What do you think of when you hear the word “museum”? Do you imagine a building that houses unique objects in glass cabinets? Is it a peek into the past without much bearing on the present-day? Or do you think a museum is something more – an institution that focuses on times gone by alongside contemporary issues? A debate looms large in the international museum community about the roles of the institution. Are they simply buildings that house artefacts and feature on the tourist trail or do they have a broader social responsibility? Are they having an identity crisis? These questions form part of discussions about the changing nature and definition of museums.
For almost half a century, the Paris-based non-profit organisation called the International Council of Museums (ICOM) defined a 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.”
However, in late 2019 when ICOM’s Extraordinary General Assembly (in which 119 countries are represented) was supposed to vote on a new definition, the vote was postponed after “profound and healthy debate”. The proposed amended definition made reference to things like “human dignity and social justice“, dividing members on the global museum community on how their institution should be represented and what it should do.
Definitions and debates
Danish curator, Jette Sandahl, who lead ICOM’s commission on the new definition, argued that current definition do not speak the “language of the 21st century” while others have critiqued the new proposed definition as an ideology, rather than a simple definition. Sandahl’s proposed reworking of the definition 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 artefacts 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.”
Some of these sentiments were reiterated by the US-based online campaign ‘Museums are not Neutral‘ which aims to politicise the museum space in order to reflect on, and critique, its colonial legacy and bring about meaningful change. However, many wish to avoid equating museums with politics. One such critic of this new proposal is François Mairesse, a professor at the Université Sorbonne Nouvelle and former chair of the International Committee of Museology:
“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…..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.
Questions linger and the debates continue. Are museums political spaces and should they have a socio-political responsibility to engage in critical dialogues and bring about change? Do museums have a social responsibility to interrogate their histories and offer a space for multiple voices? Contemporary research on museums would say yes… These types of questions are particularly pertinent to South African museums which have a history of political racial exclusion and representing colonial settler culture in their exhibitions. In recent times, the Durban Local History Museums have run a number of projects and exhibitions to address these colonial and apartheid legacies:
- Amandla, the Liberation Heritage Route, which celebrates sites and icons of our struggle for freedom and democracy in South Africa.
- Exhibitions, like Enabling Structures: Markets of Warwick Junction, which focus on contemporary aspects of life in Durban and not existing collections
- the Ulwazi Programme, a community-generated digital library of local knowledge about the eThekwini Municipality in Zulu and English.
These types of projects are in line with Sandahl’s new definition of what a museums should be:
“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 artefacts and specimens in trust for society, safeguard diverse memories for future generations and guarantee equal rights and equal access to heritage for all people.
What do you think?
Images courtesy of Wikimedia Commons