It's what museums can be that needs defining
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Simon Stephens
The International Council of Museums (Icom) recently announced plans to reassess its definition of a museum – its current meaning is not really one to set the pulse racing. In this issue of Museums Journal, Sharon Heal, the director of the Museums Association, and Richard Sandell, a professor of museum studies at the University of Leicester, discuss a far more ambitious vision of how a museum might be defined.

As part of Icom’s consultation, it has invited people to propose alternatives. The responses, which have so far come from everywhere from Burkina Faso to Yemen, can be read online. They make interesting reading, ranging from dull and insipid to inspiring and imaginative.

The more poetic ones are among my favourites: “Museums are the factory of our dreams”, from Greece; “The museum is a walk-in library of our collective memory,” from Germany; and a museum is place that “attempts to elaborate human dignity and life quality through appreciation of love, peace, equality and nature”, from Iran. I also enjoyed this simple message from Slovakia: “A museum is no longer just a place of collecting old stuff.”

It’s all a lot of fun, but I do wonder whether Icom has asked the wrong question. Surely, a better question is: “What can a museum be?” This might open up a whole range of possibilities for wide-ranging discussions about the future role of museums that have the potential to transform institutions all over the world.
Some of the really exciting developments in museums are happening in areas such as digital engagement, co-curation and decolonisation. These are all leading to new people telling new narratives that are shedding fresh light on our collections.

There are also the moves to encourage museums, and those who work with and for them, to become more engaged with the issues that really matter to people’s everyday lives such as poverty, racism and climate change.

Maybe one of the responses to Icom’s consultation, from Spain, was along the right lines: “A museum is made, not born, and it is reborn as many times as it takes.”

Simon Stephens, editor, Museums Journal



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