ICOM UK Secretary Catherine McDermott reflects on her first ICOM Triennial General Conference

With over 4000+ delegates Kyoto 2019 was the biggest ICOM conference yet and even the day tickets were sold out.   For ICOM UK members, like me, who have never attended the Triennial General conference it is a complex and concentrated programme, opened with great ceremony by leading Japanese politicians and the Crown Prince and Princess of Japan and Noh theatre performances.

The conference delivered different strands, opening and closing with key ICOM business such as annual reports, voting on committee members and, more contentiously, on the proposed new museum definition.  The programme also included an impressive series of keynote speakers, such as the legendary Japanese architect Kengo Kuma, museum visits and last, but not least, ICOM’s specialist subject committee programmes.   Every evening there was a conference reception in Kyoto’s iconic institutions, ranging from the 1679 Nijo Castle to the National Museum.

But first, my travel to Kyoto took in a Tokyo stopover and a visit to The National Museum of Western Art’s collection of 2000 Western artworks bought by the shipping magnate, Kojiro Matsukata (1866-1950).  Most of the collection was bought in the late 19th century giving Japan an early awareness of European art. Then, using the famous bullet train it was onto Kyoto.

Day 1.  ICOM reports are posted online but the headlines that caught my attention included:  ICOM’s 10% global membership rise to 44,680;  Aedin MacDevitt, Head of Publications’ announcement of a new publishing partnership with Routledge and Sophie Delepierre, Head of Capacity Building announcement of new partnerships with several African countries and China.

Day 2.  Formalities over, a packed main hall, saw our ICOM UK Chair, Tonya Nelson’s Decolonisation session.  My takeaway was the Georgia Museum of Art’s Director, William Eiland who pulled no punches around the need for clearer definitions of the word decolonization with ICOM the place to lead on this.

Day 3. It would be fair to say the conference was dominated by different views on the proposed new museum definition and the first workshop on the proposal showed the serious country, even continent, divisions.  Later, UK attendees, via our popular conference Whatsapp group called for further discussion facilitated by ICOM UK.  Watch out for an update on this posted on the website.   The next session on mentoring raised the point that there were individual initiatives but ICOM UK might explore mentoring more formally with our membership.  The day ended with a reception at Nijo Castle with temperatures in the high 30s and the heat, and the humidity, were a conference challenge for everyone.

Day 4.  Kyoto saw a wide representation of African member countries whose members raised the need to increase capacity against the practical difficulty of collecting membership fees (Category 4).  Delegates from Namibia pointed out that bank charges could be more than membership dues, all of which meant limited, or no, operational funds.  Anecdotally, disappointment was also expressed at the withdrawal of Alexandria as the venue for the ICOM 2022 conference, which would have been the first ICOM conference on the African continent.  Prague will be the 2022 Triennial Conference venue.

A different topic was taken up in the offsite ICOM MPR (marketing and public relations) committee session:  Why has New York’s MET museum changed its 50-year policy of voluntary contributions?  Free now for local residents with international visitors charged a $25 entrance ticket.  The ‘London’ model idea of free collection visits and paid exhibitions was felt not to reflect the ethos of the Met.

Day 5.  FIHRM (Federation of Human Rights Museums) offsite conference, organised by Laura Pye’s team at National Museums Liverpool, reflected one of the most serious issues at the conference, museums, human and climate change.  David Fleming talked about organisations that no longer invest in non-renewables and suggested museum sponsorship might reflect on this, citing the British Museum’s relationship with BP as an example to consider.  ICOM UK will be proposing its response to sustainability over the coming months.

Day 6 saw 4,000 delegates chose an off-site tour.  I chose Kameoka, developed as a castle town and craft centre and a tourist outing for over 100 years.  Accessed by a single-track train up the mountain and a return boat trip down the rapids of the Hozu River, it was a day to remember.




Day 7 saw the last and final day dominated by the long voting process on the proposed museum definition. There was no consensus on the definition and the vote was for postponement.  I don’t think anyone could have said it was ICOM’s finest hour and perhaps a moment to remember that in 1946, when ICOM was founded, it was in the post-war spirit of collaboration and sharing cultures.



The closing party was hosted by the Kyoto National Museum and a final chance to enjoy the privilege of being with 4,000 international museum professionals from Burkino Faso to Vietnam.  It was quite a week!