Definitions are dynamic, not static

Jette Sandahl, Issue 119/12, 01.12.2019
The controversy over how we should define a museum goes back years
What a museum is, is defined through what it does, how it does it and why. In a museum definition, there is always, underneath the description of the functions and methods, an implicit or explicit statement of the purpose of these activities. 

What museums are can never be separated from their purpose and goals. What they are in the present can’t be separated from their history, nor from the course they are setting for the future. A definition is never static, but always dynamic. 

A shared definition of museums, like that of the International Council of Museums’ (Icom), is never just descriptive, but will also always be prescriptive, normative and future orientated. 

A definition expresses, in positive terms, the core or essence of a given phenomenon. For me, this core of museums is of more interest than the interpretation of how the boundaries can mediate inclusion and exclusion.

The historic core of public museums revolves around their social and educational purpose and the unity of collecting, researching, documenting, preserving and exhibiting, and communicating and interpreting the collection. Most people see this historic core and purpose as essential for museums in the future. 

In each museum, the balance between the various areas and functions is continuously contested and renegotiated, but their interconnectivity and integrated whole remain categorically essential for the museum field and for a definition of museums. 

When the phrase “in the service of society” was added to the Icom definition of museums in the 1970s, it was contentious, considered by some an undue politicisation of the sector. I believe the disagreements over Icom’s new definition concern the attempts to interpret, fill in and make concrete what that phrase means in the 21st century.

Museums are increasingly aware of being inextricable parts of complex and conflicted societies. Remaining in denial of this or holding on to an idea of neutrality is becoming unviable. 

There are three particularly crucial areas: 

  • The urgent crisis in nature and the need to work towards sustainable solutions. 
  • The asymmetries in opportunity, power and wealth, and the paradoxically increasing inequalities, as well as the intertwined and intersected issues of class, race and gender –globally, nationally, regionally and locally.
  • The meaning of different world views, and the need to explore alternative principles and practices that meet growing societal expectations for cultural democracy and participation.

But there is a corresponding commitment and confidence among museums that such issues be addressed through the specific and unique museum functions and methods. Core museum functions and societal responsibilities are not in competition with each other. Museums seem ready to move beyond this false dichotomy, which has been voiced so often in the past.

But with this position, museums also voice the need to have their core functions contextualised and anchored in a shared ethical base, which is absent from how we have been defining museums and our core purpose, principles and practices. 

A coherent system of values of equal rights and human rights, of inclusivity and diversity, of social justice and a sustainable planetary future, have only been part of museums by association with organisations such as Unesco. 

Values such as these are not empty or fashionable buzzwords, as the political right of the culture wars likes to claim. Owning them, making them our own, using them as tools for self-reflection and as practical roadmaps, is a way for museums to shape their collective futures. 

They can guide and support museums in becoming sustainable institutions of relevance, points of orientation and spaces of engagement and empowerment that, from each museum’s particular perspective, rooted in its particular collections and location, and unique knowledge, expertise and skills, serve their diverse societies.

Jette Sandahl is the chair of the International Council of Museums’ Museum Definition, Prospects and Potentials committee

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