Rift emerges over Icom’s proposed museum definition

Geraldine Kendall Adams, 22.08.2019
National committees ask for vote on new wording to be postponed
The International Council of Museum’s (Icom) new museum definition has exposed ideological faultlines in the global museum community. 

Published in July, the new wording defines museums as “democratising, inclusive and polyphonic spaces”, and says they should aim to contribute to “human dignity and social justice, global equality and planetary wellbeing” (see full definition below).

According to the Art Newspaper, 24 national branches of Icom have asked the council to postpone a vote to adopt the new wording, due to be held on 7 September at Icom’s general assembly in Kyoto. The committees calling for a delay include France, Italy, Spain, Germany, Canada and Russia, along with the international committees of five museums.
The chair of Icom France, Juliette Raoul-Duval, told the newspaper that the new definition was an “ideological” manifesto that had been “published without consulting”.

The first hint of a rift behind the scenes came when François Mairesse, a member of the committee tasked with rewriting the definition, resigned from the board in July.

Mairesse, who is a professor at the Sorbonne University in Paris and also sits on Icom’s museology committee, told the Art Newspaper: “A definition is a simple and precise sentence characterising an object, and this is not a definition but a statement of fashionable values, much too complicated and partly aberrant.”

The head of Icom Germany, Klaus Staubermann, expressed concern that the new definition did not contain key words such as "education" and "institution", which he said would have an impact on legislation in Germany. But he told the Artnet news site that his call for postponing the decision was less about those specific concerns and more about giving time to "address and accommodate everyone's concerns". 

The disagreement is part of wider battle between the traditionalist and progressive wings of Icom, according to several people with knowledge of the situation. 

According to one source who spoke to Museums Journal, a previous Icom group had been working on the definition but was stood down over concerns that it was too eurocentric and not representative of the worldwide museum community. The new committee was formed with the intention of being “more global and representative of progressive museum thinking”.
The source believes the current controversy was planned in response to this change, saying that the council’s “traditionalists” saw the rewriting of the definition as an “encroachment on their territory”.

The rift also comes amid wider divisions among the museum sector in France, where there has been a backlash against president Emmanuel Macron’s support for the restitution of colonial-era artefacts. “Some people feel under threat from new thinking and the new definition is alarming them,” said the source.

Another sector professional said they felt Jette Sandahl, the Danish curator who led the definition committee, had been “hung out to dry”, adding that the new wording had been fully consulted on and signed off before it was published.

The new definition has met a mixed reaction from museum professionals in the UK. A recent Museums Journal poll found that 62% of 226 respondents did not believe it captured what a museum is in the 21st century, although many expressed concern over the statement’s inaccessible wording rather than the ideological shift it represents.   

The Museums Association’s director Sharon Heal said: “Full credit to Icom for reviewing its definition of a museum – it’s interesting that there has been a backlash against the new wording. The existing definition is over 50 years old and I think we need to pause and reflect on how much society has changed in those 50 years. Are we really saying that definition and purpose of museums remains the same?

“Over the past decade there has been a transformation in how museums and museum workers respond to the big changes in society. Co-production, participation and socially engaged practice are just some of the ways that we connect to communities and enable the telling and sharing of many varied stories and voices. The big issues in society, from homelessness and poverty and to decolonisation and climate crisis, need to be reflected in our museums and in our definition of what a museum is.

“If we are to be relevant to diverse, multi-layered, socially connected communities we need to constantly review and refresh our definitions and our ways of working based on our values and the challenges that we face.”

Icom has been contacted for comment. 

What is a museum?

The proposed definition: “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.” 

The current 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.”


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23.07.2020, 23:53
This is a major change. In fact, the three paragraphs (overall) work well together, such that the new ones should be an addition, not a replacement. But there is one exception - the on-going issue that gets swept under the carpet - that of profit-making. There are many museums which can only exist because they are private enterprises that (ideally) make a profit and which therefore are denied other sources of support.
12.09.2019, 22:03
This new "definition" of a museum totally alienates the local volunteer led independent museums. I suppose that we are no longer a museum, which will be a relief as we will no longer have to spend weeks slogging through the Arts Council pointless Accreditation process - another burden that was designed for the regional "professional" museums.Maybe now we can get back to serving our local community with what THEY want from a museum. Another bonus is that we can save our MA subscription!
29.08.2019, 18:38
Yes, the new definition isn't the easiest read and has the character of something authored by a committee, but museum people are intelligent enough to see through the words and find the substance, and such definitions are primarily designed for museum people, who will then deploy it to advantage.

