Ideological rift persists as Icom restarts museum definition consultation
It was a simple question that caused a deep split in the global museum community: what is the definition of a museum?
Almost two years on from the divisive conference in Kyoto, where delegates agreed to postpone a vote on the proposed definition after a long and heated debate, the International Council of Museums (Icom) is once again revisiting the issue.
Ideological fault lines first emerged after the wording proposed for the new definition was published in the run up to Kyoto. The proposal was heavily criticised by some Icom members for referring to values such as “human dignity and social justice” while omitting terms such as “education”. The disagreement was seen as symbolic of a broader split between the traditionalist and progressive wings of Icom.
Those defending the proposal said it had been fully signed off by Icom’s board and that the definition committee had been “hung out to dry” in the ensuing row.
The controversy led to the resignation of nine members of Icom’s board and executive committees last year, including former president Suay Aksoy and chair of the definition committee, Jette Sandahl.
Now, the council hopes the extensive, 18-month process to find a new definition – which includes four rounds of consultation carried out over 11 steps – will unify opposing factions.
But Museums Journal understands that the divisions that marred the previous process have not subsided. A source with knowledge of the situation said: “There is warfare between reformers and conservatives over the definition of a museum – though everything is couched in polite terms so the warfare may be missed by some – just like in Kyoto.
“The conservatives seem to be happy with the existing definition and want no change; the reformers wish to see a definition that recognises the social roles increasingly played by museums.”
The source said the conservative side is led primarily by “French and French-speaking” members – who hold influence because Icom is headquartered in France and receives significant income from French sources.
At the launch of the consultation methodology last December, Icom president Alberto Garlandini said the council was moving forward with the consultation in an “atmosphere of respect and cooperation”, adding that the reformed Define committee had “successfully worked to construe a transparent and participatory methodology towards a new definition”.
The committee is co-chaired by Lauran Bonilla-Merchav and Bruno Brulon Soares. In the current phase, which ends on 11 April, committees, regional alliances and affiliated organisations will submit up to 20 key words or concepts that are considered essential to the new museum definition.
The proposed new definition will be voted on at Icom's next general conference, which is scheduled to take place in Prague in September 2022.
Museums Journal has contacted Icom for comment.
Icom’s current museum definition
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 fact that the world’s museums will somehow survive and thrive without a new Icom sanctioned definition for 18 more months is symbolic of the redundancy of the definition and of the obsolescence of the institution.
The problem with the definition proposed at Kyoto was that it would have excluded the majority of existing museums. I have no problem with adding some progressive elements, but the definition has to include existing museums. It also has to be something that, our users (the public), and staff recognise as describing museums not just an academic ideal. How many of the 2000 or so museums in the UK are “democratizing”? How many of us know what a “polyphonic space” is (and how can we be inclusive if we use that term to define ourselves)? Is the purpose of a geology museum in a costal town to “contribute to human dignity and social justice”?
Exactly. If the attempted ICOM definition was accepted as a legal definition by nation states, and a hypothetical small geology museum’s displays failed to “contribute to social justice”, or to give sufficient space to alternative viewpoints (such as the Creationist view that the Earth was created in ~5,000-10,000 BC), then could it lose its legal status as a museum, lose all museum grants from national and local government, lose its charitable status (if it had that earned that status due to being a museum), and be forced to close?
The job of ICOM is not to incompetently and stupidly invent new problems and existential threats that the rest of the museum community – the grown-ups – then have to deal with.
ICOM’s attempted redefinition of the word “museum” should not be considered to be in any way democratic. THE WORD IS NOT ICOM’s PROPERTY. It belongs to the whole of humanity, and it is not for some cliquey set of self-important committees and their friends and funders and interest groups to vote on changing it.
ICOM can by all means vote on what /they/ believe the word should mean, and on ICOM’s internal policy, but the meanings of words are already established democratically by usage, and shift and change (or are replaced), without requiring committees. What we’ve just seen is an attempt by an organisation to use their supposed authority to dictate terms to the rest of the species.
Their existing “old” definition is actually quite good and forward-looking. Perhaps the sensible thing for ICOM to do would be to acknowledge that this has been a fiasco, accept the organisation doesn’t currently seem to be capable of making proper decisions regarding this sort of thing, put a moratorium on the subject for, say, another ten years, and focus instead on areas were the museum community is currently in crisis and desperately needs help, advice, and a lobbying voice, such as the current COVID-19 -related closures.
I think it’s disingenuous to frame this as an argument between progressive reformers and old-fashioned conservatives. Many of the issues people had were with the unnecessary jargon. How many museums really benefit from having to decode phrases like ‘polyphonic space’.
I don’t think people are closed off to the idea of using the museum of a place for change and driving for equality and inclusivity. But a definition of museum that sounds like the abstract for an academic philosophical text helps no one (and, to me, also stands in opposition of the idea of social justice: how are we including different voices by using a definition that excludes people without a university-level education and familiarity with obscure terms?)
The current museum definition was approved in 1974 and there had been some small changes – last one in 2007. In 1974 the discussions were very strong. The most controversial was “the service of society”. The ICOM president Jan Jelinek from Czechoslovakia was blamed for inserting socialist terms into the definition.
In what ways would a geology museum in a coastal town not contribute to human dignity and social justice?
The trouble with the new definition is it’s not a definition – it’s a set of worthy but fluffy aspirations. Why not divide it into two – first para a practical definition (and there’s nothing wrong with the old one), second para the aims and aspirations (and give members the chance to opt out!).
Personally I object to being identified not only as a conservative but ‘French or French speaking’.