What is a Museum?

August 10 2020

Image of What is a Museum?

Picture: ICOM

Posted by Adam Busiakiewicz:

The New York Times have published an article summarising a disagreement that is currently going on in the International Council of Museums (ICOM). The organisation is in disagreement with itself over the question 'What is a Museum?'.

Five proposals were drawn up, with one being picked out that consisted of 99 words and two paragraphs. It included the following statements:

“Museums are democratizing, inclusive and polyphonic spaces for critical dialogue about the pasts and futures,” it said, adding that museums work “with and for diverse communities” and aim “to contribute to human dignity and social justice, global equality and planetary well-being.”

Several countries have rejected the proposals, with claims that it represents an political and ideological manifesto rather than a definition of what museums do. Arguments have been made that although such values are supported, they belong in an institution's individual mission statement. On the other hand, the statement is said to have had wide support from African institutions, who have made issues such as human rights a key element of their social function.

Charles Saumarez Smith, whose recent post on the subject drew me to the article, has summarised the two opposing views most succinctly:

[the article] encapsulates the generational divide between those who still feel that they are pre-eminently about a collection of objects or works of art however interpreted – what in the 1970s was described as ‘the tangible and intangible heritage of humanity’ – and those who feel their social mission should come first and be stated more radically.


If the study of international organisations over the past decades has suggested anything, it is that the search for universal values across such infinitely varying peoples, traditions and cultures is a slow and difficult process.

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