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Museopunks Episode 39: A new definition of “museum”?

Category: Influence of Museums

The season for existential crises continued this past month when the International Council of Museums (ICOM) announced that a working group had proposed a new definition for museums and that said definition would be voted on at the ICOM Triennial in Kyoto, Japan. We followed the many conversations that unfolded over the next few weeks and asked a diverse group of museum colleagues around the world to share their thoughts on the issue with us. What does it mean to be a museum? Who does that definition exclude? And who is the audience for that definition?

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Guest Contributors

Hannah Heller, Armando Perla, Anna Leshchenko, Linda Norris, Maria Vlachou, Jasper Visser, Paul Bowers, Margaret Middleton, Joan Baldwin, Seema Rao, and Luis Marcelo Mendes.

Show Notes

ICOM announces the alternative museum definition that will be subject to a vote

ICOM Kyoto 2019

In the Room Where It (sorta) Happened: ICOM’s Museum Definition – Linda Norris

A design recommendation for new museum definition (and vision) – Jasper VIsser

Weighing in on museum definitions – Paul Bowers

Why is a Museum Definition so Important? – Joan Baldwin

The Matter of Museums – Seema Rao

Reflections on ICOM Kyoto, and that definition – Mike Jones

Defining Museums in the 21st Century – Apollo Magazine

A new museum definition – Maria Vlachou

Presenting Sponsor

Museopunks is presented by the American Alliance of Museums.

Graphic Design of the Museopunks logo is by Selena Robleto.


Twitter: @museopunks


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Hannah Heller: I keep coming back to this idea of the value of a definition, which is only useful in so far that it has the power to exclude. With a definition, you can say you’re in but you’re out. What benefits does that power have in terms of helping us do our jobs better in a field where we’re subdivided into discrete areas of purview, science, art, history, children, zoo, aquaria. It doesn’t make sense that there could be one definition that satisfies the work we all do. Then it makes me think where do these divisions even come from? I think it goes back to the earliest origins of museums.

So take art museums for example, which is my area, encyclopedic art museums are one of the earliest instruments of nationalism, colonialism designed specifically to create division between that which was considered beautiful and refined (i.e white dominant) and that which is exotic or other distinctions like fine art versus artifact, fine art versus decorative versus design, craft. All these core divisions we have in our thinking about art, all come from white Western notions of exclusion, boundary-making, borderlines, definition. So it makes me wonder is the need for definition itself a fly vestige of our colonizing roots? Maybe just embracing everyone is the decolonizing act that we need.

Suse Anderson: Good day and welcome to Museopunks, the podcast for the progressive museum. I’m Suse Anderson.

Ed Rodley: I’m Ed Rodley and together we’ll be digging into another important issue driving conversation and practice in our field. This time the proposed changes to the International Council of Museums or ICOMS definition of what a museum is and we got a whole lot of help including from Hannah Heller, a freelance art museum educator in New York City and a doctoral student studying whiteness in museum ed.

Suse: You heard Hannah’s voice at the start of the show and the current ICOM museum definition, which was adopted by the 22nd general assembly in Vienna, Austria back in August 2007 is as follows. “A museum is a nonprofit 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.”

Ed: Pretty straight forward definitional stuff. Now check out the new definition that was formally proposed in July of this year. “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 artifacts 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.”

So, this new definition was discussed at the ICOM Kyoto meeting on September 3rd, 2019 in a session titled, “The Museum Definition, the Backbone of ICOM.” The vote was scheduled to take place at an extraordinary general assembly on September 7th, but things didn’t go quite exactly as planned. After much discussion, the national and international committees agreed to postpone a vote on the proposed new definition because there were so many different feelings about what this definition was and wasn’t and did and didn’t do. We have tried to gather some of those.

Suse: There were many reservations expressed about the new definition from the language it deploys to questions about the process involved, about whether a new definition was needed at all and if this was the right definition to use. Now, some of the reservations to the changes are pragmatic and linked strongly to national circumstances, particularly in those countries that might not have their own national museum body to help navigate these kinds of challenges internally. So today on this episode we wanted to unpack some of the different concerns and perspectives that this discussion hass unearthed within the sector.