This definition not only states the unique function of museums, but also recognises the world in which museums exist, so that we should no longer have to hear a curator telling us that museums exist because of their collections. It deals with the intellectual engagement that museums can offer - busloads of gormless selfie-stickers fall short as a valid success factor. It alludes to the mission of museums, and museums have a mission now like at no other time before. The fossil-fuelled politics that have produced the likes of Trump, Bolsonaro and Johnson exists in conflict with a future-orientated vision, driven mostly by young people not content to accept the heritage they've been given. Museums have to be clear about which narrative they are going to be part of, so that next time Extinction Rebellion breaks up your party, you'll actually know what to say.
01.09.2019, 21:54
But Peter, this would mean that every right-wing pressure group could have their members contact museums and insist that the museums obey the promise of offering "democratising, inclusive and polyphonic spaces for critical dialogue about the pasts and the futures."
, and incorporate that group's message in their narratives and presentations ... or else be threatened with being redefined as NOT being museums, losing any charitable status they may have had for being museums, and perhaps (in the US) even have the museum management and trustees face possible prosecution for fraudulently presenting themselves as and operating as museums and legitimate charities when (according to the Icom definition), they weren't.

This'd give leverage to Creationists, holocaust deniers, the fossil fuels industries, arms companies ... anyone who felt that they generally got bad press and wanted museums to be more on their side ... could get involved and it'd be difficult for museums to say no. In theory, a "deniers" group could even contact a holocaust museum and demand that they interact and that the group have a say about the Museum's exhibits and narratives.

If museums are obliged to reach out to and interact with ALL sections of the community, then perhaps if your organisation was approached by an oil or weapons company as a potential sponsor, your trustees might feel that it wasn't legally safe to turn the offer down.

If Icom actually passed this definition, a raft of independent museums would feel obliged to lobby governments to say that Icom's actions had been "rogue" and that the organisation no longer had legitimacy and no longer spoke for the museums community.
Icom would (to borrow your phrase) have preserved their inner integrity at the expense of developing their connections to their ecosystem, and be facing extinction.
24.08.2019, 13:54
The problem surely is that this new definition is so jargon based it is unintelligible to most people. It read like some unholy offspring of Mr Spock and Sir Humphrey. We keep going on and on about making interpretation in museums accessible...and then we turn out a statement like this.

I do feel that the idea that the ICOM definition is 50 years old is a little disingenuous, It is a definition that has been reviewed and modified regularly over the last 50 years, most recently in 2001 and 2007.

This does seem to have people worked up, I fear it will be accession registers at dawn before it is all sorted out
22.08.2019, 12:49
The current ICOM definition has long needed radical revision. It says nothing useful on the public purpose and responsibilities of museums, to the point of being evasive. It has no discernible ethical foundation.

The proposed new definition addresses this dislocation. Our societies and communities face many challenges and need museums that are explicitly relevant to our lives, and do not just serve the interests of a privileged few.

As someone who has been an educator in museums for most of my career, I am not in the least concerned that the words “education” and “institution” have not been included. This definition aims higher.

We should recognise appeals from some ICOM Committees and academics for delay for what they are - a deliberate attempt to subvert a process that (contrary to their claims) has been far more open and inclusive than in the past, by traditionalists who are uncomfortable with the changes that are so urgently needed, and want more time to quietly strangle the new definition.
05.09.2019, 13:06
"We should recognise appeals ... for delay for what they are - a deliberate attempt to subvert a process (contrary to their claims) ... and want more time to quietly strangle the new definition."

Sounds like what's going on in parliament at the moment.
01.09.2019, 04:10
Yet current definitions of "education" if we look to the field of Education, include the public purpose and responsibilities of museums. See Biesta, G, 2018; Segall, A & Trofanenkoand, 2014; Mockler, N, 2005, and Sachs 2003 re: transformative professionalism, e.g.

The old definition is strong. It is our views of 'education' in the museum field that need to be updated, not the definition.