A "die-in" protest organized by Nan Goldin's activist group PAIN in the courtyard of the Victoria & Albert Museum in London in 2019. (Naomi Polonsky/Hyperallergic)

A near-unanimous vote by members of the International Council of Museums (ICOM) has officially replaced its standing definition of a “museum” with a more contemporary one. The new definition introduces terms like “accessibility,” “inclusivity,” “diversity,” and “community,” marking a more horizontal and democratic conception of the modern museum.

ICOM’s definition of a museum was last updated in 2007 during General Assembly conference proceedings in Vienna. But since 1974, modifications to ICOM’s definition have been relatively minor and piecemeal. In full, the new definition now reads:

A museum is a not-for-profit, permanent institution in the service of society that researches, collects, conserves, interprets and exhibits tangible and intangible heritage. Open to the public, accessible and inclusive, museums foster diversity and sustainability. They operate and communicate ethically, professionally and with the participation of communities, offering varied experiences for education, enjoyment, reflection and knowledge sharing.

In this new definition, it is stressed that the museum, in addition to being “open to the public,” is “accessible and inclusive,” with the stated aim of facilitating “diversity and sustainability.” For the new museum, “tangible and intangible heritage” is “collected,” not “acquired”; “interpreted,” not “explained,” or “communicated.” The museum’s raison d’etre is formulated as “reflection and knowledge sharing” over “study.” Each of these subtle shifts signals that the museum world is moving towards a model wherein it occupies a node in a more level network of people and institutions rather than a neutral position of privileged authority and significance.

Legally, ICOM’s definition often determines the definitions national governments use. This, in turn, can influence how organizations are taxed, what funding they are qualified to receive, and whether they receive heritage protection status. 

The vote puts an end to a lengthy 18-month participatory process that involved the work of 20 ICOM Define committee members and the collaboration of over 120 national committees globally. The committee’s work began in 2019 when a controversial definition proposed at a conference in Kyoto was not successfully adopted due to the opposition of the representatives of France, Italy, Spain, Germany, Canada, and Russia. The definition in question was over twice the length of the one that was still in effect since 2007, stuffed with what some believed to be politically charged fragments such as that museums should be “democratizing, inclusive, and polyphonic spaces for critical dialogue about the pasts and the futures,” and that they should aim “to contribute to human dignity and social justice, global equality and planetary wellbeing.” After four hours of tense debate, 70% of delegates declined to vote on the new definition, electing to postpone the issue.

Jette Sandahl, who was then the chair of ICOM’s Standing Committee on Museum Definition, Prospects and Potentials (MDPP) — an earlier iteration of ICOM Define — was vocal about the necessity that the definition of a museum be politicized. Asserting “neutrality in relation to urgent societal issues,” she said then, was an “abnegation of societal responsibilities.” But her stance came under fire for not translating smoothly into a legal definition, and some complained that it swept under the rug the structural challenges that prevent museums from fulfilling lofty ethical aspirations. 

Some have already voiced dissatisfaction that the newly adopted definition is not as transformative as they wish it to be. Inkyung Chang, director of the Iron Museum in Seoul, Korea, said in a panel discussion, “It’s not progressive enough for me.” But Chang added that while “it’s not strong enough … you can do strong things in your museum.” 

The committee charged with drafting a new definition sought to avoid some of the mistakes it made in the leadup to the 2019 conference, widening its outreach and methodically incorporating their suggestions. They solicited 269 submissions, all of which were published on ICOM’s Museum definition website in April 2019.

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Jasmine Liu

Jasmine Liu is a former staff writer for Hyperallergic. Originally from the San Francisco Bay Area, she studied anthropology and mathematics at Stanford University.

One reply on “Carefully Worded Definition of “Museum” Eschews Neutrality”

  1. As a long term member of ICOM we attended out first Triennial in Kyoto in 2019 at which the new definition was discussed for 4.5 hours in front of 4000 people and the voting delegates.

    The draft did not arrive with enough time for many nations to debate. Some of us unaware we had a delegate system for voting. And the committee who drafted it were called to task by some countries who said as written ‘our country will use it against us’.

    West: meet some other parts of the world.

    As each issue of resolution or discussion came up we had the Chair asking advice of a French law that was the governing the form. Not something more simple like Roberts Rules of Order, it just hindered any progression exhausting us all. The joke in the upper levels was the French like theory first and common sense second.

    Exasperated some countries argued “agree in in principle and work it out later” This because it was clear everyone wanted a new less neutral definition.

    We had all grown up with ‘present exhibition and collections with fact and neutrality’ and let the public decide. It is democratic after all.

    But now there are important things to address and our world is the issue.

    ICOM is trying, awkwardly.

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