We contacted people who had been involved in the conversation, at Kyoto, online or through written responses in the days and weeks after the discussions took place. We asked them to send us a recording. We gave them some guiding questions or things to think about whether we need a new definition of museums, how a new definition might affect their work, particularly in regard to their national setting and if and how the conversation changed anything in their thinking. But we also encouraged respondents to share their central concerns if they were not included within our conversations and questions.

Ed: We’ll start by hearing from some of those who attended the conference in Kyoto and then bring in some more voices. This isn’t a representative sample of all perspectives by any means, but it does shed some light on how differently the ICOM definition is used globally. Since we only gave very light guidelines to respondents as to what we were looking for, you’ll hear some overlaps in perspective, but we think that’s instructive too.

Suse: So without further ado, let the vox pops begin.

Armando Perla: This is Armando Perla from the Museum of Movement in Sweden, a museum focused on migration and democracy. I wanted to talk to you about the new proposed ICOM definition of a museum. I wanted to start by, I guess talking about the process, something that is really interesting to me is that, I had the chance to be at Kyoto during the debates and that several times people refer to the process behind the new proposed definition as the most democratic process in the history of ICOM. I think this is really, really, really significant because I mean the Museum Definition Prospects and Potential standing committee, the MDPP held 37 sessions, across the world talking to about 868 people and asking them to provide a definition for what a museum should be, or how they think that museums are today.

One I find interesting as well is that, for us, the Museum of Movements, we are a museum that doesn’t exist yet. We are right in the planning stages of it. We’re working towards developing this museum. One of the first things that we did is that we also went out across Sweden and we asked people, first, why a museum like this was needed and then what this museum should represent and what the museum should do? So we were able to talk to about 600 people in Sweden, individuals and 165 organizations representing people.

Something that I find really fascinating is that a lot of the same things that people told us during those consultations, it’s also a lot of that is reflected and represented in the proposed definition by the MDPP. For example, the words that really pop up to me like from that proposed definition, like democratize and inclusive, polyphonic, critical, memories, equal rights, equal access, participatory, transparent, working in partnership with diverse communities, enhanced understandings of the world.

I mean, this is what people told the MDPP from all those consultations in some of the things that people told us from the consultations that we held in Sweden, is that they wanted any seam that was transparent, that had open processes, where the content was going to be created collaboratively with different communities, civil society organizations that we needed to broaden the understanding of cultural heritage, democracy, migration, that this museum should be also about the untold and forgotten stories, of democracy and migration. That we should explore in collaborations, transparency, participation. Like all of these things that we’re also said and repeated in the consultations of ICOM were also repeated in our consultations. So I think it’s interesting to like see these two parallel processes, which kind of took place at the same time, and that came with some of the same results.

Something that to me was also interesting about this, the debates in Kyoto is that it really like show like those divisions within the ICOM community. It made people really upset. Like, I mean, it went to the core of their beings, I guess, and it was interesting because I was there in the plenary session, but also in the smaller sessions and looking at how people were reacting and responding to this. There were some people that were really upset, like they were pointing fingers and saying, “You created this division. We’re all for what the museum definition stands for. But we think that museums are already doing this all around the world.”

I mean, that is not true. Like, I mean, there’s some museums who are doing this, but it’s not all museums who are doing that. It was really interesting to see also divide because like something that really struck me as well is that a lot of the people who were opposed to adopting or taking the vote for the museum definition were coming from European countries, which are the colonial powers. I think something that is definition does, is also trying to like in a way trying to decolonize what we understand for museums, which is also kind of what we’re trying to do with our museum.

It’s sort of these addressing or redressing these historical injustices and the unequal distribution of power that we see very clearly in museums, especially when we look at who is representing leader support, who is holding leadership positions in museums. We don’t see that many people coming from historically marginalized communities, and all of this is a product of colonialism and forgering of a dominant way of like thinking in museums and institutions. I think this definition, this new proposed definition and kind of comes to sort of like this push for doing something different for addressing this injustice and inequalities in museums.

So, I think this is the way it really struck a chord with a lot of people. Yes, like I said, the current definition that we have right now for museums, like the one that we’re trying to build has been used to tell us, “Well, you can’t do that because that’s not what museums do. You do not fit in the ICOM definition.” So when we saw this new definition, we’re very excited because it really fits us like a glove. Yes, of course, the definition may have issues that might be too long, might be this, might be that, but it is a great statement of what museums should be doing and most museums aren’t doing this.

