tied themselves up in knots over a proposed new definition, which will go to a vote on 7 September 2019.

For nearly 50 years, the International Council of Museums (ICOM) has subscribed to the definition of a museum as a “non-profit institution” that “acquires, conserves, researches, communicates and exhibits the tangible and intangible heritage of humanity and its environment for the purposes of education, study and enjoyment”. In April 2019, ICOM invited proposals for a revised definition of the museum to ‘reflect and express adequately the complexities of the 21st century and the current responsibilities and commitments of museums… their challenges and visions for the future’.

To date, ICOM has crowdsourced 269 proposed definitions, which it has published on its website. These include a submission from the United Kingdom, which defines museums as public institutions that ‘collect, conserve, and communicate heritage through exhibitions and display. They… make cultural heritage present and accessible to all… are agents of education and recreation through research and display, with the power to lead social, cultural, and intellectual change for the benefit of human development’.

In spite of the crowdsourcing exercise, ICOM has sparked controversy over its decision to select a definition, which was not submitted as part of the public campaign. The definition that will go to a vote at ICOM’s Extraordinary General Assembly in Kyoto, Japan, on 7 September was proposed internally by a commission led by Danish curator, Jette Sandahl. Suggesting that the current definition of the museum “does not speak the language of the 21st century” and ignores the demands of “cultural democracy”, Sandahl’s commission proposes in part the following definition:

Museums are democratizing, inclusive and polyphonic spaces for critical dialogue about the pasts and the futures. Acknowledging and addressing the conflicts and challenges of the present, they hold artifacts and specimens in trust for society, safeguard diverse memories for future generations and guarantee equal rights and equal access to heritage for all people’.

The proposed definition has deeply divided ICOM members including those who formed part of Sandahl’s commission. Chair of the International Committee of Museology and professor at the Université Sorbonne Nouvelle, François Mairesse, was so perturbed by the “disastrous” proposal he resigned from Sandahl’s commission in June. “This is not a definition but a statement of fashionable values”, Mairesse said,  He further added that “the ramifications could be serious. ICOM’s statement can be included in national or international legislation and there is no way a jurist could reproduce this text”.

Chair of ICOM France, Juliette Raoul-Duval, criticised the “ideological” manifesto, which was “published without consulting” ICOM’s national branches. Former director of ICOM and one of the founders of the ‘new museology’ movement in the 1970s, Hugues de Varine said he was surprised by the “over inflated verbiage” of the proposed definition.

Sandahl’s proposal has even inspired a petition signed by 24 national branches of the council to postpone the 7 September vote in order to deliver a revised definition. It remains to be seen whether the petition will have the desired effect.

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