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Museum International

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The Museum Definition as the Backbone of ICOM

Jette Sandahl

To cite this article: Jette Sandahl (2019) The Museum Definition as the Backbone of ICOM,
Museum International, 71:1-2, vi-9, DOI: 10.1080/13500775.2019.1638019

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Published online: 11 Jul 2019.

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Increasingly museums recognise and address with concern the deep societal inequalities and asymmetries of power and wealth—across the globe
as well as nationally, regionally and locally. This patera had been used for trafficking people from the coast of Africa to the coast of Spain. It was
collected in Almeria by the Museum of World Cultures, Sweden, in 2005 as part of the museum's extensive collections of boats and material for
an exhibition on human trafficking. © Jette Sandahl

VI | MUSEUM international
The Museum
as the Backbone
by Jette Sandahl

Jette Sandahl was the founding director of the

pioneering Museum of World Cultures in Sweden
and the Women’s Museum of Denmark. She served
as Director Experience at National Museum of
New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa and as Director
of Exhibitions and Public Programs at the National
Museum of Denmark. Most recently, she was director
of the Museum of Copenhagen. She attended the
Getty Museum Management Institute and has held
a number of elected and appointed posts in the national
and international museum world. She currently chairs
the ICOM Standing Committee for the Museum
Definition, Prospects and Potentials (MDPP) as well
as the European Museum Forum. She publishes within
the broad museological field.

MUSEUM international | 1

This document contains the recommendations and the report submitted by the Committee
for Museum Definition, Prospects and Potentials (MDPP), according to its mandate,
to the ICOM Executive Board regarding the needs for a potential revision of the museum
definition. The ICOM Executive Board unanimously accepted the report and adopted
the recommendations in December 2018.

Recommendations adopted by the Executive Board

1 ICOM should initiate a process of • The museum definition should acknowledge
reinterpretation, revision, rewriting, the urgency of the crises in nature and
and reformulation of the current museum the imperative to develop and implement
definition to be proposed for debate and sustainable solutions.
decision at the ICOM General Conference • The museum definition should acknowledge
in Kyoto in September 2019. and recognise with respect and consideration
2 This process should start immediately the vastly different world views, conditions
at the beginning of 2019, ensuring that there and traditions under which museums work
is time for a broad and global anchoring across the globe.
and involvement of the membership as a whole. • The museum definition should acknowledge
3 The MDPP is asked to initiate and organise and recognise with concern the legacies
this, in the first part of 2019, as a participatory and continuous presence of deep societal
process through structured dialogic methods. inequalities and asymmetries of power
4 The process may result in a number of different and wealth—across the globe as well
proposals to be brought to the Executive Board as nationally, regionally and locally.
in June 2019, and one or more proposals • The museum definition should express
to be brought to the General Conference the unity of the expert role of museums
in September 2019. with the collaboration and shared
5 The following parameters are set for proposals commitment, responsibility and authority
for a new definition: in relation to their communities.
• The museum definition should be clear • The museum definition should express
on the purposes of museums, and on the commitment of museums to be
the value base from which museums meet meaningful meeting places and open
their sustainable, ethical, political, social and diverse platforms for learning
and cultural challenges and responsibilities and exchange.
in the 21st century. • The museum definition should express
• The museum definition should retain—even the accountability and transparency
if current terminology may vary—the unique, under which museums are expected to
defining and essential unity in museums acquire and use their material, financial,
of the functions of collecting, preserving, social and intellectual resources.
documenting, researching, exhibiting and
in other ways communicating the collections
or other evidence of cultural heritage.

Report for the ICOM Executive Board, December 2018

I. The Museum Definition As a backbone for this global organisation sits a
as the Backbone of ICOM shared definition of what museums are and what
Founded in 1946, ICOM is the global organisa­ they do. The latest version is from 2007:
tion of museums and museum professionals, with The museum is a non-profit, permanent institution
40,000 members from 140 countries from all conti­ in the service of society and its development,
nents. ICOM provides a shared ethical framework open to the public, which acquires, conserves,
for museums, a forum for professional discussions, researches, communicates and exhibits the tangible
and a platform for questioning and celebrating and intangible heritage of humanity and its
heritage and collections in museums and cultural environment for the purposes of education, study
institutions. and enjoyment.