So yes, it was really, really exciting to see and to be part of like sort of these debates. I think something that also was really meaningful when I was there and in the plenary is that I saw Lonnie Bunch coming to give his piece. I mean, there’s all these people saying, “We need more time. We need to experiment with this definition. We need to see if it’s going to work.” It’s all about like, “No, we need time, we need to wait, we need to wait.” Then Lonnie stood there and he said, “You know my whole life I’ve been told to wait, but the time is now. We can no longer keep waiting.”

I completely understand that because as someone coming from a historically marginalized community as well, many historically marginalized communities, we’ve been waiting for so long to be a part of this decision-making process in museums and we’re still not like most of us aren’t. So I think it really reflects that this definition is trying to push to challenge the status quo. Of course, it’s very easy to say let’s wait when you are part of that ruling group. But I think just like Lonnie Bunch said, the time is now and we need to move forward with a new way of defining museums.

Anya Lishen: My name is Anya Lishen and I am a Russian museologist and a vice-chair of ICOM International Committee for Museology. When discussing the specific museum definition debate, the first thing that should be clarified is that we do not only define what the museum is today, but we are also discussing whether we are ready for a drastic change in a definition that is given by the International Council of Museums. We have to consider both positive and negative consequences that even moderate changes to the current ICOM definition might arise around the world.

These consequences will not be immediate, but they will follow. I will only give one example of how the ICOM definition has been used in Russia, which will explain why so many Russian museum professionals were very concerned with the new wording that was proposed for earlier this year. In Russia, they have been several legislative initiatives that intended to either eliminate or cut down the work by the part of museum staff, the documents and studies, the museum objects in museums storages.

Every time this idea comes to the mind of the authorities in our ministry of culture or even to new museum directors assigned by that ministry, the core museum functions that are not as evident as the authorities or as the public exhibition work are protected, thanks to the reaction from the professional community and bi-national ICOM committee. They refer to the definition provided by the ICOM, which now says that the museum acquires, conserves and researches. When you read the new wording that says that the museum is a polyphonic space for critical dialogue, it is clear that the focus from both scientific and public functions shifted to the public one and the other key functions are too vague.

So many professionals are concerned that this could give a green light to those who wish that museums worked only in the public space. If the new definition had been accepted in Kyoto, Russian museums would not be able to use this text and refer to ICOM as an institution that creates normative frameworks to protect such functions as education, research, and study of collections. Because any mention of those functions would have disappeared and each word that appears or disappears from a definition on a world scale, can have a negative impact.

So the ICOM community must use all the time the postponement allowed to give careful thought to each word that will be added or deleted from the current definition.

Linda Norris: Hi, it’s Linda Norris Global Networks Program Director of the International Coalition of Sites of Conscience. I am an ICOM member and I’m from the United States, although at the Sites of Conscience I work with museums, historic sites and memory initiatives in 70 countries around the world. I was in Kyoto when the new museum definition was discussed. Although I felt the definition was not a perfect piece of wording, I thought the values embedded in it were critical. In that way, I think we do need a new definition of museums because the world is changing there is a greater need for us to be more engaged than ever.

We can be problem solvers, we can be places to readdress past wrongs. We can think to the future, we can do all those things, and for many, many places a new definition will help that. The discussion is not important in a US setting particularly, the discussion has not been a distraction actually. I know there was some concern at ICOM that it was bad for us to have this public discussion. What would happen if the public thought we disagreed? To be honest, I think the amount of coverage of this conversation has been great. I think it’s great that people know there are different ways to think about museums. I think it’s great that the public might even care about that. I think for all of us to think about the work we do is really important.

At an opening of an exhibition from the Amsterdam Museum this past weekend I was at, their artistic director said, “Although the definition was not passed, we are working this way.” Just a couple of days later at a gathering of migration museums from all over the world, everyone in the room said, “This is how we are working.” So for museums who are already working this way, it probably doesn’t change anything because they’re going to continue to work in a way that connects with communities that is about social justice, that thinks about larger issues.

