The British Museum (via Wikimedia Commons)

For almost 50 years, the International Council of Museums (ICOM) has defined the museum as “a nonprofit institution” that “acquires, conserves, researches, communicates, and exhibits the tangible and intangible heritage of humanity and its environment for the purposes of education, study, and enjoyment.”

But an updated version of the definition would incorporate mention of “human dignity and social justice,” references which have split the consortium’s 40,000 professionals representing 20,000 museums across ideological lines. And last week, 24 national branches of the council — including those of France, Italy, Spain, Germany, Canada, and Russia — requested a postponement of the revision’s official vote in order to deliver a “new proposal.”

Jette Sandahl is the Danish curator who lead ICOM’s commission on the new definition, suggesting that the current one “does not speak the language of the 21st century” by ignoring demands of “cultural democracy.” Her amended conceptualization of the museum reads:

Museums are democratizing, inclusive and polyphonic spaces for critical dialogue about the pasts and the futures. Acknowledging and addressing the conflicts and challenges of the present, they hold artifacts and specimens in trust for society, safeguard diverse memories for future generations and guarantee equal rights and equal access to heritage for all people.

Museums are not for profit. They are participatory and transparent, and work in active partnership with and for diverse communities to collect, preserve, research, interpret, exhibit, and enhance understandings of the world, aiming to contribute to human dignity and social justice, global equality and planetary wellbeing.

Backlash to Sandahl’s suggestion came quickly. Juliette Raoul-Duval, who chairs ICOM France, soon denounced it as an “ideological” manifesto, “published without consulting“ the national branches. Even Hugues de Varine, a former director of ICOM and an early proponent of the “new museology” movement in the 1970s, found the definition effuse. The Art Newspaper reports that he was surprised by the “over inflated verbiage” of an “ideological preamble,” which does not distinguish a museum from a cultural center, library, or laboratory.

Evidence suggests that the feud between different interests in ICOM began as early as June. It was then that François Mairesse, a professor at the Université Sorbonne Nouvelle and the chair of the International Committee of Museology, resigned from Sandhal’s commission believing that it contradicted two years worth of past discussions.

“A definition is a simple and precise sentence characterizing an object, and this is not a definition but a statement of fashionable values, much too complicated and partly aberrant,” Mairesse told the Art Newspaper. “It would be hard for most French museums — starting with the Louvre — to correspond to this definition, considering themselves as ‘polyphonic spaces.’ The ramifications could be serious. ICOM’s statement can be included in national or international legislation and there is no way a jurist could reproduce this text.”

Many critics agree with Mairesse, judging the new definition as too political and too vague for defining museums. And despite the description’s broadness, social media users responding to the proposed ICOM text have noted that it omits specific mention of the museum as an educational space. Releasing a poll on Twitter asking users if the new definition captures what a museum is in the 21st century, 62% of 226 respondents said no.

In April, ICOM began publishing a crowdsourced list of new museum definitions from around the world. Currently, there are 269 entries on their website from countries including Spain, France, Japan, Cameroon, and Iran. The proposed definition, however, was not chosen from any of these submissions but was picked internally by Sandhal’s commission. Voting for the new definition will be held at the organization’s Extraordinary General Assembly in Kyoto, Japan, on September 7.

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Zachary Small

Zachary Small was the senior writer at Hyperallergic and has written for The New York Times, The Financial Times, The Nation, The Times Literary Supplement, Artforum, and other publications. They have...

10 replies on “A New Definition of “Museum” Sparks International Debate”

  1. There is a second international discussion going on in this regard that the article unfortunately doesn’t speak of. It refers to the absence in the proposal of any mention of the importance of the museum as an educational institution.

  2. One might want to see how the term _museum_ was used among ordinary people not necessarily committed to a given institution or set thereof, education system, economy, higher culture, or ideology. I guess they did that and then chose to ignore it. Not very polyphonic.

  3. Here’s my take on the issue: bit.ly/2TtFxoA. I argue that the current museum definition serves perfectly those museum professionals who know how to give meaning to expressions such as “at the service of society” and “for the purposes of education, study and enjoyment”. In my view, there’s an urgent need to review the profile of museum leadership. The relationship of museums with society has been seriously undermined by professionals who do not understand that “to aquire, conserve and research” is not an aim in itself, but rather a tool.

  4. Many museums rely on public funding from governments around the world. If they get too political that money goes away, even worse, the museums may become targets of wannabe-despots and idiots with orange hair.

  5. Decolonize everything. Repatriate everything. Cancel everything. No one gets to see anything because seeing is ablest. If we close and take down all museums there will be no need for funding. No need to fight to un-white-wash these space. Pretty simple. Next.

  6. What a complete waste of time and effort, unless your intention is (because, Critical Theory) to ultimately get rid of museums altogether, since they are inherently oppressive, because they are institutions.

  7. In the illustrated urban dictionary a picturre of Jette Sandahl is what is used to illustrate “asstwat.”

  8. As a teacher of history a museum becomes an important teaching tool for obvious reasons and an archive that once lost can never be replaced. The new definition seems to be a reaction to threat. If so that’s fine. The particular politico-materialistic threat today [ see “elephant-in-the-room” with an orange face ] is very real and very active against what teachers like myself value. It
    is not over-ideological. It is a constructive weapon in a very real fight for the survival of educational tools and cultural treasures.

  9. Should definitions be aspirational rather than descriptive? Should a dictionary tell us what words mean or what we’d like them to mean? I’d reframe this proposed definition as either a manifesto or call to action, to be discussed and debated, not try to smuggle it in as if it were a “fait accompli,” however worthy.

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