The conversation

How should we define a museum in the 21st century?
Sharon Heal; Richard Sandell
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The International Council of Museums (Icom) is consulting on creating a new definition of “museum” that reflects the sector’s radical transformation over the past decade. The consultation closes on 20 May and the new definition will be revealed at Icom’s conference in Kyoto in September

Dear Richard:

It’s an interesting question, although I wonder whether it should be us that writes the definition or, if we are to be truly participatory, should it be our public and community partners that decide? We’ve spent 200 years telling ourselves and the public that museums are about collecting, retention and display, so it’s definitely time to turn that on its head and come up with a definition that matches what museums are actually doing now. Any new definition should explore ideas of activism, access, inclusivity and representation.

Best wishes, Sharon

Dear Sharon:

I like your idea of a more participatory approach to defining museums but, rather than letting the public decide, I would hope we are also active ourselves in the process of rethinking why we exist. I’m torn – part of me wants to argue for a new definition that encompasses a much stronger emphasis on our social purpose and value, but another part wants to ask whether we need a new definition to make the real changes in museums that we want to see. Why do we need to pin things down – to fix them until the definition is next up for review?

Best wishes, Richard


Dear Richard:

Good point – do we need a definition to make change? I would argue we do because a strong definition that encompasses the social purpose of museums will be a signal to the sector and the public that this is what a 21st-century museum can be. The inherited model of a museum is still essentially the idea of an Enlightenment centre of knowledge, where collections are catalogued and displayed, and that inevitably pushes inclusion and participation to the margins of practice. If we are to decolonise and democratise our museums, we need a different definition.

Best wishes, Sharon

Dear Sharon:


You make a compelling case for a new definition – one that not only captures the reality of the present but, I hope, allows some space for the ongoing transformation of museums. I imagine the process of reaching a consensus around a new definition won’t be easy. Although our practice has evolved enormously over the past two decades, there are still very different visions of the museum within the global museum community. We need to take advantage of Icom’s open invitation to get involved, to ensure a new definition reflects progressive thinking.
 
Best wishes, Richard

Dear Richard:

You’re right to say that reaching consensus might not be easy, but the conversation about what a museum could be is a fascinating and challenging one for those who work in the sector, and the public. We should contribute to the Icom definition and maybe the Museums Association (MA) should also rethink its definition. This is not navel-gazing but a great opportunity for us to talk to audiences and community partners about what they want from museums, and to include them in the decision-making process. In that way, we could shape a really radical future for museums.

Best wishes, Sharon

Dear Sharon:
 
I’m convinced! Let’s take up this opportunity to help to craft a definition of the museum that does justice to the fundamental shifts in thinking and practice we have seen over the past 20 years. When the Icom and MA definitions were last agreed, the social possibilities of the museum were emerging, tentative and contested. Today, we have a compelling body of research and practice that demonstrates the unique (if still largely untapped) potential for museums to create a better world for all. So let’s make sure a new definition that nurtures progressive practice reflects this.

Best wishes, Richard


Sharon Heal is the director of the Museums Association; Richard Sandell is a professor of museum studies at the University of Leicester

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