This August I had the enormous privilege of joining the International Council of Museums’ (Icom) triennial conference hosted in Prague. I’d previously engaged with some of Icom’s work through online events, articles and guidance. However I went to the conference not really knowing what to expect.
Entering the cavernous main hall on the first day was both thrilling and overwhelming. Hundreds of people were in attendance from across the world, with many more joining online. After the isolation many of us experienced during the pandemic, being in the room with so many people felt electric.
The conference theme was the Power of Museums and keynotes ranged from museum’s civic role, to digital engagement and tackling the climate crisis. These headline events were impressive, with a brilliant array of speakers. However, as the days progressed, it was the events lower down the conference bill that had the biggest impact on me.
Many of my standout sessions were hosted by Icom committees and networks, who took centre stage in the afternoon of the conference schedule, following the keynote events. Icom-Pacific Islands Museum Association held a session considering decolonisation, ownership, custodianship and restitution.
The panel was made up of majority Indigenous speakers who offered a phenomenal discussion, providing clear calls to action. I left the session with such a drive to do the work. One question posed by Jilda Andrews is still sitting with me: "We need ask, what is decolonisation in a world at breaking point? How does it speak to climate and social justice?"
Similarly, the International Committee for Museology's session on the taboos of museum theory was galvanising. Speaker Muthoni Thangwa, from the National Museums of Kenya, gave an incredibly personal account of how history and the recording of history shapes her and in turn her country.
Quoting Maya Angelou to Chinua Achebe, Muthoni’s presentation engaged with decolonisation in a way I’d not previously experienced. I could quote her whole talk, but the following extract stayed with me: "If studying history always makes you feel proud and happy, you probably aren’t studying history."
Ciraj Rassool, professor of history at the University of the Western Cape, offered the next presentation, where restitution was powerfully positioned as a new platform for museum-making. Ciraj called on museums to strive for restitutionary work rather than one-off events. His presentation powerfully spoke to the transformative power of restitution and decolonisation.
Another standout session was a roundtable event sharing the journey to create a new museum definition. I discovered that the collaborative work to produce the new definition had seen Icom break with traditional structures and processes.
The committee leading this work had insisted on representation from members across the world, with a focus on balancing input from the Global North and Global South. Although many committee members acknowledged the new definition was not perfect, it still offered the possibility to support more radical museum work.
As well as taking so much from the many sessions and events, I also had the privilege of connecting with museum colleagues from across the world. Ahead of the conference, I’d reached out to Museum Detox network to see if anyone was due to attend. This gave me the chance to connect with the brilliant Ana Elizabeth Gonzalez, executive director of the Panama Canal Museum. Meeting Ana and many other colleagues was incredibly invigorating.
I returned home from Prague full of energy and with a renewed sense of the power of museums.
Antonia Canal is the programme and engagement manager at the People's History Museum and was previously the policy and campaigns officer at the Museums Association