ICOM Conference in Shanghai

By Eric Dorfman

I’ve just come back from the general conference of the International Council of Museums in Shanghai, held from the 7th to the 12th of November. It was my first time to Shanghai so, from that perspective a definite eye-opener. Shanghai was still wearing its spectacular finery created for Expo, and at night it was ablaze with coloured lights. By day the city, with a population a third more than that of New Zealand and Norway combined, was a frenetic hub of expensive cars pelting through streets of ultra-modern architecture.

Shanghai at night. It’s big.

The plenary sessions were held at the Expo Centre, in what is touted as the World’s largest convention venue. Expo itself was only just beginning to be dismantled, so many of the conference’s several thousand delegates were treated personalised tours without having to contend with the huge crowds of just a few days earlier.

Our hosts were lavish in their hospitality. The city’s streets and highways were (incredibly) lined with flags advertising the ICOM conference, and attendees were witness to an almost non-stop procession of lavish entertainment, ranging from modern Chinese dance to classical European opera. Major functions were held for us every night, each hosted by a different institution. This, I believe, speaks volumes not only about the pride that the Chinese take in being good hosts, but also in the importance they place on museums and the preservation of natural and cultural heritage.

Entertainment at the conference. That was big too.

Despite the distracting entertainment, a considerable amount was accomplished at the meeting. Hans-Martin Hinz, from the Berlin-based Museum of German History, was elected President of ICOM, and a new Council chosen. Resolutions were passed on topics around best practice, and a new document “Emergency Red List of Haitian Cultural Objects at Risk” was presented. (See more news at http://icom.museum/news.html)

The Natural History component of the conference was hosted by the very impressive Shanghai Museum of Science and Technology. We progressed our work towards producing a global ‘meta-exhibition’ for natural history museums in the lead-up to the Rio +20 meeting in 2012, as well as having a physical presence at that conference in Brazil. We were also successful in proposing the theme for the 2012 International Museum Day (IMD): “Museums in a Changing World”. This will serve as a platform for institutions to talk about important issues such as climate change, provide a chance to celebrate successes in sustainable practice, explore new media and innovations, and encourage active participation in public-good initiatives.

The opening of a temporary polar exhibition from our host the Shanghai Science and Technology Museum

Of course, one of the most important components of the conference was to share recent work through presentations. It began with a session of keynote speeches:

The Chinese Natural History Museums developing and assorting with the Society

Mr. Meng Qingjin, Vice president of the Chinese Association of Natural Science Museums, Director of the Committee of the Natural History Museums in China, Director of Beijing Museum of Natural History, China

Museums in a Changing World, Dr. Eric Dorfman Chair, Vice President, ICOM NATHIST, Executive Director, Eklektus Inc. New Zealand

Natural History Museums and the Rio 2012 project, Dr Volker Mosbrugger, Chair, Working group EURASIAN SUMMIT of Natural History Museums, Director General of Senckenberg, Research Institute and Natural History Museum, Germany

Building Economic Dioramas by means of Scene Reappearance, taking Zhejiang Museum of Natural History as the example

Mr Kang, Ximin, Vice president of Chinese Association of Natural Science Museums, Vive director of the Committee of the Natural History Museums in China, director of Zhejiang Museum of Natural History, China

Working hard

Over the next day and a half, we had the opportunity to share and discuss ideas about dioramas, multicultural approaches to interpreting climate change, environmental literacy, as well as plans for the new Shanghai Museum of Natural History, currently in its planning phase. These papers will be produced as a set of proceedings. If anybody is interested, please feel free to contact me directly.

Outgoing President of ICOM NATHIST, Dr Gerhard Winter

The conference ended with a presentation by former French President, Jacques Chirac, who maintains a strong interest both in China and the museum field. Just at the close of the conference, came what was certainly the most impressive of the gifts we received. It was a large, hard-bound coffee table book of photographs from the conference, beautifully presented with gold cover and high production values. Three and a half thousands copies were distributed about 9pm, and the last photos had been taken at 11am, giving an impression of what can be done with enough resources.

I’d encourage everybody in the New Zealand museum field to become a member of ICOM. Although it’s sometimes perceived as a European organisation, that’s far from the truth. It was a chance to interact with other Antipodeans, as well as to meet people from North and South America, Asia and Africa. I was stimulated by the wide ranging perspectives, and am looking forward to the next General Conference in Rio in November 2013, as well as the upcoming ICOM NATHIST meeting in Bangkok in October/November 2011.


  1. Shanghai at night. It’s big.
  2. Entertainment at the conference. That was big too.
  3. The opening of a temporary polar exhibition from our host the Shanghai Science and Technology Museum
  4. Working hard…
  5. Outgoing President of ICOM NATHIST, Dr Gerhard Winter

Dr Eric DorfmanDr Eric Dorfman is a Wellington-based author of popular natural history books, short fiction, articles and documentary scripts. His critically acclaimed book Melting Point (Penguin 2008) explores New Zealand’s responses to the issue of climate change. He is also Director of Eklektus Inc., a collective that produces strategic and visitor experience services to the international cultural sector, and a Teaching Associate in Victoria University of Wellington’s Department of Museum and Heritage Studies.

Twitter: @eklektusinc

1 Comment

  1. I thought our dinner together was the highlight with the Aussie, New Zealand, Canadian, US summit!
    Wayne LaBar

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