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  • Aug 14, 2020

International Museum Group Cannot Agree on Definition of “Museum”

Photo of International Council of Museums (ICOM)‘s annual meeting. Image via ICOM’s Facebook. 

What constitutes a museum continues to confound the Paris-based International Council of Museums (ICOM), after a June 2019 proposal for a revised definition was rejected by many of its members. Since June this year, a succession of upper-level resignations from ICOM’s leadership, including by some of those who worked on the proposal, has made the issue even more convoluted.

The new proposed definition describes museums as “democratising, inclusive and polyphonic spaces for critical dialogue about the pasts and the futures,” and led to an uproar at the organization’s General Assembly held in Kyoto, in September 2019. For many who objected to it, the 99 word explanation sounded more like a mission statement than a definition, for instance, in saying that a museum is an organization that works “to contribute to human dignity and social justice, global equality and planetary well-being.”

The current ICOM definition of a museum, relatively unchanged since the 1970s, specifies it as “a non-profit, permanent institution in the service of society,” that exhibits “the tangible and intangible heritage of humanity and its environment for the purposes of education, study and enjoyment.” In the last decade, many ICOM members felt an update was necessary to include the institutions’ contemporary role as an agent in promoting social progress, and so in 2016 they created the Committee on Museum Definition, Prospects and Potentials (MDPP). According to The New York Times, MDPP’s call for proposals resulted in 269 suggestions, of which five were presented to the ICOM executive board, which then selected one to be voted on in Kyoto. However, the uproar resulted in the postponement of the vote.  

The saga carried on into 2020. On March 10, ICOM France held a meeting titled “What Definition Do Museums Need?” with 4,000 international committee representatives to summarize discussions from the past eight months. ICOM France chair Juliette Raoul-Duval stated that the new definition could turn ICOM into a “political tool, led mostly by scholars.” Turkey delegate Burçak Madran cautioned that asking museums to be “polyphonic” is unrealistic in authoritarian countries, according to The New York Times. ICOM France later released a statement arguing that by shifting the definition away from “institutions conserving collections” to “multi-purpose institution[s], serving human rights as a whole,” the proposal had failed to distinguish museums as professional institutions.

Meanwhile, the original MDPP renamed itself MDPP2 in January 2020 following its expansion to include national and international committees in its decision-making. In early June, it set forth a new set of processes for redefining “museums,” which prompted several resignations in mid-June by ICOM executive board member Leontine Meijer-van Mensch, ICOM president Suay Aksoy, and MDPP chair Jette Sandahl, among others. In a July statement, Sandahl and MDPP committee members George Abungu, W. Richard West Jr., and Margaret Anderson explained that they left because the “work and processes of the MDPP2 were unlikely to come to fruition.” They further added that the original proposal put forth by the committee came about from a “a layered and iterated selection method to which all members had agreed,” although they said, “two members, however, unfortunately did not accept the outcome, despite their earlier agreement with the methodology.”

The search for a new definition is set to continue into next year. A new proposal from the MDPP2 is tentatively due June 5, 2021, while a preliminary report is due on December 9.

Fion Tse is an editorial intern at ArtAsiaPacific.

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