Leading Museums, Museum Leaders

ICOM seeks new museum definition

Geraldine Kendall Adams, ICOM seeks proposals for new museum definition, 11 February 2019

Current version does not reflect sector’s radical transformation, says council.
The International Council of Museums (ICOM) is looking for help to rethink and revise its museum definition, saying the existing version “does not reflect and express adequately the complexities of the 21st century and the current responsibilities and commitments of museums, nor their challenges and visions for the future”.
The international body said museums had “radically transformed” their principles, policies and practices in recent decades, and is asking its members and other interested parties to submit their proposals for a more up-to-date definition.
The current definition reads: “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.”
In a statement on its website, Icom said: “A new definition can be terse as law or concise as a poem. Or both. It can be long or short, a cohesive whole,  or split into sections or hierarchies.”
The call for submissions is open until 20 May and the new definition will be decided at Icom’s general conference in Kyoto, Japan, in early September.
Proposals are being published on the Icom website on an ongoing basis.
Icom has set a number of parameters that proposals should contain or reflect. These are:
  • Retain – even if current terminology may vary – the unique, defining and essential unity in museums of the functions of collecting, preserving, documenting, researching and exhibiting and in other ways communicating the collections or other evidence of cultural heritage.
  • Be clear on the purposes of museums, and on the value base from which museums meet their sustainable, ethical, political, social and cultural challenges and responsibilities in the 21st century.
  • Acknowledge the urgency of the crises in nature and the imperative to develop and implement sustainable solutions.
  • Acknowledge and recognise with concern the legacies and continuous presence of deep societal inequalities and asymmetries of power and wealth – across the globe, as well as nationally, regionally and locally.
  • Acknowledge and recognise with respect and consideration the vastly different world views, conditions and traditions under which museums work across the globe.
  • Express the commitment of museums to be meaningful meeting places and open and diverse forums for learning and exchange.
  • Express the unity of the expert role of museums with the collaboration and shared commitment, responsibility and authority in relation to their communities.
  • Express the accountability and transparency under which museums are expected to acquire and use their material, financial, social and intellectual resources.

Links ICOM museum definition

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