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Carefully Worded Definition of “Museum” Eschews Neutrality

A near-unanimous vote by members of the Worldwide Council of Museums (ICOM) has formally changed its standing definition of a “museum” with a extra up to date one. The brand new definition introduces phrases like “accessibility,” “inclusivity,” “diversity,” and “community,” marking a extra horizontal and democratic conception of the fashionable museum.

ICOM’s definition of a museum was final up to date in 2007 throughout Normal Meeting convention proceedings in Vienna. However since 1974, modifications to ICOM’s definition have been comparatively minor and piecemeal. In full, the brand new definition now reads:

A museum is a not-for-profit, everlasting establishment within the service of society that researches, collects, conserves, interprets and reveals tangible and intangible heritage. Open to the general public, accessible and inclusive, museums foster range and sustainability. They function and talk ethically, professionally and with the participation of communities, providing diverse experiences for schooling, enjoyment, reflection and information sharing.

On this new definition, it’s careworn that the museum, along with being “open to the public,” is “accessible and inclusive,” with the acknowledged intention of facilitating “diversity and sustainability.” For the brand 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.” Every of these refined shifts alerts that the museum world is shifting in direction of a mannequin whereby it occupies a node in a extra degree community of folks and establishments relatively than a impartial place of privileged authority and significance.

Legally, ICOM’s definition usually determines the definitions nationwide governments use. This, in flip, can affect how organizations are taxed, what funding they’re certified to obtain, and whether or not they obtain heritage safety standing. 

The vote places an finish to a prolonged 18-month participatory course of that concerned the work of 20 ICOM Outline committee members and the collaboration of over 120 nationwide committees globally. The committee’s work started in 2019 when a controversial definition proposed at a convention in Kyoto was not efficiently adopted because of the opposition of the representatives of France, Italy, Spain, Germany, Canada, and Russia. The definition in query was over twice the size of the one which was nonetheless in impact since 2007, full of what some believed to be politically charged fragments reminiscent of that museums ought to be “democratizing, inclusive, and polyphonic spaces for critical dialogue about the pasts and the futures,” and that they need to intention “to contribute to human dignity and social justice, global equality and planetary wellbeing.” After 4 hours of tense debate, 70% of delegates declined to vote on the brand new definition, electing to postpone the difficulty.

Jette Sandahl, who was then the chair of ICOM’s Standing Committee on Museum Definition, Prospects and Potentials (MDPP) — an earlier iteration of ICOM Outline — was vocal in regards to the necessity that the definition of a museum be politicized. Asserting “neutrality in relation to urgent societal issues,” she stated then, was an “abnegation of societal responsibilities.” However her stance came under fire for not translating easily right into a authorized definition, and a few complained that it swept below the rug the structural challenges that forestall museums from fulfilling lofty moral aspirations. 

Some have already voiced dissatisfaction that the newly adopted definition shouldn’t be as transformative as they need it to be. Inkyung Chang, director of the Iron Museum in Seoul, Korea, stated in a panel dialogue, “It’s not progressive enough for me.” However Chang added that whereas “it’s not strong enough … you can do strong things in your museum.” 

The committee charged with drafting a brand new definition sought to keep away from some of the errors it made within the leadup to the 2019 convention, widening its outreach and methodically incorporating their solutions. They solicited 269 submissions, all of which had been published on ICOM’s Museum definition web site in April 2019.

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