Tuesday 13 August 2019

A new museum definition

MASP, São Paulo, Brazil (Photo: Maria Vlachou)

“A museum is a non-profit, permanent institution in the service of society and its development, open to the public, which 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 current museum definition of the International Council of Museums (ICOM) serves perfectly those museum professionals who know how to give meaning to expressions such as “at the service of society” and “for the purposes of education, study and enjoyment”. It serves perfectly those museum professionals who not only know how to give meaning to these words, but also how to share this meaning with other citizens, non-specialists, through both their thinking and their practice.

The current ICOM museum definition, though, has not served the museum field, and society at large, for a long time now, as many museum professionals have failed to understand that “to acquire, conserve and research” is not an aim, a purpose in itself, bur rather a tool, in order to fulfil the purposes mentioned by the definition. Many museums around the world have failed to fulfil their mission (the majority has also failed to establish a concrete mission), as they are run by subject-matter specialists with a very limited knowledge of museology and an even more limited vision of why it is that museums exist and for whom. Back in 2015 I had the opportunity to share my views on the contradictions presented by many international competitions for museum directors (at that time, I reviewed the Italian case) when one sees the requisites announced and then the curriculum of the people chosen. I still strongly believe that a knowledge of museology should be a must and not an option (as it normally is) both for State organisations responsible for museums and for the competitions, but also for those who wish to direct institutions called “museums”. Museums’ current relationship and communication with citizens in general, and non-specialists in particular, has been greatly, and negatively, conditioned by the traditional, conservative and little inspiring views of many people working in the field and directing these institutions.

ICOM set up a committee with the aim to review the current museum definition. People from all over the world took part in this process with inspiringand beautiful ideas, many of which did not exactly constitute a definition but could help us all set a frame and think better.

Source: ICOM Website

Last month, we were presented with the proposal for a new museum definition. A vote will be included at the ICOM Extraordinary General Assembly, which will take place on 7 September in Kyoto, Japan. The proposal is the following:

“Museums are democratising, 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 artefacts and specimens in trust for society, safeguard diverse memories for future generations and guarantee equal rights and equal access to heritage for all people.

Museums are not for profit. They are participatory and transparent, and work in active partnership with and for diverse communities to collect, preserve, research, interpret, exhibit, and enhance understandings of the world, aiming to contribute to human dignity and social justice, global equality and planetary wellbeing.”

Based on my first reaction to the proposal and then some further thinking (also with the help of other colleagues who shared their views), I find the proposed new definition:

- Too long. Contrary to the “ingredients” of the current definition, nobody will be able to remember and use (and say) the many parts of the proposed new definition;

- Rather wishful thinking. More of “we dream of museums that” rather than “we expect museums to”;

- Full of buzz words and repetitive. It’s about everything and nothing. Thoughts should be better organised.

ICOM UK has launched a poll online and many museum professionals have reacted publicly to the proposal. At the same time, there is an intense discussion in many countries regarding the role of museums in society and an increasing scrutiny of what they do and why.

The words of Ahdaf Soueif, who recently resigned from the BritishMuseum’s Board of Trustees, are still echoing in my mind:

“The British Museum is not a good thing in and of itself. It is good only to the extent that its influence in the world is for the good. The collection is a starting point, an opportunity, an instrument. Will the museum use it to influence the future of the planet and its peoples? (…)”

How conscious is the British Museum, and all other museums, that they are not a good thing in themselves, as they might think? How conscious are we all that most museums are far from “democratising, inclusive and polyphonic spaces for critical dialogue”, as the new definition suggests?

There is an urgent need to make a clear, updated, statement – aimed at both museum professionals and society at large - as to why museums exist and who for. There is also an urgent need to review the profile of museum directors. ICOM itself admitted that the reason for reviewing the current definition were the continuously shifting points of intersection between museums and communities. The 21st century society is definitely not the 20th or 19th century society. The 21st century society can only be served by 21st century museums and by museum professionals who have a clear understanding of the meaning of expressions such as “at the service of society” and “for the purposes of education, study and enjoyment”. The 21st century society can only be served by a 21st century commitment.

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