2 | MUSEUM international
While this definition is meant to define the essence The Committee for Museum Definition, Prospects
of what constitutes a museum, it is also understood and Potentials explores the shared but also the pro-
as an ideal, which is interpreted somewhat different­ foundly dissimilar conditions, values and practices of
ly by museums, and ICOM recognises as members museums in diverse and rapidly changing societies.
also institutions which only partially or to varying Combining broad dialogue across the membership
degrees fulfil all the criteria or functions. with dedicated expert fora, the committee will ad-
Over the decades minor adjustments have been dress the ambiguous and often contradictory trends
made to this definition. In December 2018 the in society, and the subsequent new conditions, ob-
ICOM Executive Board has decided that it is time ligations and possibilities for museums, and advise
to develop an alternative definition which will be the Executive Board and Advisory Council on these
more relevant and appropriate for museums in issues.
the 21st century and future museum landscapes. Approaching the ICOM General Conference in 2019
It should be a definition which recognises the dis­ on the background of information gathered, new
similar conditions and practices of museums in di­ trends observed and documented, and discussions
verse and rapidly changing societies, and supports conducted through its various working groups, the
museums in developing and adopting new scientif­ committee will advise the Executive Board and the
ic paradigms and addressing more adequately the Advisory Council on museological and epistemo­
complexities of the 21st century. logical problem areas in the existing museum
The museum definition is a core document in definition.
ICOM’s relationships with partner organisations It will make recommendations regarding the poten-
and in the museum legislation of several coun­ tial gains as well as the complication in revising the
tries, and all deliberations of changing it must in­ definition, as a shared, international framework, to
clude carefully weighing and balancing the gains reflect and include more current conditions, poten-
of a revision against the complications of a change. tials and priorities for museums.
However, the costs of not revising should also be
considered, not least in the ways museums are per­ II. Working Methods for the MDPP
ceived to be bound by their allegiances to former A fundamental challenge for ICOM, as for other
centuries. organisations aiming for a global presence, is to
Following exploratory work by a Working Group of counter the systemic European and Western domi­
around 25 ICOM members during 2015 and 2016, nance in the development of its strategies and pol­
in 2017 a new Standing Committee, the Museum icies, and to create and ensure a real global repre­
Definition, Prospects and Potentials committee sentation and participation in its central strategic
(MDPP) was appointed by the Executive Board processes.
of ICOM. No clear consensus had emerged in the A discussion of the definition of museums inevi­
working group as to whether the definition should tably involves a set of assumptions and projections
remain as is, change in limited ways, or change rad­ about the future of museums and of museums in
ically, in substance. But the initial discussions, sup­ different and rapidly changing societies. To ade­
plemented by a survey which did a word to word, quately reflect not just the shared, but also the pro­
phrase by phrase analysis, illuminated core chal­ found differences in the conditions and the pur­
lenges in the current definition. The MDPP has poses of museums, important discussions must, in
included these analyses, as well as the extensive basic ways, reflect the breadth of the ICOM mem­
debates around a new museum definition during ber countries.
2003-2004 in its work. That there should be or could be a shared defini­
The MDPP differs categorically from these previous tion for museums across the world can in no way
discussions of the museum definition in ICOM, in be taken for granted, desirable as it may be from
its formal dual mandate, on one level to document a professional point of view. Universalising can
and analyse prevalent societal trends and how these serve to hide and obfuscate differences, as also the
impact museums, how museums anticipate them, recent ICOFOM conferences on the museum defi­
resist them, and adapt to them, and, on another nition have accentuated, and, if at all possible, any
level, on this background to make recommenda­ attempts at universalism must be carefully negoti­
tions to the Executive Board and Advisory Council ated or earned.
of ICOM about the potential needs for a revision of
the current definition.