I think for museums who are not yet working this way, this may be really helpful. It provides guidance and tools. If you are at a small museum and have a board of directors, this is a way to have a conversation about some of the things you might be doing. So I think in this conversation, what we need to be talking about is not about fear. Because I’ll be honest, I felt some of the conversations in Kyoto were about fear. Were about fear of change, about fear of loss of relevance and importance. I thought those were part of the conversations. That’s not what we need to be thinking about.

We need to be thinking about how we can make a difference in the world and every museum, the Louvre, and think about it, the smallest, the Historical Society and upstate New York where I live can think about it. We all can make differences in the places we live and the communities and audiences we work with. To me, that’s what this definition asked us to do. It asked us, it encouraged us, it told us however you want to think about it, that we can make a difference and that it’s our job to make a difference. I believe that in every way, that’s the work of our member Sites of Conscience around the world. I think sooner rather than later, it’s going to be the work of all museums everywhere.

Ed: Thanks, Armando. Anya and Linda. One thing I know that never occurred to me was that the definition actually carried weight in some countries. I know my initial frustration with some of the debate around the definition was that to me it seemed like a real tempest in a teapot, like a debate with no real-world stakes and that’s just not true. It turns out what ICOM says museums are really matters.

Maria Blaku: Hello, this is Maria Blaku. I’m the executive director of an association called Access Culture based in Portugal and I’m an ICOM member. The recent discussion regarding the proposal for a new museum definition sparked some very interesting and needed debate. Our colleagues from Tropin Museum in Amsterdam have a publication called Words Matter. Actually words do matter if we are able to give a meaning to them to attribute a meaning to them. I believe that either with the current or the new museum definition, the impact will be little and has been little if museum professionals do not realize why they do what they do and for whom. If they cannot attribute meaning, to the words that compose the definition.

I think the proposal did not comply, let’s say with the requisites for a definition. It was very long, full of buzz words and it was more of wishful thinking rather than actually an attempt to define what a museum is or does. As I said though, it did spark a very needed and healthy conversation regarding museums. I do agree with Jasper Visser who said that probably ICOM is not looking for a new museum definition, but for a new vision for museums. Perhaps this is exactly where we should concentrate. In Portugal and elsewhere I believe, this had some impact in the public debates regarding museums.

A number of texts were written, debates are being organized around this subject and I believe there has been a push forward so that we may support younger professionals with a necessary new vision regarding the role of museums in society. Thank you.

Jasper Visser: My name is Jasper Visser. I’m from the Netherlands and in my work for Fishdom, I help museums and other cultural organizations build movements around their work and tell their stories to a modern audience. I’m not an ICOM member although I should be, I just never got around to signing up for it. Doing we need a new international definition of museums? I’m not sure. I think the call for a new definition is fair given that there’s so much change going on in the sector, but I’m very doubtful whether this change can be acknowledged with a new definition or whether it makes more sense to, for instance, forget about a museum definition and instead start looking at a shared set of values or maybe a shared purpose that all museums around the world bring together.

Honestly, I think it’s impossible to define museums which have become much more dynamic and diverse in the past few years. I think if you let go of the idea of a definition and move towards a shared vision or a shared purpose, this may actually give the sector a lot of new energy and new directions and maybe new momentum to do some of the things and establish some of the changes that, people are asking us to do, to do and society is looking for us to achieve as well.

The new definition. I was actually surprised to hear or read the newspaper that in my own country, the Netherlands, the new definition was embraced I think quite a lot. Quite a lot of museum directors came forward and said, it’s a tricky new definition in terms of words, but it’s ideas or its ideology that’s underlying it is actually quite valuable for our work. We were getting recognition for a lot of the things that we’re doing as museum professionals that weren’t traditionally part of our day to day work. I think in that sense to them, like, I’m in a country where a lot of museums are at the forefront of thinking about and acting on changes and innovations in the world of museums.

I think such a new definition makes a lot of sense. But then if something works in small countries such as the Netherlands, small Western European countries such as Netherlands, it by no means implies that it will work anywhere in the world in any context. So given that it works for us may actually mean that it may not work for others.

