ITP Futures 2021: What Defines a Museum? (Andrea Terrón Gomez, Guatemala, Senior Fellow 2018 & Claire Messenger, ITP Manager)

Andrea Terrón Gomez, Museum Specialist and Independent Consultant (Guatemala, ITP Fellow 2017 & ITP Senior Fellow 2018)

I believe museums are entities recognized worldwide as symbols of safety and truth. A place full of facts, memories, histories and journeys, which evoke respect, purpose and comfort. Museums are not only places in which one can see preserved objects in controlled environments but should also be defined as the memory of the people for the people, not only protecting it, but communicating living memory. A museum needs to be the space – virtual or physical – that offers perspectives, a space in which one can argue, learn, propose and reconcile with social, cultural, and political events of the past, present and define aspects of the future.

But all these things cannot be accomplished if we are being neutral and not telling all sides of the story. I think that collections can reflect their history by telling the details that are not peaceful or pretty, and in those facts we can have a real dialogue with the objects, their owners, their communities and the museums that exhibit them. Taking this into account, there are many types of museums that deal with different subjects, but the same principles apply: truth and realities from the people, communities and artists that created them.

Reading the news, social media and talking with friends and colleagues, I believe that the challenge for a new museum’s definition lies in 3 aspects: the issue of neutrality and being apolitical; collections – to have or not – and the matter of physical space-in reference to virtual collections and virtual exhibitions.

Personally, I think the challenge is to compromise with traditional points of view, respecting the traditional responsibilities of museums – to preserve, research and protect – but like anything else there must be room for change because our needs have changed. And that is the issue, how do we find that balance? A definition is needed because it sets boundaries, it gives a framework and parameters, and solidifies a career choice. With a museum definition we become – and by ‘we’ I mean institutions, museum professionals, consultants and researchers – a community, united with a purpose.

That purpose and reason, which makes museums relevant, to this date, is the fact that museums protect what makes us human, from material culture to a perception of art. Tangible to intangible. It is unprecedented knowledge; it explains facts and what needs to be discovered and explained. At the end it is ‘Us’, a human community searching for connections around the world, leaving a stamp of our choices for future generations to understand, and make a decision over continuity or change.

Claire Messenger, Manager, International Training Programme

Andrea’s brilliantly written observations on the current museum’s definition discussion highlight some of the issues around the on-going consultation.  Her clear engagement with the process and final thoughts on how – as a sector, as a museum community – we will need to work together and be prepared to compromise are inspiring. 

For the International Training Programme (ITP) this discussion is this both current and important for our future.  We have developed a programme of online sessions – ITP Futures 2021 – which have brought together all our eight ITP Senior Fellows to help us co-design the future of the ITP.   One of our sessions has just looked at the issues around a new definition for museums which is currently being considered, and extensively consulted on, by ICOM.

To set the scene, ICOM’s current definition is almost 50 years old, and colleagues say that the discussions around the definition then, back in the 1970’s were equally as controversial.  In 2019, at the 25th ICOM General Conference, in Kyoto, Japan and in front of a record-breaking audience of 4,590 participants from 120 countries and territories, the decision on a new definition was deferred and consultation has begun again.  The hope is, that a new definition, will be ready to be presented and ratified at the 26th General Conference in Prague in 2022.

To help us gain an understanding of the use of, and views on, the internationally accepted definition of a museum, we held a session with our ITP Senior Fellows and colleagues from the ICOM UK Committee.  What became clear was the importance of a definition to help support governments, institutions, and sector professionals.  The use of the ICOM definition was mixed across our represented countries – some sectors working very strictly to the current definition while others have their own definition but still acknowledge the importance of an internationally agreed definition.  One thing though was agreed across our group – the need for a definition and the need to compromise and work together to find wording that could be established for use worldwide.

For the International Training Programme the definition of museums is a key piece of the puzzle moving forward.  As we seek to design and deliver an ITP for the future, it is essential that that the content of our annual programme and our legacy projects, reflect current thinking in the culture and heritage sectors. If we are to meet our aims and objectives around the support and development of global museum professionals – and in turn their institutions – we must focus on the internationally accepted and agreed definition of what a museum should be.