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Thoughts on the new museum definition

On August 24, 2022, ICOM announced the new museum definition replacing the one in force since 2007. The process was not alien to controversy, let alone resignations, with a double-barrel definition proposed in 2019 sent back to the drawing board for various reasons, some of which I also discuss in a first and second blog post written way back.

The museum definition, unanimously approved by ICOM delegates, reads thus

“A museum is a not-for-profit, permanent institution in the service of society that researches, collects, conserves, interprets and exhibits tangible and intangible heritage. Open to the public, accessible and inclusive, museums foster diversity and sustainability. They operate and communicate ethically, professionally and with the participation of communities, offering varied experiences for education, enjoyment, reflection and knowledge sharing.”

Reactions anyone?

This is a definition of compromise.

A cursory look at some of the opinion pieces written over the past week or so does suggest so.

Artnewspaper, for example, describes it as a significant change but that it was also the “result of an over-compromise from more conservative bodies in the museum community.” The same goes for Hyperallergic.com, adding that some consider the newly adopted definition as not being transformative enough. Artnet news, on the other hand, highlights the addition of thirteen “ new words or concepts reflecting the evolving nature of museums’ role within society” which are included within a defining framework that has been in place since the first ICOM museum definition going back to 1946. The European Heritage Tribune also mentions that the original definition of ‘museum’ has kept a measure of consistency since then. The same feeling of compromise came across posts by participants to the ICOM conference shared on social media.

As I see it, the new museum definition is the outcome of what I call ‘the look in the mirror’. It is the sector itself, in general terms, that is defining itself. It is, to all intents and purposes, a subjective definition of ‘who we are’, which is far removed from the objective view of an outsider or ‘who and for what we are acknowledged to be or stand for”.

Views in the mirror can be rather limiting at times. This particular view in the mirror is, nevertheless acknowledging the latest developments which have pushed for change a mere fifteen years after the 2007 museum definition. But what weight does this view in the mirror have and what impact are we talking about?

How did we get there?

The methodology is clear enough but once you dig deeper …

What seems to have been missed by many in their analysis of the result is the process that produced the new museum definition, clearly spelled out by the committee leading the process (ICOM Define), and which was also the subject of an in-depth concluding report. Although general participation by National Committees (NCs), International Committees (ICs), Regional Alliances (RAs) and Affiliated Organizations (AOs) in the process leading to a new museum definition is pegged at 70%, participation was much lower at specific stages within the process.

The report mentions, for example, that at one stage ‘a great effort was made to try and increase the participation of underrepresented regions. This led to an increase from 30% to 55% in Africa, and 33% to 40% in Arab states”. At a later stage “the IC response rate dropped from 81% to 56% ICs.” Towards the end of the process, “ICOM Define received 85 responses in this consultation, which represents 48% of committees.”

The process did, indeed, register a measure of participation across the board but this seems to have dwindled the more the process moved ahead. The view in the mirror may well be incomplete, perhaps blurry too, which is still, to all intents and purposes, subjective.

So where to next?

The definition will be the yardstick for institutional requirements and registration schemes across the globe but beyond that …

  1. Within this definition of compromise, I must say, there is room for a broad spectrum of progressive and conservative museum institutions. Acknowledging the new definition and working with it is one thing. Positioning the specific museum institution within this new defining framework is another. Besides regional contexts to consider, views in the mirror can be limiting, let alone possibly misleading as not comprehensively representative. It would be interesting, for example, to see how museums leaning towards the multiplatform idea and the phygital position themselves within this definition. More on this one in the coming blog posts.
  2. It is indeed a fact that new terminology has been roped in which, by consequence, acknowledges the developments happening over the past decade. But this stops there. It is up to the specific museum institution to make sense of that development which the new museum definition broadly acknowledges. We can take the reference to the participation of communities as an example. When seen through the lens of Arnstein’s Ladder of Citizen Participation, this can mean tokenism such as consultation but could also advocate citizen control, including delegation and partnership. Both fall comfortably within the parameters of community participation.
  3. The view in the mirror is one thing. Public perception and user needs are something else. As societies continue to evolve and new modes of living become increasingly mainstream, as the demand for customized experiences and personalized content has become the norm rather than the exception, the challenge that museums shall keep continuously facing will be all about retaining their publics and building communities whose user needs and requirements are beyond any definition. I did write about this point in a previous blogpost.

Consensus has its strengths nevertheless. Many museum institutions might find the museum definition just voted in as not being progressive enough, perhaps also tight and limiting. Others might find it broad enough for them to hopefully develop further. What specific museums make of it, beyond the insitutional or legal requirements, is something different. As I see it, museums would be committing a big mistake if they opt to consider this definition as a point of arrival, or what a museum should be, rather than a point of departure, or what a museum currently is.

The present is now decisively consolidated by the definition just voted in. The future, however, may point much more in the direction of the definition rejected in Kyoto in 2019.

Hopefully, this time around, it will take less than fifteen years.

Sandro Debono PhD (Lond.) is a museum thinker and change-maker mainly active as museum advisor and academic based in the Mediterranean island of Malta. For more information on the author…