I think the question, has the conversation changed anything for you or is this discussion a distraction? I think actually I don’t care about the definition. I care about the conversation and I think in Kyoto and also before it finally we’re seeing that the conversation was reaching the level where people really started to get involved. I know that ICOM has tried to engage a lot of voices and has sent a lot of emails and worked with committees and groups on this new definition beforehand. But still, I think it was a rather exclusive conversation and I think what we’ve seen since Kyoto or it started during Kyoto or maybe even slightly beforehand when they launched new definition, is that this discussion is being held on much more platforms. Then the only parallel I can draw is to a similar conversation that I’ve been involved in happening in the world of libraries where they actually set out from the beginning to host the global conversation about a future purpose for libraries. This conversation didn’t happen in committee, but it happened in hundreds of workshops involving tens of thousands of people and many more online in actually thinking globally about the future of libraries.

I hope that ICOM uses this momentum, uses this moment to start a much more structured, much better designed, genuinely inclusive global conversation about the future of museums and the purpose of museums and the values that museums around the world share.

Suse: So one of the things I love about this sector and this conversation is the way ideas bounce and form and congregate, which I think we can see in that small discussion from Maria and Jasper. Thank you both. Here are a few more congregant ideas.

Paul Bowers: Hi, my name is Paul Bowers. I’m a museum professional from Melbourne, Australia and I am not a member of ICOM. My perspective on this debate is that I’m just genuinely puzzled by it. It feels like we haven’t really understood what a definition is for before jumping into making one. I would say, why do we need a definition at all, who needs to hear a definition, how would we know if the definition we’ve got is a good one or a bad one, are bigger questions that you’d hope to set up first before jumping into, “Here is a new definition.” I will leave others with greater wisdom to think about other aspects of this.

But I suppose my take on it really would be definitions are supposed to be based around classification, around something that museums are historically for and good at, but we seem to be finding really difficult in this case. Classification is about creating groups of things which are related to each other and then they are members of a larger group which are related to each other. So, a poodle is a type of dog. A dog is a type of carnivore. A carnivore is a type of mammal and a mammal is a kind of animal. If we’re talking about the differences between say animals and plants, working at the scale of poodle is completely and utterly unhelpful.

We should be working at the scale of animal. However, if we working at the scale of say, carnivores or dogs, it’s not really very helpful to say that they’re just an animal. I feel that some of the ICOM debate has been around this. We’ve made the definition so wide and so inclusive that it starts to be genuinely kind of meaningless in any given application. If everything can be a museum, then museum is such a fluffy concept that it doesn’t really mean anything. That’s one central concern. The other concern is whether we need one. I have never ever encountered actually needing to refer to an ICOM definition of a museum.

I’ve referred to a couple of ICOM standards before. I’ve had people advocate right ways and wrong ways based on ICOM standards such as conservation, collection care would be the obvious ones. But in advocating for multimillion-dollar investments from government, I’ve never once referred to an ICOM definition in a way that would help that submission at all. Most museums have founding instruments, whether they be a statutory national, state, federal or whether they be endowments or whatever from a wealthy individual, from a donation. But none of those refer to ICOM definitions. None of those have any actual legal status.

The ICOM definition has no legal status when considering those. The ICOM definition could be changed to institution that contains clowns on a Sunday. No one in Australia would change the requirements of a museum. No one in government would change their requirements of a museum based on, you must have clowns on a Sunday because the ICOM definition says you must. So in that sense, it all feels very kind of weird. I would say that museums are part of a civic infrastructure alongside libraries, alongside hospitals, etc. They’re things that local communities through a political system decide that they want and decide they wish to keep giving legitimacy to and funding and to maintain.

So for me, it’s just about whether the institution that defines itself as a museum has a social license with its community, with it’s government, and is able to continue operating. It strikes me that that is a long conversation to be had at a local level. Local might mean in state capitals. It might mean in national capitals, but I don’t see that there is a value in that conversation happening on a super international level.

Then the other thing is, I suppose the other thing I’m feeling around this is that the definition of a museum feels to me like it sits uncomfortably between nouns and verbs and then it’s full of adjectives and adverbs around them. But there’s a difference between describing what something is in a static way and describing it in a way that is active, that does something. Our sector has a terrible tendency, I feel, to want to sit in the static, to sit in the nouns. I feel like we need a greater move towards the verbs. A museum can be defined by what it does, by the outcome it has much better than by the inputs, by the collections and the buildings. They’re means to an end rather than the end in themselves. That won’t be a rare view, I’m sure but there you go.

