The museum according to ICOM

Adele Maresca Compagna, vice-president of ICOM Italia

On 24 August in Prague, the new ICOM definition of a museum, drawn up by the International ICOM Define Committee, was approved almost unanimously. It marks the culmination of a long process of reflection and analysis which has taken stock of the museological debate of recent years and adopted those key terms and concepts which, to judge by the consultations of national and international committees, are most widely shared by the international community.

It has not been an easy process, considering that the very idea of a museum and the forms that they have taken both over time and in different parts of the world are far from identical. What was needed was to identify a common denominator over and above the different conceptions and practices which are influenced by sundry considerations: at times by concrete factors (such as the presence or otherwise of collections of great cultural or natural interest), at other times by particular traditions of artistic production, of conserving and handing down artifacts to future generations, or by a difficult social and economic context on which it is hoped to make a deep impression – I am thinking of the “community” museums of Latin America, deeply aware of the need to involve the indigenous communities in the construction and conservation, as well as the enjoyment, of a heritage inseparable from their identity.

The aim was to briefly highlight the characteristics, the hallmarks, of the museum as institution, its identity, its functions, its modus operandi and purposes (as in the previous definition) while taking note of the transformations of contemporary society and the demands of the new museology, stressing the social role of the museum and its potential to contribute to sustainable development at a local and global level.

The literature as well as a number of international proceedings had already featured some important changes of perspective:

– the broadening of the concept of heritage to include natural heritage, then intengible heritage, and finally, with the Faro Convention of the Council of Europe, the concept of shared heritage;

– a shift of attention by professionals from objects to people; the centrality assigned to the public in the policies and activities of museums;

– the stress on the active role of these institutions in society.

The 2015 UNESCO Recommendation concerning the Protection and Promotion of Museums, their Diversity and their Role in Society had already emphasised that museums:

• must be open places, committed to ensuring physical and cultural access to all, including the most disadvantaged groups;

• are spaces for cultural transmission, intercultural dialogue, learning, discussion and training, education (formal, informal and lifelong), social cohesion and sustainable development;

• contribute to economic development, in particular through cultural and creative industries, tourism, employment.

A New Social Commitment

Without distorting the characteristics and purposes of this cultural institution, the new definition of museum acknowledges these appeals and embraces a vision heavily weighted towards social commitment.

The museum is a not-for-profit, permanent institution in the service of society that researches, collects, conserves, interprets and exhibits tangible and intangibile heritage.

Open to the public, accessibile 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.

A comparison with the previous definition from 2007 reveals points both of continuity and profound innovation.

The distinguishing characteristics of the museum are confirmed, and in our view it is very important, in a world where instability and precariousness seem to triumph,  that the permanent nature of the institution be reaffirmed – to national and local governments, administrators, regional communities. Permanent status is also linked to legal recognition and an efficient organization capable of safeguarding the heritage, as well as quality cultural programming provided by highly professional staff. It was also essential to stress again the non-profit nature and public service role of museums.

The purposes traditionally ascribed to a museum also remain the same, with some alterations:

• Research is given pride of place since it is considered preparatory and necessary to all other pursuits.

• The term “acquires” is substituted by “collects”, which is more appropriate for a heritage that is intangibile or widespread, and distances itself from the proprietorial/possessive relation to the asset.

• “interprets” is inserted alongside “exhibits” by way of drawing attention to the inescapable effort of reprocessing/mediating the manifold meanings and values to be communicated and shared. This is a commitment which naturally takes as its starting point the specialized study of the collections but which should be enhanced through the contribution of other areas of competence (sociological, anthropological, scientific, historical) and the support of educators/mediators prepared to listen to different demands and views represented by persons and groups of people speaking for different cultures, traditions, religious beliefs and sexual orientations, or conditioned by particular fragilities.

The second sentence highlights the outlook and the modus operandi of museums, with a shift – not immediately easy to understand – from the singular to the plural. In all probability the intention is to mark the transition from the general characteristics and typical functions of the institution “museum” as an abstract entity, to the practical work carried out by museum institutions in all their manifold variety.

Fostering Diversity 

It is in this part that a number of key words have been inserted which are radically innovative, largely agreed upon by the museum community, and especially dear to the Museo Omero:

• Accessibility and inclusion, which go well beyond the openness to the public of the previous definition. 

• Respecting and fostering diversity and sustainability.

Over and above the importance of its collections, the museum thus becomes a space open to all, without physical or cognitive barriers, a workshop where different identities and cultures may grow in mututal knowledge and awareness, a forum for researching and documenting history, the evolution of science and civilizations, but also current local and global issues. The museum takes on an important role in the pursuit of sustainable development goals.

For all this to be achieved, as the definition suggests, it is essential to involve communites and – we would add – to forge strong, lasting alliances with local administrations, with the institutions that go to make up the cultural and social ecosystem – libraries, archives, schools, universities, associations – and the with economic and productive organisations of the region.

Furthermore, to achieve the purposes which the museum sets itself – i.e. education, pleasure, reflection and knowledge-sharing – the ICOM museum definition commits to offering “varied experiences”, and hence to identifying different tools, methods and languages according to the intended target. It is important to bear in mind that the word “experiences” points to a more intense, participatory approach than that associated with a simple visit, and an emotional as well as an intellectual involvement on the part of the visitor, both on site and online.

The use of technology to this end can bring about change of a radically innovative nature. Digitalization, the reproduction of works in high resolution and 3D, enhanced reality, the production of videos and podcasts for educational and recreational purposes, gives access to a wider range of visitors and enables them to take part in person or at a distance, besides extending boundless opportunties for research, communication and creative development. It needs to be clear, though, that these actions cannot be extemporary and must form part of a general strategy designed to offer an overall presentation of the museum and its collections, conducted by means both traditional and innovative, and with contents and detail calibrated to the needs of the different user groups.

To conclude, I believe that ICOM has helped to create a shared understanding internationally, suggesting policies and courses of action to governments, administrators and professionals.

To accommodate this vision to the reality of each individual museum, taking account of its specific mission and the context in which it operates, will mean investing above all in human capital. The museum of the future will come into being only if it can rely on a high level of technical, administrative and specialist expertise – competent people, open-minded and motivated, able to imagine and oversee the change and willing to exercise their own relational and interactive skills inside and outside the museum.