The new definition, approved by 92 percent of ICOM’s general conference in Prague on Wednesday, describes a museum as “a non-profit, permanent organization in the service of society that explores, collects, preserves, interprets and displays tangible and intangible values.” heritage.” A noteworthy change came in the last two sentences, which read: “Open to the public, accessible and inclusive, museums promote diversity and sustainability. They operate and communicate ethically, professionally and with community participation, offering diverse experiences for education, enjoyment, reflection and knowledge sharing.
In a statement, ICOM President Alberto Garlandini acknowledged that the definition was “not perfect”, but still called it “a big step forward”. The previous definition, in force since 2007, consisted of just one sentence. Prior to 2007, the previous definition had not changed for 30 years.
It is worth noting that the word “museum” comes from the Greek “place of the Muses” and refers to mythological characters associated with creative inspiration.
Inspiring rather than prescriptive, the updated language comes at a challenging time for museums, which are undergoing a massive cultural assessment that has affected almost every level of their operations, from funding decisions to what is on display in their galleries. The new definition reflects this reckoning, but some critics say it doesn’t go far enough to acknowledge museums’ complex history of focusing on white, male and Western perspectives.
In recent years, the museum world has been plagued by allegations of “toxic philanthropy” for receiving money from controversial patrons such as the Sackler and Koch families. The Black Lives Matter protests in 2020 prompted a new scrutiny of museums due to a lack of diversity both in museum staff and in the items in their collections. More recently, controversy over stolen artifacts has prompted some museums to return stolen artifacts – such as the Smithsonian Institution’s decision to return works of art in the style of the Benin Royal Court to their homeland of Nigeria. However, other works with a complex history remain in some museum collections.
As this debate is still ongoing, the definition raises questions about how institutions will be held accountable. Like the United Nations, but for museums, ICOM can make recommendations, but does not have the authority to enforce them. And in the United States, where many museums are privately owned, his principles don’t matter much.
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However, in countries with predominantly state-owned museums, this definition has the potential to have a significant impact on governments deciding which museums and projects are worthy of funding. “It was part of the effort to make sure they got it right,” said Laura Lott, president and CEO of the American Alliance of Museums. “It would have real implications for a lot of museums if he inadvertently said the wrong thing about what museums are or pointed to the past of what museums were.”
Lott, who attended the conference in Prague, praised ICOM’s wording. “This is a timely reflection of the fact that the roles of museums are varied and many of them are changing,” she said. “I also find great hope that dozens of nations representing thousands of museums have come together and found a common definition.”
Lott points to the Oakland Museum in California for its “introspective work on self and society” and the Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C., which hired one of the museum industry’s first diversity specialists, as examples of museums embodying the principles outlined in Definition.
Others point out that a definition that makes great strides in opening up the tradition-bound field for self-evaluation can shape culture.
Kaivin Feldman, director of the National Art Gallery, which launched in 2019 with a vision of reform and reinvention, hailed ICOM’s efforts.
“I appreciate the difficulty they had in developing the new statement – a reflection of the breadth of the institutions represented by ICOM,” Feldman said in a statement released to The Washington Post. “This is a challenging time for museums as audiences and communities expect them to be more relevant, accessible and transparent. This definition is also inspiring, which gives me great hope in this area.”
The updated wording has been brewing for a long time. In 2019, ICOM proposed an even longer definition that called museums “democratizing, inclusive and polyphonic spaces for critical dialogue about the past and the future”, challenging museums to “preserve diverse memories” and “promote human dignity and social justice”. global equality and planetary well-being”. It was dismissed as a bloated manifesto that used fashionable rhetoric but not enough to distinguish museums from other cultural institutions.
Some are also unhappy with ICOM’s position. Laura Rajkovic, author of Cultural Strike: Art and Museums in the Age of Protest, told ARTnews. “It would be a far more important shift for ICOM to recognize that museums are not neutral and never have been.”
ICOM, a membership-based organization headquartered in Paris, has 40,000 members from 141 countries. Created in the 1940s, ICOM describes itself as the only global museum organization. It publishes research, conducts training sessions, issues codes of ethics and maintains a Red List database that flags cultural properties at risk of theft and trafficking so that police and customs officials can identify them.