Margaret Middleton: My name is Margaret Middleton. I use they, them pronouns. I’m an independent exhibit designer and museum consultant in Rhode Island. I’m not an ICOM member. Personally, I was intrigued by ICOM’s decision to propose a new definition for the museum and I think the discussion it sparked has been thoughtful and necessary. It also didn’t surprise me that the definition they decided on did seem to imply that a proper museum needs a collection. Even though many children’s museums and science centers do have collections, it’s hard for me not to read this as a snub to those genres of museum.

I think when people talk about the value of objects in museums, they’re actually talking about the value of experiencing something authentic. In a children’s museum or science center that might be a social or physical interaction or a direct experience with a scientific phenomenon. Moving the definition towards authentic over object-based would better encompass the broad range of what all museums interpret. The reason it’s so important for children’s museums and science centers to be included in the definition of museum, regardless of whether or not they have collections, is that they tend to be so visitor focused, so access driven, so future minded. I believe they set the pace for the field, whether or not the rest of the field notices.

Joan: Hi, my name is Joan Baldwin and I write the blog Leadership Matters. In early September, my friend Linda Norris went to Kyoto for the ICOM meeting. From the other side of the world, Linda sent a barrage of social media about ICOM’s proposed new museum definition. So I wrote a blog post. Then this week Museopunks wrote to ask me to think about the same thing and perhaps share some thoughts. So here goes. To be totally honest, I’ve worked in the museum world for decades and not given a thought to what ICOM’s definition is. But if you can stand the double negative, I don’t not like the old one. It reads like this.

“A museum is a nonprofit permanent institution in the service of society and it’s 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.”

To me, whether you care if ICOM has a definition of museums is kind of immaterial. What matters is what you think and what you do. In museum land where we use a common vocabulary all the time, how would a common definition hurt? I believe that ICOM’s argument, and it is an argument, is our argument, the delegates couldn’t agree. So in case you’re interested, we are still working under that old definition. So if you own “A museums are not neutral” t-shirt or you believe museums that aren’t engaged in community aren’t doing their job, the new definition may be right up your street.

Second, since 2007 ICOM has seen museums as ‘permanent institutions in service of society.’ Before we even think about it’s proposed new definition, think about that line. How many of you and more importantly your boards think of your institutions in service to society and how inclusive is your definition of society? There’s a lot in those six words. Far from the center of ICOM discussions, the proposed definition seems to me asks two things of all of us. One of which is far easier than the other. First, it asks us to stop pussyfooting around and tell our collection stories in a transparent, authentic way, connecting past with present, telling the whole story even when the parts that are complicated because we don’t own the objects or they’re just complicated.

Second, and this is trickier, these definitions ask us to contribute to human dignity and social justice, global equality, and planetary wellbeing. Contributing is a loaded word. Is simply doing all the regular museum things, exhibitions, programs, fundraising, but better enough? Or do we need to actually take a stand? Does taking a stand effect development efforts collecting programming and exhibitions? Does it blur the line between individual values and organizational ones? Does it mean our endowment is only invested in social justice and environmental funds? Does it mean we support our staff members who openly protest and what does that look like? Would it mean that as the local historical museum, we stand with our local human rights organization when a member of our community is about to be deported?

You don’t need me to tell you that museum land in the age of Google is different. I’m glad ICOM’s working on a new definition, but whether it arrives at consensus or not, we are the ones who need to change. Because if we choose not to, the public who has the entire world in words and images on their phones, we’ll go somewhere else for information, for history, for tranquility, for a civics lesson, for connection, or simply to see people who look like them. So regardless of what ICOM does, it’s up to us. Listen, know what you don’t know, know what your collection means, not just in a textbook sense, but in the context of your community. Find and make meaningful connections. Person to person, object to person, collections to community. Make museums matter. Thanks.

Suse: In the days following the vote Seema Rao provided some of the most active hosting of discussions on Twitter about the topic. Including a lively discussion around the seemingly simple question, what is a museum? The answers she received formed the basis of a blog post on the Museum 2.0 blog, which she recently took over. We’re grateful to have a response from Seema as well.