MUSEUM international | 3

At the centre of the MDPP committee is a core The MDPP has approached the subject of the mu­
coordinating group, with representation from all seum definition from the outside in. Attempting to
continents, which sets the direction for and coor­ sidestep the given mould, there has been less focus
dinates the work in the Committee, and around on critiquing and revising words or paragraphs in
which circle a series of thematic working groups, the current definition, and more on historicising
with different content and somewhat different ap­ and contextualising it, on denaturalising and de­
proaches, but all attempting a global participation. colonising it, and on anchoring the discussion of
Jette Sandahl chairs the committee museums and the futures of museums in a larger
framework of general societal trends and issues of
Richard West leads the theme of ‘changing
the 21st century.
epistemologies, world views and museum
The MDPP reports and gives its recommendations
to the ICOM Executive Board in December 2018,
Margaret Anderson leads the theme of ‘cultural in time for involving and engaging the membership
democracy and cultural participation’ in preparing proposals for a revision or new defini­
Kenson Kwok leads the theme of ‘new trends in tion for Kyoto 2019.
museum partnerships, ownership and governance’ Whatever the final result of this process will be, re­
George Abungu leads the theme of ‘geopolitics, assessing the museum definition has proven to be
migration and decolonisation’ an important occasion to re-examine the core val­
ues, the priorities and actual practices of the sector
David Fleming leads a theme of ‘global trends’
and see whether, how or to what extent they align.
Lauran Bonilla-Merchav leads the area of
the roundtables on challenges for societies III. Values and Purposes
and for museums A definition of museums should be clear and easy
Francois Mairesse bridges to the discussion to understand, and should convey the spirit, the es­
in ICOFOM on the museum definition sence, the overall purposes of museums, as well as
Alberto Garlandini has participated from the values from which they operate.
the ICOM Executive Board A definition obviously cannot name and list all as­
pects of the wide and complex field of museums.
Afşin Altayli participates from the ICOM However, it should be kept in mind that ­absences­in
Secretariat core areas and on core subject matters in the defi­
nition, will leave these voids to be filled with the
The core group of the MDPP met in Paris in June values of the status quo and the powers-that-be.
2017 and June 2018, although not in full. None of Identifying and locating what is silent in the cur­
the working groups have had the opportunity to rent definition and assessing the impact of this si­
meet in person, but they have communicated and lence are part of the preparation for a revision, as
functioned digitally only. Around 50 people have are uncovering and interpreting the values embed­
been involved in close consultations. ded in or behind the choice of words.
The MDPP has presented its work and timelines As an organisational tool, for ICOM, its partners
to the Executive Board in December 2016, in June and for museums, the ICOM museum definition is
2017 and June 2018, and to the Advisory Council inevitably both descriptive and prescriptive.
in June 2017 and June 2018 as well as in a number The museum definition delineates the purposes,
of national and international committees. Through responsibilities and functions of museums—the
the roundtables conducted by the MDPP, an ad­ ‘why’ and ‘what’ of museums—and is supplement­
ditional estimated 850 ICOM members and other ed and supported by the ICOM Code of Ethics in
museum professionals from across the world have a description of the standards under which these
been involved in the discussions of the commit­ responsibilities should be carried out—the ‘how’ of
tee. The ICOFOM conferences on the museum museums.
definition have drawn close to 1,000 participants, The current definition contains different, and un­
also spanning different continents. There is clear­ mediated, levels of purposes: museums should be
ly a great interest among ICOM members and in ‘in the service of society and its development’, and
the ICOM committees in discussing new societal fulfil its specific functions ‘for the purposes of edu-
trends and challenges, the future of museums and cation, study and enjoyment’.
the definition of museums.

