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Tonya Nelson, ICOM UK Chair’s Report: ICOM Kyoto 2019

I am just back from Kyoto.  What an amazing experience!  Despite the heat and humidity, the energy of the 3,000+ attendees was high, which stimulated great debate, discussion and reflection about the future of museums.  There were over 50 panels, workshops and events over 7 days – too much for me to summarise here — but I wanted to take the time to report back on three big conference themes:

New Museum Definition.

After six weeks of intense discussion about the proposed new definition (published on 25 July 2019), several sessions at the conference were devoted to the topic.  The Museum Definition, Prospects and Potentials (MDPP) Standing Committee led by Jette Sandahl and including David Fleming, former Director of National Museums Liverpool, presented the principles that underpin the proposed definition and the process used to draft it.

Two items of note: The MDPP intended for the definition to combine a description of what museums ‘do’ – collect, preserve, exhibit – and their purpose – ‘contribute to human dignity and social justice…’.  The MDPP also stated that they attempted to combine and balance the museum function and purpose phrasing to ensure each got equal weight.

There were several sessions devoted to discussion and debate amongst the ICOM membership.  The main arguments against the adoption of the proposed definition were: (1) sounds more like a vision or mission statement than a definition; (2) absence words such as ‘education’ ‘intangible’ and ‘permanent institutions’; (3) inclusion of words such as ‘not for profit’ and ‘polyphonic’; (4) content of text is too political; (5) content is overly broad, potentially encompassing organisations that are outside intended scope; and (6) awkward phrasing.  Overall, however, there seemed to be a consensus that the existing definition needs to change and general support for the spirit and intent behind the proposed new definition.

There were some pragmatic reasons put forth for voting against the definition.  A number of Committees stated they simply did not have sufficient time to consult with stakeholders prior to the Triennial.  This is particularly important for countries in which the ICOM definition is embedded in national legislation that guides eligibility for accreditation and government funding.  Representatives from these countries expressed great concern about how the new definition would be received by policymakers and the impact it would have on their museums.

I want to emphasise, however, that there were many Committees that expressed support for the adoption of the definition as written.  They see the definition as making clear the connection between museums and the wider world and, as a result, the relevance and importance of museums.  For museums in emerging economies, the new definition encompasses non-Western operating models and thus serves as an important validation of their efforts.

During the Extraordinary General Assembly on 7 September in which Committees were to vote yes or no to adopting the new definition, the option of postponing the vote was raised and approved.  Hence, the conversation will continue. 

In the coming weeks, ICOM UK will develop a process for further discussion of the proposed definition and will communicate the memberships’ views and any amendments to the proposed definition to the ICOM secretariat.  I want to thank all ICOM UK members again for the time and attention they’ve given to this matter thus far.


Decolonisation and Restitution.

I was pleased with the discussion and debate that took place during the 3-hour panel session I co-chaired on Monday 2 September.  The session had representatives from North and South America, Africa, Australia, Europe and Asia speaking about best practice in these areas.  I have written a piece for The Art Newspaper which highlights the key takeaways from the session.  I am pleased that ICOM Executive Council member Terry Nyambe from Zambia will be taking forward learning from this session to design and deliver roundtables on the subject in spring 2020.  A number of members have asked that a working group be established to take forward recommended actions.  I am also pleased to report that National Geographic will be dedicating an entire issue to the topic of restitution and will include insights from this session in its article.


Resolution on Sustainability.

I am pleased to report that the ICOM membership has approved the recommendation of ICOM UK and ICOM Norway to approve the resolution ‘On Sustainability and the implementation of Agenda 2030, Transforming the World.”  The resolution is the outcome of the work conducted by the working group on sustainability, which includes ICOM UK member Henry McGhie. The Resolution states:

Considering humanity’s current demands on the planet are unsustainable; the planet and all its inhabitants, human and non-human are facing an entangled series of unprecedented environmental and societal crises, the impacts of which: rising inequality, wars, poverty, climate change and loss of biodiversity, are serving to amplify these crises.

Recognising the members of the United Nations have unanimously agreed to implement Agenda 2030, Transforming our World, to address the crises and to initiate the creation of pathways to a sustainable future.

Understanding that museums, as trusted sources of knowledge, are invaluable resources for engaging communities and are ideally positioned to empower the global society to collectively imagine, design and create a sustainable future for all, we recommend that ICOM, its Committees, Alliances, Affiliated Organisations and Secretariat:

  • recognise that all museums have a role to play in shaping and creating a sustainable future through our various programmes, partnerships and operations;
  • endorse the urgent call by ICOM’s Working Group on Sustainability for museums to respond through rethinking and recasting their values, missions, and strategies;
  • become familiar with, and assist in all ways possible, the goals and targets of the UN Sustainable Development Goals and use the Agenda 2030, Transforming Our World as the guiding framework to incorporate sustainability into our own internal and external practices and educational programming; and
  • empower ourselves, our visitors and our communities through making positive contributions to achieving the goals of Agenda 2030, Transforming Our World; acknowledging and reducing our environmental impact, including our carbon footprint, and helping secure a sustainable future for all inhabitants of the planet: human and non-human.

There is much more to share – I invite anyone who attended an event or session that they would like our members to know about, to consider writing a piece for our website and weekly newsletter.

The next Triennial will be in Prague in 2022 and I invite all of you to think about attending. The opportunity to build new relationships, share insights and experience new cultures cannot be beat.

Tonya Nelson

Chair, ICOM UK