Seema Rao: Museums are spaces where people come together over ideas, objects, and each other. That exercise of defining museums is an academic exercise at its very best. It’s about ideas. It’s about arguing. It’s about criticizing. It’s about coming together. It’s about coming apart, it’s about rebuilding it. I love this. I don’t think it’s waste of time. I think it’s an important thing that we’re doing as a global field and very often in our field we are very hyper-focused on our own national interests or our own local community interests or the interests of our donors and this is nice that we are coming together over this.

But I also think defining museums is a little bit like defining water. Water defines its space. It builds rivers out of hewn rock. It just cuts through anything. I think museums have for a very long time done that. They’ve defined themselves without their community. They’ve defined themselves over hundreds of years. The concept of museum itself is so embedded in our society that somehow people think they’ve always been here and they’re only a few hundred years old. I mean, that’s the best sort of marketing we could ever do.

People know what a museum is and don’t even really think that it changed ever. So for us as museum professionals, we need to show people that we’re different, that we’re changing. I sort of think of us, my work and the work I’ve done over my career and the work my colleagues have done is changing the way that right now you can have any ice cube you want. Ice cubes are no longer square. They’re all the shapes. There’s Star Wars figures and robots and fish and hearts and they’ve become multifold. I think museums, in the same way, have become multifold. We used to have pretty much singular ways we defined water and ice by cubes and now we don’t.

In the same way, we used to have a fairly uniform idea of what museums are and we’ve been breaking it and people have been breaking it for us and they have been deciding and they’ve been by their ticket sales deciding that museums are a certain thing, and we as a field we’ll have to work with that. We get to counter define and we get to co-define and we get to collectively define. So the exercise of defining museums to me shows that we are a field that is willing to grow and that is the most we can ask.

Ed: We have one more voice to include, which was actually sent to us as a written script. So I’m going to read it for you. It’s from Louis Marcello Mendez from Brazil. He’s a communications consultant from museums in Latin America and an ICOM member since 2013. Louis writes, from a branding point of view, I believe the new museum definition proposed by ICOM has some flaws. It’s just too long full of buzzwords. It wants to be everything at the same time. So it’s not the clear and straightforward proposition that reflects the change that we have been discussing for the past 20 years now.

However, I also believe that it is crucial to adopt some new and inspiring museum definition. After all, the current definition is long overdue. Now here’s the big question the sector is going to face soon. Did we postpone it because the definition itself is not clear or because we are not mature enough to embrace the concept of democratizing inclusive and polyphonic spaces for critical dialogue it proposes?

Suse: Thanks Louis. Huge questions to end there via Ed and thank you to all our contributors, particularly since we gave you almost no notice to tackle this project with us.

Ed: Thank you so much for taking this on.

Suse: So Ed, after all this discussion, where do you land on this topic?

Ed: Oh, Suse. I have so many thoughts. I guess, one of the reasons to end with Louis is because I think he puts a nice point on a lot of what I see as being the problems with the definition. The conversation around the definition is, are we talking about a definition or are we talking about a mission statement or rallying cry for the future of museums? Because my sense still is that the proposed definition tried very hard to be both. I don’t think, as it was pointed out at the beginning, like the whole point of a definition is to exclude. By saying what something is you’re saying what it’s not.

Museums are so heterogeneous that trying to make something that is that aspirational as well as that descriptive and definitive, still doesn’t work for me. I don’t know what the solution will be that ICOM comes up with. Although, I’m very glad we’re having the conversation. Like a lot of the other commentators, this is kind of an important thing to talk about. Like, who do we want to be in the future? Who do we think we are right now and how does that need to change? How do we need to change?

Suse: I was really struck by a comment that Tonya Nelson made in writing for the Museums Association UK, where she said a vote would have cemented a Brexit like rift in the global community. With a better understanding of the potential impact of the proposed definition on colleagues from around the world, we can now consider the best outcome from our own standpoint as well as from that of the International Museum Sector. I think this idea of definition as rallying cry, definition of vision, but vision that is not going to be the same for everyone, it makes this whole thing really tough and it also, I think some of the phrasing did not help that.