4 | MUSEUM international
While in 1974 the immensely significant insertion Furthermore, also absent from the definition is
of ‘in service of society and its development’ was con­ any reference to the accountability of museums to­
tentious and considered an inappropriate politisa­ wards the societies and the communities, which
tion of the purpose of museums by sections of the they serve, and to the means by which societal
museum community, at the current point of time needs are reflected in museum strategies and poli­
there is a need for a critical appraisal of the lack of cies, in core museum functions of research, collect­
specificity and the almost naive singularity of the ing, preservation and exhibition.
term ‘society’ as well as of the questionable ambi­ Museums are not freestanding, sovereign, unfet­
guity of the term ‘development’. tered institutions, but are shaped by and deep­
While the intended content of the phrase remains ly embedded in multiple economic and political
essential for current museum analysis and policy intentions, in nation-building and the shaping of
development, its openness signals an easy homo­ national identities, in regional and municipal re­
geneity, harmony and stability within and between vitalisation, regeneration, urban renewal—and
the two terms ‘museum’ and ‘society’. Societies, of course, these days, significantly in the tourism
however, are ever changing, conflicted and con­ market. There needs to be much more extensive ac­
tested contexts within which museums live and act, countability and transparency than the simple term
and which need to be explored in dynamic terms, ‘non-profit’, to clarify how museums address their
to understand the diverse and contradictory devel­ purpose, define and adhere to their principles, and
opmental trends. acquire and use the material, financial, social and
The ICOM museum definition and the Code of intellectual resources at their disposal.
Ethics offer scant support for museums in under­ When asked, in the roundtables of the MDPP about
standing or defining their ethical, social or political the most important contributions museums could
place in relation to their close communities or the make to society, the responses by museum profes­
world at large, leaving individual museums to seek sionals, while containing the purposes and func­
guidance outside the museum field, in other ­global tions of the current museum definition, went way
organisations and documents like the Universal beyond those into a strong and impassioned com­
Declaration of Human Rights and UNESCO’s mitment to the broader and deeper, social and hu­
Universal Declaration on Cultural Diversity to manitarian potential of museums. These included
embed the museum in a clear set of values and sys­ bringing people together in purposeful convening,
tem of ethical accountability. to exchange ideas, to create a sense of belonging
Through ICOM’s relationship with UNESCO, and and identity, to build empathy, understanding and
documents like the UNESCO Recommendation sensitivity towards differences, to promote reflec­
concerning the Protection and Promotion of tion and critical thinking, and to create spaces for
Museums and Collections, their Diversity and their reconciliation. To improve quality of life. Improve
Role in Society, ICOM is included in a world view health.
and values of justice, liberty and peace, of solidari­ It seems essential that a museum definition should
ty, social integration and cohesion, sustainable de­ contain this commitment as an overarching frame
velopment—reflecting, as it is, major concerns and of values and purpose.
priorities of the present time.
It seems, however, untenable in a contemporary
and future context for ICOM to uphold this ethical
vacuum or void in its own definition of museums.
While ICOM has, for decades, assumed a position
of advocacy around museum collections, historic
monuments and even cultural landscapes, there
seems to be a need for a framework of value-based
advocacy or activist positions relative to people, to
human rights and social justice, as well as to nature
as the—increasingly threatened—source of life.

