What went wrong with ICOM's new museum definition
Having come back from Kyoto where I attended the 25th ICOM General Conference, I feel it’s worth sharing a few thoughts about the most controversial issue at stake throughout the whole event: the new museum definition.
In times of great political, sociological and climatic changes, ICOM has decided to update their museum definition which currently still reads “A nonprofit 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”.
The proposed new definition finalised this July by a special committee looks at museums as “Democratising, inclusive and polyphonic spaces for critical dialogue about the pasts and the futures. [...] aiming to contribute to human dignity and social justice, global equality and planetary wellbeing.”
This was intended to be the backbone that would give museums new guidelines, create increased room for flexibility and reflect a trend from the last decades, which has seen an increasing interest from museums in addressing themes such as de-colonisation, under-representation of women and climate change.
Despite that the definition has created animated debates amongst the museum community at large and specifically ICOM members, and attracted criticism due to its overly ideological nature.
While I think it will be near impossible to have over 20,000 museums agree on a single definition, this proposed one has caused enough turmoil that the during the Kyoto conference nearly 70% of the voters decided to allow more time for a decision to be made and to postpone the approving vote.
After attending a number of ICOM meetings and countless informal conversations with colleagues and attendees, I feel that not enough emphasis has been placed on two issues that for me, as a person in operations, are key: the overly ambitious timeline to reach consensus, and how museums are expected to conform to the new definition.
On the first point, considering all national committees would need to debate over the definition and make sure that they would still identify and want to continue to be part of ICOM, the time allowed for the task seems incredibly short.
The debate over whether the museum should be a place for imparting knowledge or a forum for debate and whether it is possible to expect it to be ideologically neutral, is a long standing one. And, though the recent forces of change have placed an increasing pressure to rethink the role of museums, a tight timeline was not conducive to the task at hand.
The point that most stands out to me though, is still the lack of clarity around the impact of this definition, and how ICOM will expect its members to comply with it.
For example, it seems extremely hard for an institution battling with increasingly smaller budgets to be able to guarantee equal rights and access to heritage for all people? Are there really enough funding opportunities in place at this stage for museums to fulfill this core mission and create programmes that include all people?
Or how is a broad concept such as ‘a museum’s contribution to human dignity and social justice, global equality and planetary wellbeing’ going to be measured?
Whilst it is extremely exciting that ICOM is working on a new definition, and I think the vast majority of its members would agree that the present time calls for change, it is unsurprising that the postponement of the vote has been approved with such a large majority.
I believe that allowing the necessary time to redraft a definition and being more specific about its boundaries and implications, will produce a much better result without compromising on museums having a more meaningful role in shaping an inclusive future.