Approved by 92% of participants at ICOM’s general conference in Prague on Wednesday, the new definition describes a museum as “a permanent non-profit institution at the service of society which researches, collects, preserves, interprets and exhibits tangible and intangible heritage.” The notable changes come in the last two sentences, which read: “Open to the public, accessible and inclusive, museums promote diversity and sustainability. They operate and communicate in an ethical, professional and with the participation of communities, offering varied experiences for education, fun, reflection and knowledge sharing.
In a statement, ICOM President Alberto Garlandini acknowledged that the definition was “not perfect”, but still called it a “big step forward”. The previous definition, in effect since 2007, had only one sentence. Prior to 2007, the previous definition had not changed for 30 years.
The word “museum”, it should be noted, comes from the Greek for “seat of the Muses” and refers to mythological figures associated with creative inspiration.
More ambitious than prescriptive, the updated language comes at a difficult time for museums, which are going through a radical cultural toll that has affected almost every level of their operations, from decisions about funding to what is shown in their galleries. The new definition reflects that reckoning, but some critics say it doesn’t go far enough to acknowledge the complicated histories of museums centered on white, male, and Western perspectives.
In recent years, the museum world has been plagued by accusations of “toxic philanthropy” for receiving money from such controversial patrons as the Sackler and Koch families. The 2020 Black Lives Matter protests have sparked renewed scrutiny of museums for their lack of diversity, both in museum staff and in the objects in their collections. More recently, controversies over stolen artefacts have led some museums to return looted artefacts, such as the Smithsonian’s decision to return Benin Kingdom Court-style artwork to their country of origin in Nigeria. Yet other works with complicated histories survive in some museum collections.
With these debates still ongoing, the definition raises questions about how institutions will be held accountable. Similar to the United Nations, but for museums, ICOM can make recommendations, but does not have the power to enforce compliance. And in the United States, where many museums are private, its guidelines don’t carry much weight.
Human bones, stolen art: Smithsonian tackles ‘problematic’ collections
In countries where museums are primarily state-run, however, the definition can potentially have a significant influence on governments deciding which museums and projects are worth funding. “It was part of the effort to make sure they got it right,” said Laura Lott, president and CEO of the American Alliance of Museums. “It would have real implications for many museums if he inadvertently said the wrong thing about what museums are or pointed to a past of what museums were.”
Lott, who attended the Prague conference, praised ICOM’s wording. “It’s a timely reflection of the reality that the roles of museums are varied and many are changing,” she said. “I also find great hope in the fact that dozens of nations representing thousands of museums have come together and come up with a common definition.”
Lott cites the Oakland Museum of California for his “introspective work on himself and the community,” and the Phillips Collection in Washington, which hired one of the first diversity managers in the museum industry, as examples of museums that embody the principles set out in the definition.
Others have noted that the definition – which makes progress in opening up a tradition-bound domain to self-assessment – can shape Culture.
Kaywin Feldman, Director of the National Gallery of Art, who began her tenure in 2019 with a vision of reform and reinvention, applauded ICOM for its efforts.
“I appreciate the challenge they had in developing the new statement – a reflection of the breadth of institutions represented by ICOM,” Feldman said in a statement shared with The Washington Post. “This is a complicated time for museums, as the public and communities expect more relevance, accessibility and transparency from them. The definition is also ambitious, which gives me a lot of hope for the field.
The revised wording was a long time coming. In 2019, ICOM proposed an even longer definition that referred to museums as “democratizing, inclusive and polyphonic spaces for critical dialogue about the past and the future”, instructing museums to “safeguard diverse memories”. and to “contribute to human dignity and social justice, global equality and planetary well-being. It was dismissed as a bloated manifesto that used fashionable rhetoric and did not do enough to differentiate museums from other cultural institutions.
Some are also not happy with where ICOM has landed now. As Laura Raicovich, author of “Culture Strike: Art and Museums in an Age of Protest,” told ARTnews. “It would have been a much bigger change for ICOM to recognize that museums are not neutral and never have been.”
ICOM, a membership-based organization headquartered in Paris, has 40,000 members from 141 countries. Created in the 1940s, ICOM describes itself as the only world organization in the field of museums. It publishes research, organizes training sessions, publishes codes of ethics and manages a “Red List” database which flags cultural objects at risk of theft and trafficking, so that the police and customs officers can identify them. .