MUSEUM international | 5

IV. Global Trends and their Reflection As each year there are palpable increases in, for in­
in Museums stance, the extinction of species and the permanent
Museums grow and multiply, significantly, across disappearance of arable soil, in the inequalities in
the world. Current trends and changes in so­cieties­ class-based life expectancies and in the millions of
directly and indirectly impact, frame and affect people displaced by conflicts and wars, for muse­
museums and museum work. In adapting to the ums to claim neutrality in relation to urgent soci­
new conditions and new possibilities museums etal issues is increasingly perceived, by both mu­
stretch, bend and reinvent the known institutional seum professionals themselves and by the wider
formats of what a museum is thought to be. If the society, as an abnegation of societal responsibili­
concept of ‘permanence’ is relevant in a museum ties. It is not a question of whether, but rather a
definition, it should be in relation to the life of col­ question of which values and which world views
lections as such, rather than to the specific institu­ museums reflect or represent, and how transparent
tional or orga­nisational forms around them which they are about acknowledging them.
are continuously changing. While there are obviously places in the world, where
Societal changes are complex, contradictory and actively addressing contentious issues is high­
uneven. However, major global surveys and ana­ ly risky for a museum, in other parts of the world
lytical forecasts seem to point to some pressing is­ the dangers of being too outspoken should be mea­
sues and vital concerns facing the world today and sured and balanced against the dangers of  muse­
in the near future, which, with some regional and ums being perceived as irrelevant, by their commu­
other demographic variations, are broadly shared nities as well as by their funding authorities.
across the world. These include climate change and The disconnect, the hesitancy and reticence with
the destruction of nature, inequality, lack of eco­ which museums stay away from societal conflicts,
nomic opportunities, migration, discrimination, contentious content and contemporary dilemmas,
large scale conflicts and wars, government trans­ even when these relate closely to their defining
parency and accountability. subject matter, seem rooted both in the epistemo­
Observing societal trends like these can provide logical traditions and the historic positions muse­
useful tools for navigating and charting the poten­ ums have held within the power structures of their
tial relevance for the sector, for organisations like societies.
ICOM as well as for individual museums.
Museum professionals in the MDPP roundtables V. Epistemologies, World Views
voiced very similar concerns to those of respon­ and Museum Typologies
dents to global surveys. They also identified some Intuitively, the word ‘museum’ is easily understood
of the challenges, which these issues pose to muse­ in its manifold complexity, with a stable core con­
ums, and which underline the importance of de­ cept of a collection, of objects bearing information
veloping more inclusive methods, open to the in­ and transmitting emotions, memory and knowl­
volvement and participation of communities, and edge to those who view, contemplate and connect
addressing themes of inequality and human rights, with them.
globalisation and migration, climate change. But it takes little unpacking or scratching beneath
While new museums, specialist museums and mu­ the surface of the museum definition for the scien­
seum-like initiatives are created specifically to ad­ tific, social and political roots in the value systems
dress some of the contentious issues of ethnicity, and systems of thought of the 18th, 19th and 20th
human rights, gender, sustainability or even the centuries to emerge.
future, in response to expressed societal, govern­
mental and community needs, there remains a gap
between these core concerns and the themes dom­
inating the research, the collecting, the exhibitions
and events in traditional, mainstream museums.

6 | MUSEUM international
From the logics of the earliest, private Wunder- Knowledge is, to an important extent, situated.
and Kunstkammers through the development and Increasingly museums come to realise, often under
consolidation of the binary hierarchies of Western pressure from people whose points of view and ex­
rationalism, museums represent tangible evidence periences are underrepresented, that the demo­
of how societies in different historical periods or­ graphic composition of staff impact the kind of
ganise their knowledge and the principles behind knowledge and perspectives the museum can cre­
this knowledge. Gradually, over the centuries, mu­ ate, and its ability—or inability—to meet the dif­
seums have been shaped by the splitting of culture ferent, and often conflicted, gender, class, ethnic,
and nature, of art and culture, of art and ethnogra­ or racial perspectives of its communities. A major
phy, of history and technology and art, into discrete shift in the 20th century was the recognition, not
departments in larger museums, and into the for­ least in countries with strong indigenous voices, of
mation of scores of new, single-disciplinary muse­ the needs and rights of a primary setting to inter­
ums in the late 19th century. pret its culture and objects.
As the detrimental, long-term, in some cases irre­ A museum definition should speak from a po­
versible, consequences of the so-called scientific sition of respect for this basic principle of
revolution and interventionist philosophies of na­ self-representation.
ture become increasingly tangible in the 21st cen­ Throughout the history of museums, their unique
tury, the problematic character of the 20th centu­ and defining quality lies in uniting functions and
ry language of ‘humanity and its environment’ of dimensions, which are most often split in institu­
the museum definition—as is the case with ‘in the tional settings—in bringing together research and
service of society and its development’—is equally ideas with material evidence and culture, ideas
manifest. with physical Gestaltung, scientific knowledge pro­
The isolation and elevation of humans from the rest duction with the general public, documentation
of nature and the corresponding reduction of na­ with communication.
ture to being part of humanity’s environment, in The fundamental and inbuilt educational and social
the current museum definition, leave no concep­ purpose of museums is well documented through
tual or principal place for the important natural museum history. The relationship between collec­
history museums collections. And conversely, cul­ tions and people is the constituent one, when col­
tural history collections are divorced from respon­ lections make the leap from private passion to pub­
sibilities relative to nature. The museum definition lic museum.
thus provides no ethical or intellectual guidance or It seems essential, at a time of reassessing the basic
support for museums trying to address the multi­ definition of museums and at a time when the sec­
pronged current crises in the bifurcated relation­ tor is often restructured, to never lose sight of or let
ship of humans in nature, and for museums trying go of this fundamental unity and interconnectivity
to contribute to a critical exploration of sustainabil­ of the various functions of a museum, the ‘acquires,
ity with the level of authority, the collections could conserves, researches, communicates and exhibits’ of
actually merit. the museum definition—even if the language for
New museums, often driven by strong indigenous and around the functions may need to be updated.
presences, in particularly the Americas, the Pacific These functions and their integrated whole remain
and now also the African continent, are develop­ principally and categorically essential for the mu­
ing inter-, trans-, and multidisciplinary, holistic seum field and for a museum definition.
approaches and methods, and embracing world However, how these basic museum functions enter
views, cosmologies and epistemologies, which into a closer, more accountable relationship with
understand and interpret objects and collections the general public, with communities and stake­
within a framework of a fundamental connectivity holders represents a new challenge, as the expecta­
and interrelatedness of all things, all beings. These tions towards cultural participation take hold and
paradigms provide powerful alternatives for muse­ spread in the 21st century.
ums, when they, faced with the complexities of the
21st century, re-examine their lockdown in the sin­
gle disciplinary methods and approaches.
A museum definition should be rooted in a plurali­
ty of world views and systems of knowledge, rather
than in a single, Western scientific tradition.

