Q&A with Peter Keller

Nicola Sullivan, 06.06.2017
The director general of the International Council of Museums on the organisation's future plans and priorities
Peter Keller was appointed as director general of the International Council of Museums (Icom) earlier this year. Prior to taking on this role Keller Icom’s treasurer and director general of the Dommuseum Salzburg (Salzburg Cathedral Museum) in Austria from 2002. Keller speaks to Museums Journal about future projects and plans.

What are your main priorities and plans for the role?

My main priorities for the forthcoming years will be the management of the general secretariat of Icom, and the internal and external communication.

The secretariat has offices in different locations, and it has lost many staff members. I will have to find new premises, new staff members, build up a team, and develop open and constructive communication, in order to convey Icom’s mission.

Likewise, I want to improve the communication between the secretariat and the national and international committees of Icom. For too long, we were working with top-down processes, and I’m convinced that we have to turn that around if we want to be successful.

More generally, I intend to manage the association in accordance with the principles of transparency, efficiency and subsidiarity.

How will your previous role at the Dommuseum Salzburg inform your work going forward?

The Dommuseum is a medium-sized museum with a focus on regional art and history. I developed my skills in museum management there, including team and change management. I led a team of 15-20 staff members through fundamental change, merging the museum with three others, creating a new organisation, as well as rebranding it, professionalising design, marketing, and education. As a result, we multiplied the visitor numbers by five.
Also, since 2005, I volunteered as secretary and chair of Icom’s International Committee of Historic House Museums, and as a member of the board of Icom Austria. In 2013, I was elected member of Icom’s executive board; a year later, I became treasurer. As such, I acquired a comprehensive knowledge of the international museum community and of Icom’s network.

What kinds of projects are in the pipeline for Icom at the moment?
Icom is developing a new membership database, in order to improve its management of membership data, to facilitate the management of its committees, and to free up staff for communication with committees, rather than being bogged down in data administration. The project started before I arrived, had to be readjusted, and will be operational after the general assembly this month.

The new communications team will develop a new website, the current one being 10 years old and out of date in comparison to modern technology’s potential. The team will also work to reinforce the Icom brand and its visual identity, following the launch of the organisation’s new logo in 2016. To achieve this, Icom will need to develop new communications strategies and global activities.

Icom will also enhance its publishing and capacity building activity. The publications department is preparing handbooks that will be edited in the three official languages of Icom, as well as Chinese and Arabic, in order to support the museum community in Latin America, Africa and Asia.

The programmes department has established several successful initiatives to ensure cultural property protection, including its Red Lists and the Observatory on illicit traffic. In the future, it will diversify its activities, by developing more training programmes in countries which don’t have the capacity, and promoting the social role of museums.

Through the work of its international and standing committees, Icom will continue to develop standards and guidelines for museum professionals. Guidelines for deaccessioning are almost completed; guidelines for accessioning or handling human remains are planned.

All these projects shall ensure that our members benefit from being a member of Icom.

What are the key opportunities and challenges facing the global museum sector at present? The past year has seen political upheaval and rising intolerance in Europe, the USA and elsewhere - how will Icom respond to this changing political landscape?

The situation of museums is diverse across Europe, Asia, Africa and America. China and the Arab countries are strengthening their museum sector as part of strategic cultural policy. In Africa, new initiatives are also being developed, albeit few. In Latin America and Southern Europe, the economic crisis deprives societies and threatens museums. In the Middle East and in Central Africa, war and terrorism as well as illicit traffic are destroying cultural heritage.

Icom will go on publishing Red Lists to help fight illicit traffic, and will also publish handbooks to strengthen the positive developments in museums around the world. ICOM’s national, international and standing committees are directly supporting museums in danger through missions, by professionalising staff and management structures through training seminars, and preparing the future through conferences about migration or about the relevance of museums.

The concept of a museum varies from continent to continent. I admire the community- oriented museums in Latin America, even if their approach might diverge from traditional concepts. Icom’s International and Standing Committees are reflecting on the current museum definition, which needs updating to today’s context.

Icom’s global network can actively defend and develop the museum field. As the only global museums association, Icom has the opportunity to shape the museum of the 21st century.