Why Icom postponed the vote on its new museum definition

Tonya Nelson, Issue 119/10, 01.10.2019
More discussion was needed to avoid a Brexit-like rift in the global community
At the Extraordinary General Assembly of the 25th Icom Triennial Conference in Kyoto on 7 September, the national and international committees agreed to postpone the vote on the proposed new museum definition. This was an anti-climactic end to six weeks of intense debate, but I believe the right outcome. 

A vote would have cemented a Brexit-like rift in the global community. With a better understanding of the potential impact of the proposed definition on colleagues from around the world, we can now consider the best outcome from our own standpoint, as well as from that of the international museum sector.

Support for the new definition is greater than one might think based on press reports and social media. Many Icom colleagues have argued that the proposed definition reflects what museums are already doing and, more importantly, what museums need to do to be relevant now and in the future. 

Furthermore, colleagues in emerging economies pointed out that the current Icom definition is too narrow to encompass the work they are doing to grow their sectors – they may not have “permanent institutions” but they are adapting “spaces” in order to preserve and present tangible and intangible heritage. They also report mixing what we might call pure museum work with other types of community building. Thus, the proposed definition offers crucial validation for their efforts and gives extra weight to their advocacy.

On the other hand, some members have serious pragmatic reasons for opposing the new definition. In countries in which the Icom definition is embedded in national legislation, members expressed great concern about how their governments would react to the proposed definition. 

They argue that politicians and policy makers simply won’t understand it. Even worse, they believe an overly broad definition, straying too far from commonly understood museum functions, could result in government funding being given to organisations that fall outside of the intended scope of Icom’s membership.

Terminology and syntax were the core issues raised by western European colleagues, including our UK members. The absence of words such as “education” and “intangible” and the inclusion of words such as “polyphonic” were cited. I think “polyphonic” should be changed to “many voices”, if we want to be seen as accessible and inclusive. 

There was also a general sense that the English-language version of the definition was awkwardly written, and many argued that the “definition” sounded more like a mission statement or political manifesto. However, even the opposition group led by France made clear a new definition is needed. At least we have consensus on one thing. 

I recount this to demonstrate the challenge of developing a definition that is useful and relevant to a global museum sector that is growing and changing rapidly. As Icom UK members consistently say they value being part of and supporting an international museum community, I want to continue the conversation about the new definition with our national interests in mind, as well as the needs of international colleagues. We should ensure the definition protects and supports those from the most fragile parts of the sector.

I appreciate Icom for having the courage to propose a radically different definition. It has sparked the most passionate and engaged debate I have experienced as an Icom member. We now have an opportunity to harness this energy and work constructively to come to a resolution. 

To that end, Icom UK is establishing a member-led working group that will be empowered to continue the dialogue with UK stakeholders and engage with the Icom international community. My hope is that we can turn a tumultuous six weeks into a positive new beginning.

Icom’s definition of a museum will be debated at the Museums Association Conference & Exhibition in Brighton. The speakers are Errol Francis, artistic director and CEO, Culture&; Richard Sandell, professor of museum studies, University of Leicester; and Jette Sandahl, museum consultant and chair of Icom’s Museum Definition committee 


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04.10.2019, 14:35
With due respect to Eric Baird (Museums Journal, October 2019, Letters), his concern over the proposed ICOM definition exposing museums to hijack by repellent ideologies appears to be based on a literal interpretation restricted to the one feature of inclusion. By being democratic, and aiming to contribute to “human dignity, social justice, global equality and planetary well-being”, it should be clear that there would be no place in museums for those demonstrably working against the values set out in the complete definition.

Now that the definition has been put on hold, the question is, apart from a detail here and there being lost in translation, what was there not to like? Tonya Nelson sets out ICOM’s present position very clearly, and the challenge presented by politicians who don’t understand the meaning of underpinning values is something with which I fully sympathise. Unfortunately, it can be a lot worse. Matters of democracy, human dignity and social justice are an impediment in countries where governments take lying to extreme levels, break the law, rubbish the judiciary and incite violence. All the more important, surely, that a further attempt to revise the definition embeds the values contained in the one just postponed.