What is a museum in the 21st century?

Geraldine Kendall Adams, 18.09.2019
Join us to debate the most controversial question the year at the MA Conference
What is a museum? Should the definition be a matter-of-fact statement or an aspirational vision? And what the hell does polyphonic mean anyway? 

The International Council of Museums (Icom) sparked a heated global debate on what museums should be in the 21st century when it released its proposed new definition over the summer. 

The new wording defines museums as “democratising, inclusive and polyphonic spaces for critical dialogue” and acknowledges their aim to “contribute to human dignity and social justice, global equality and planetary wellbeing”. 

Seventy per cent of Icom’s members voted to postpone a decision to adopt the controversial definition after what the council described as a “profound and healthy debate” at its triennial conference in Kyoto earlier this month.

The negative reaction prompted by the new definition has exposed ideological faultlines in the museum community worldwide. Some have slammed it as an “ideological” manifesto and a statement of “fashionable values” – others say the backlash against it comes from traditionalists who are alarmed by “new thinking”.

According to insiders, Icom has put things on hold for now and any change to the current definition is unlikely to happen swiftly - a new working group has been set up to take another look at the definition, although it is not clear whether the group will be tweaking the current proposal or starting from scratch. 

Amid all of this debate, the Museums Association (MA) is dedicating a keynote session at its annual conference in Brighton next month to the question: “What is a museum?”

The MA’s director Sharon Heal will chair the discussion, joined by a panel of experts, including Jette Sandahl, the museum consultant who chairs Icom’s museum definition committee, Errol Francis, the artistic director and CEO of Culture&, an education charity that promotes diversity in arts and heritage, and Richard Sandell, the professor of museum studies at the University of Leicester.

Sandell said: “We shouldn’t be surprised by the controversy surrounding the new definition of a museum. Although there is growing support for the idea of the museum as socially purposeful and shaped by progressive values, recent debates have revealed the deeply held support that still exists for a more conservative vision.”

Francis said: “I have followed with interest the debate about the definition of a museum. I think it’s interesting to note the countries that led objections to the new definition – France, Italy, Spain, Germany, Canada and Russia – and those who did not – UK, USA and Netherlands. I wonder if this reflects the extent to which diversity has positively impacted on cultural policy and practice in those countries.

“I hope, following the delay of the vote to adopt the new definition in Kyoto, Icom does not water down the new definition because the old one definitely needs updating in the light of contemporary cultural conditions.”

Join us for an unmissable debate on Friday 4 October to explore the purpose and definition of a museum in the 21st century. 

The MA’s Annual Conference & Exhibition runs 3-5 October at the Brighton Centre. This year’s theme is Sustainable and Ethical Museums in a Globalised World. Book your ticket here