MUSEUM international | 7

VI. Power, Ethics and Cultural Rights The absent thematisation, in the museum defi­
The global geopolitical context, conflicts and bal­ nition, of the asymmetries of power and wealth
ances of the 21st century differ categorically from leaves museums without an ethical framework
the centuries in which the museum as a paradigm within which to explore and expand the unique
and institutional model was formed. They also vary potential—and obligations—of museums relative
greatly from the 20th century in which the ICOM to current societal issues of mass displacement and
museum definition was developed. migration. As a global professional organisation
Museums as institutions were shaped at the inter­ ICOM needs to provide points of reference, which
section of a spirited quest for knowledge and new can name, contain and provide guidance in the
scientific paradigms with the extreme violence em­ conflicts between what is currently often called the
ployed by European powers in the colonisation of Global South and Global North, and make ‘decolo­
the Americas, in the enslavement of populations nisation’, in the widest sense of the word, a mutual
in Africa, in religious persecutions and expulsions and shared need and commitment.
within Europe. They were also shaped within and Likewise, a definition of museums needs to recog­
at the time of a paradigm which defined rights nise the general, national and local issues of priv­
through ownership, thus denying the full human­ ilege and inequality, which mar most or all coun­
ity of large populations, globally and locally, and tries and cultures, and be sensitive and open to the
excluding them from citizenship. emergence of new museum paradigms which do
Absent, however, from the current museum defi­ not mirror the traditional mould.
nition is any reference to colonial or other legacies Museums try, some would even claim that they
of power and wealth, which have been constitutive do their best, to direct their resources towards the
for the principles of how Western museum collec­ needs of the people they serve. However, even the
tions were formed, with ethnographic collections most basic audience research will show the uneven
shaped through the notion of hierarchies of civili­ pattern of museum audiences, least pronounced in
sation and (racial) inferiority, and national collec­ natural history museums, most pronounced in con­
tion shaped through the hierarchies of property temporary art museums. Museums tend to serve
and wealth, class, ethnicity and gender. the well-educated audiences far more than other
The museum definition thus, again, leaves an ethi­ demographic groups. And this does not begin to
cal vacuum as the legitimacy of the amassing of cul­ address the questions of how privilege manifests it­
tural property from other continents in European self behind the scenes of museums, in the prioritis­
museums is persistently and more widely inter­ ing of themes, methods, content, or in recruitment
rogated in a contemporary geopolitical context, and governance.
and as museums on all continents engage in the The high visitor figures in museums are put in per­
fraught, political, intellectual and emotional pro­ spective by this skewed composition towards priv­
cesses of decolonisation, be it in terms of processes ilege, and by the failure to provide equal and real
of repatriation, of recontextualising collections, of access for all, even in countries where legislation,
developing methods of cooperation and consulta­ a broad political will and public funding support
tions, or in ensuring the diversity of staff and in this. Taking a commitment to equal rights to cul­
governance. ture seriously, transcending the economic, social
Critiquing and protesting the way museums, mon­ and cultural barriers of power and privilege and
uments and sites perpetuate traditions of power is bridging the sense of disconnect, requires more
not an attempt to rewrite history, but a demand, in than the mere being ‘open to the public’ of the cur­
the present time, to right historic wrongs. rent museum definition indicates. It requires a pro­
active engagement with and responsiveness to the
diverse needs of diverse constituents.

