ICOM 2019 Kyoto: Debating the definition of a museum

By Jane Legget, Chair, ICOM Aotearoa New Zealand

With its headquarters based within UNESCO in Paris and operating under French law, the International Council of Museums (ICOM) holds its major conference and business meetings every three years in different member countries.

In early September the 2019 triennial ICOM conference was held in Kyoto, and a handful of members attended from Aotearoa New Zealand. While the main conference theme was Museums as Cultural Hubs: The Future of Tradition, delegates were swept up in the debate surrounding a proposed new ICOM definition of a museum.

Welcome to Kyoto! Photo courtesy of Jane Legget

The current ICOM definition, adopted in 2007, is: 

A museum is a non-profit, permanent institution in the service of society and its development, open to the public, which acquires, conserves, researches, communicates and exhibits the tangible and intangible heritage of humanity and its environment for the purposes of education, study and enjoyment. 

This definition is used by many agencies and funding bodies world-wide as part of eligibility criteria for grant aid etc., not just by museums.

The proposed new definition is:

Museums are democratising, 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.

This received a mixed reception for various reasons, not least because many did not feel that it was ‘fit for purpose’ as a definition. An international working party had developed the proposed 2019 definition through a complex participatory process, and it was selected by the ICOM Executive Board from five statements presented to it.

Museum colleagues gather at the ICOM 2019 conference held where the Kyoto Protocol was adopted in 1997, an apt venue as museums consider how they can contribute to the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals. Photo courtesy of Jane Legget

There was little time for the international membership to consider it before the AGM – barely six weeks, most of which coincided with traditional northern summer holiday periods. In the end, after heated debate, the conclusion was that the definition be revisited, allowing for a longer period for consultation with national committees (including ICOM Aotearoa New Zealand) and ICOM’s international committees, and that a new version be brought back to the membership for a vote ideally within a year.

There is general agreement that it is timely to update ICOM’s definition of a museum, since so much has changed in the past 15 years, with the development of new forms of museum, different operational environments, diverse digital dimensions and a range of disruptive technologies, with new modes of museum practice and new capabilities emerging in response.

Ultimately it was very positive to have so many conference participants engaged with this fundamental discussion for our sector, and we look forward to learning more about the next steps.

View from one of Kyoto’s many temples. Photo courtesy of Jane Legget

The ICOM Aotearoa New Zealand team will keep the wider museum community abreast of further developments and consultation opportunities regarding the definition.

Find out more about ICOM Aotearoa New Zealand

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