ICOM in a blizzard: chain resignations, rift threatens over new museum definition

ICOM is in a blizzard: rocked by a series of chain resignations, the leading museum body is in danger of splitting over the definition of 'museum'.

It is blizzard withinICOM - International Council of Museums, the main body representing museums worldwide. It came as a bolt out of the blue last June 21 with the resignation of the president, Turkey’s Suay Aksoy, so much so that ICOM immediately had to find a replacement, Italy’s Alberto Garlandini, who became the new president two days ago. The reasons for the resignation are not officially known as they were handed over to ICOM’s executive council but have not been made public: however, it is assumed that the reasons lie in the debate that has arisen around the new definition of "museum."

Indeed, in addition to Suay Aksoy’s, there have been many other resignations, beginning with those of Jette Sandahl, chair of the Standing Committee on Museum Definition, Prospects and Potentials, and five members of the same committee (George Abungu, Afsin Altayli, Margaret Anderson, Luc Eekhout and Rick West). Not only that: also resigning were Léontine Meijer van Mensche Hilda Abreu de Utermohlen, both members of the executive committee.

The discussion around the new definition of “museum” is said to have split ICOM in two, between those who would like to see the current definition changed to the new proposal discussed at last year’s Extraordinary General Assembly in Kyoto, and those who do not think it is suitable. The debate began last summer. The new definition proposed by the committee formerly chaired by Jette Sandahl identified museums as “democratized, inclusive and polyphonic spaces for critical dialogue about pasts and futures,” which “preserve artifacts and specimens in safekeeping for society, safeguard diverse memories for future generations, and ensure equal rights and equal access to heritage for all people.” In addition, the new proposal defines museums as “participatory and transparent, and working in active collaboration with and for diverse communities to collect, preserve, research, interpret, exhibit and enhance understanding of the world, aiming to contribute to human dignity and social justice, global equality and planetary well-being.” Here, however, is the current definition, approved at the twenty-second General Assembly of ICOM held on August 24, 2007, in Vienna: “A museum is a permanent, nonprofit institution, serving society, and its development, open to the public, which researches the tangible and intangible evidence of man and his environment, acquires, preserves, and communicates and specifically exhibits it for purposes of study, education, and enjoyment.”

Many national committees rejected the new proposal, starting with the Italian one then chaired by Tiziana Maffei, now director of the Reggia di Caserta, which said the new definition was “inadequate to define the museum, which historically has played the role of an institution dedicated to the acquisition, preservation, documentation, research, communication and display of heritage objects, which are not only material and movable objects, but should be considered as testimonies of humanity and its environment.” ICOM Italy then considered the new definition to be neither clear, nor brief, nor applicable to all cultural contexts. Criticism also came on the method: many complained that the position of Jette Sandahl’s committee was very rigid and that there was not enough discussion within the body, and that the new definition was presented to the Extraordinary General Assembly without proper debate.

Now, after the flurry of resignations, new president Alberto Garlandini will have a very difficult task: that of mediating between the various positions to avoid splits. ICOM Italy president Adele Maresca Compagna, reached by AgCult agency, thinks so: “the presidency of Alberto Garlandini, a balanced and experienced figure,” she said, “will succeed in recomposing the harmony necessary to solve organizational problems and identify widely shared strategies.” Maresca Compagna said that, after the Kyoto assembly, the executive committee had decided to expand the Standing Committee on Museum Definition, Prospects and Potentials by having it include representatives of regional alliances, national committees and international committees, including the Museology Committee: the move was intended to soften positions and reach a turning point, but it seems to have served little purpose. Hence the chain of resignations in recent days.

This may not have been the best time to arrive at a situation of open conflict, given that at this stage many museums around the world are struggling with the difficulties caused by the Covid-19 coronavirus pandemic, but, Maresca Compagna concludes, it was also not possible to “prolong a situation of conflict and stalemate within the governing bodies”: now it is hoped, therefore, that Garlandini will be able to mend the rifts.

ICOM in a blizzard: chain resignations, rift threatens over new museum definition
ICOM in a blizzard: chain resignations, rift threatens over new museum definition

Warning: the translation into English of the original Italian article was created using automatic tools. We undertake to review all articles, but we do not guarantee the total absence of inaccuracies in the translation due to the program. You can find the original by clicking on the ITA button. If you find any mistake,please contact us.