8 | MUSEUM international
VII. Cultural Democracies and Cultural A museum definition needs to recognise these par­
Participation adigmatic shifts towards a relational framework,
In the broadest meaning of the word, as the pos­ in a conceptual language of involvement, of mutu­
sibility for people, as individuals or collectives, to ality and reciprocity, exchange, equal partnership,
participate in the planning, steering, and governing outreach and inreach, cooperation, collaboration,
of their own lives, democracy is a concept of hope, shared responsibility, shared purposes and collec­
of aspiration, of striving, never complete, never tive authority.
fully realised. Democracy—if that word or concept will survive
The history and processes of democracy have al­ much longer in the 21st century—is ideally about
ways been defined as much through what and who empowerment of individuals and communities as
they exclude as by what and who they include. The well as about processes for peacefully negotiating
19th and 20th centuries saw fierce and successful and mediating differences and divergent points
struggles to expand who—in terms of class, gen­ of  view. The last quarter of the 20th century saw
der and race—was to be enfranchised and includ­ the  emergence of a new generation of museums
ed in  the processes of governing societies. The defining themselves as places, where a plurality of
21st century is marked by important expansions voices can speak, and where strangers can safely
in what is included—which areas of life are to be interact.
considered part of a political realm and included in In the MDPP roundtables the democratic func­
shared public decision making. At the same time, tions and purposes of museums were given a pri­
in the Global North and West, neo-liberalist eco­ mary importance. Creating museums, as they say.
nomic developments of the 21st century are nar­ as places for critical thought and pluralist views in
rowing and restricting the areas within which gov­ an increasingly polarised world, calls for methods
ernment and general society can actually exert real that strengthen community participation and ac­
control. cess to heritage for all citizens.
Formal representative democracy is increasingly While a language that transcends the binary hier­
supplemented by informal local processes to shape archy between the museum and its constituents,
and govern everyday quality of life, in neighbour­ communities or audiences is not readily at hand, a
hoods, at work, in places of education, in city de­ future museum definition must, inevitably, define,
velopment and planning. In museums, likewise, reflect and support these broad democratic pur­
the expectations for influence, participation and poses as an overarching framework for museums,
direct involvement are growing amongst constitu­ their purposes and functions as well as for their
ents. The ‘education, study and enjoyment’, which professions and governance.
is allocated to ‘the public’ in the current museum
definition, wants to blend into the active verbs of
‘acquires, conserves, researches, communicates and
exhibits’, which have been hitherto reserved for the
museum itself.
Learning is increasingly understood as active,
self-directing and self-selecting processes, in which
knowledge, aided also by digital technologies, is
discovered, developed, and constructed. Public ex­
pectations of participation, collaborative pro­cesses
and cocreation begin to reach behind the tradi­
tional public scenes of exhibitions, education and
events, into the back-of-house functions of collect­
ing, documentation, research and general policy
making. Across the world, museums are experi­
menting with expanding their realms and methods
to include and support new paradigms of public
participation, in a positive, productive tension be­
tween being both an expert institution and a com­
munity platform.

MUSEUM international | 9