Ed: Yeah, I totally agree with you there. It’s kind of marketing speak sometimes and kind of aspirational visitor-centric speak sometimes. Is that the format to try to get across what the people who seem to have genuinely good intentions that I agree with probably 90%, was that the vehicle to try to do what they were trying to do?

Suse: One of the things that was interesting to me and that kind of concerned me about this exercise was that the proposed definition seemed so far from where many museums actually are. While aspirational, it’s still fails to speak in any way really to the past of our institutions. It mentions it at a glance, but my museum ethics and values class this semester I’ve been having these great conversations with my students. Multiple times when looking at codes of ethics and standards of practice, my students have drawn attention to the fact that museum codes rarely if ever acknowledge the colonial underpinnings of the museum.

They felt this was a real weakness for any kind of forward-facing, inclusive practice. So to a certain extent, I think I agree with you that I’m probably fully on board with the vision and the idea of what this might look like going forward. I think the audacity of being so future-focused and ambitious, shouldn’t be disconnected from really naming and acknowledging the ongoing systemic challenges that our institutions are facing.

Ed: Yeah, I agree not talking about it hasn’t really worked that well for us. So why continue to not talk about it and hopefully we can just focus on the future and not address the current and or the past?

Suse: There’s work to be done in all of those spaces.

Ed: Word.

Suse: All right. So I think we’ve both ended up in a nowhere place, but a little bit wiser or at least that’s what I’m hoping. I think I’ve got a much better understanding than I did at the start. What about you?

Ed: Also, I was very pleased to hear the number of times we heard from people how hard ICOM had tried to actually be inclusive in their process and how that this was most democratic process for working on something like this that the organization had attempted up until now. One thing I really hope is that the lesson they don’t take away from this is, “Well, okay. That was a bad idea. We should never try to do anything out in public again because boy that didn’t work.” I think they have surfaced a lot of important things and the conversations that I hope they will have over the next year will be even more fruitful than the ones that launched this whole thing.

Suse: Yeah, absolutely. I am intending to finally join, join again. I am certainly going to renew my membership because I need to be part of these conversations and I know that I’m not the only one who’s feeling this way.

Ed: It’s true. I just re-upped my ICOM membership right before this whole thing broke when I first saw that they were talking about museum definitions. I was like, “Oh, it’s probably worthwhile to give them some support.”

Suse: It probably is. All right, let’s call this an episode. In our next episode we are planning to speak with Richard Sandell and Claire Bolo about their work on what looks like a pretty amazing exhibition, which is the Being Human Exhibition at the Welcome Collection in the UK, which has really centered accessibility in its design and its content. I’m really excited.

Ed: I’m hopefully going to get chance to see it because I’m going to be in London soon so oh, ooh.

Suse: Exciting. Ed?

Ed: Suse?

Suse: You’ve also been opening something recently. What have you been working on?

Ed: You mean the new building of the museum.

Suse: I do.

Ed: Yes, at the end of September after many years and two different architects, Peabody Essex Museum finally opened its brand new building on the 28th of September. So we now have 40,000 additional square feet of space and three permanent gallery installations. So that the new building only has permanent collection stuff in it, which is kind of super exciting. We did some good work. I’m very proud of the final results and I look forward to seeing more and more of what the actual public does with it. Having lived with this thing for a half dozen years now and to actually turn it over and see real live visitors using the stuff, is just so rewarding.

Suse: I’m very excited. Well, hopefully, we can convince a few Museopunks listeners to come up to your neck of the woods and become real-life visitors and test out a few things.

Ed: Please do. Okay, so we’ve dropped links to much of what we talked about today in the show notes, which you can find at along with transcripts of this and previous episodes.

Suse: Museopunks is presented every month by the American Alliance of Museums. Of course, you can subscribe anytime at iTunes or Stitcher and Spotify. You can find us there now too. Catch you next time.

Ed: Bye all.

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1 Comment

  1. With regard to those who don’t “care” about definitions, in & out of the museum industry, I have taught university, college, high school, & museum professional development courses. I do not believe there can be ANY effective discussion of any matter without initial agreement on what we are talking about. In my view, mutual understanding can only be achieved if all participants are discussing the SAME THING!

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