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Defining Museums: Five Essays by SEGD Members
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SEGD.com
Date
March 30, 2022
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This article was originally published on SEGD.org

What exactly is a museum? This is the question that the International Council of Museums (ICOM) is asking its 45,000 members. As a worldwide organization of museum professionals, ICOM plays an important role in supporting professional networks, establishing museum standards, promoting cultural heritage, and raising public awareness of museum missions.

Currently, ICOM is working to create a formal definition of “museum”—a highly controversial topic. The list of potential definitions has been narrowed to five, and a vote will determine the final definition.

The following five essays represent the opinions of SEGD members on the pros and cons of ICOM’s proposed definitions.

Jonathan Alger (Managing Partner, C&G Partners and SEGD Past President) discusses the history of ICOM’s attempts to define “museum” and looks at the differences between a “definition” (what museums are) and a “vision statement” (what museums aspire to be).

Aki Carpenter (Principal & Director of Social Projects, Ralph Appelbaum Associates and SEGD Board Member) suggests that museums are institutions dedicated to being socially responsive, as well as, platforms for elevating diverse human experiences through community dialogue and co-creation.

AJ Goehle (Principal & CEO, Luci Creative) contends that museums do more than “collect, conserve and interpret” objects, but also encourage visitors to move from passive observation to active participation through the experiences that exhibit designers and developers create.

Josh Goldblum (Founder & CEO, Bluecadet) points out that “not-for-profit” status is included in each of ICOM’s five proposed definitions and questions who museums are really beholden to: their donors or the public?

L’Rai Arthur Mensah (Project Director, Local Projects) sees museums as anchoring spaces that facilitate critical conversations and prime visitors to take action in some way, providing unique opportunities to foster meaningful and transformative conversation in diverse communities.

How do you, our SEGD members, define “museum”? Below are ICOM’s five proposed definitions followed by member essays. Give them a read and then let us know your opinions.

Proposal 1

A museum is an accessible, inclusive, not-for-profit institution. It inspires discovery, emotion, reflection, and critical thinking around tangible and intangible heritage. In the service of society, and in active partnership with diverse communities, museums research, collect, conserve, exhibit, educate and communicate. They operate professionally and ethically, promoting sustainability and equity.

Proposal 2

A museum is a permanent, not-for-profit institution, accessible to the public and of service to society. It collects, conserves, interprets and exhibits, tangible, intangible, cultural and natural heritage in a professional, ethical, and sustainable manner for research, education, reflection and enjoyment. It communicates in an inclusive, diversified, and participatory way with communities and the public.

Proposal 3

A museum is a not-for-profit, permanent institution in the service of society that researches, collects, conserves, exhibits, and communicates tangible and intangible heritage. Open to the public, it is accessible, inclusive, and fosters diversity and sustainability. The museum operates professionally, ethically and with the participation of communities, offering varied audience experiences for the purposes of education, enjoyment and the expansion of knowledge.

Proposal 4

A museum is an inclusive, not-for-profit institution, open to the public, which researches, collects, preserves, exhibits, and communicates tangible and intangible heritage, facilitating critical reflections on memory and identity. Museums are in the service of society, providing educational and knowledge sharing experiences. Driven by communities or shaped together with their audiences, museums can take a wide range of formats, fostering equal access, sustainability, and diversity.

Proposal 5

A museum is an open and accessible not-for-profit institution that collects, researches, preserves, exhibits and communicates the tangible and intangible heritage of people and the environment for the benefit of society. Museums are committed to ethical and sustainable practices and are operated in an inclusive and professional manner to create enjoyable and educational experiences that foster curiosity and discovery.
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Comment for SEGD on ICOM Museum Definition Project 2022
Jonathan Alger / C&G Partners
Hit Save

ICOM wrote a definition of “museum” in 2007 that is still in use. In 2019, a new one was proposed that became a third rail. The ICOM Board President and eight other Board members resigned. This 2022 effort hopes to make a fix. But it could make things worse I believe deeply in the underlying principles here. I also believe compromise would be better than failure.

Why care? ICOM isn’t that influential in the US. But in Europe, where it started, it is. Museums, like society, urgently need to change. But an abrupt change to a fundamental definition could cause serious consequences for museum funding and careers if not thought out. And let’s remember that if ICOM crumbled, museums could be left without a powerful force, right when they need it most.

You can find the 2007 version and the 2019 attempt online. What does 2022 offer? Here is Proposal 1 of 5, for example. I’ve underlined what makes it most different from the current standard.

A museum is an accessible, inclusive, not-for-profit institution. It inspires discovery, emotion, reflection, and critical thinking around tangible and intangible heritage. In the service of society, and in active partnership with diverse communities, museums research, collect, conserve, exhibit, educate and communicate. They operate professionally and ethically, promoting sustainability and equity.

(Oddly, Proposal 1 also removes words: environment, enjoyment, open to the public.)

As a designer, and a past SEGD Board President myself, I know a vision statement when I see one. That’s what this is, except for two things. They titled it “definition,” and they wrote “is” instead of “should strive to be.” Why is it not a definition? Because sadly, it isn’t universally true. Yet.

I wish it were otherwise. I work with museums every day to help them toward this future. But many museums are neither accessible nor inclusive yet, though they are trying. Nor are they yet in active partnership with diverse communities, although they want to be. Ditto with sustainability and equity. We’re not there yet. But we are trying.

I have a naïvely simple way to resolve this debate. Instead of trying to pointlessly rewrite the past, let’s all use those same words to commit urgently to a shared vision for the near future. Here’s how:

  1. Keep the 2007 definition.
  2. On the same page, make a new section right below called “Our Shared Future Vision.”
  3. Put the winning proposal there.
  4. Hit SAVE.

Then let’s get back to work, and make the world a better place for all. Together.

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ICOM — New Museum Definition
Aki Carpenter, Principal, Director of Social Projects, RAA

From our earliest projects, such as the US Holocaust Memorial Museum, to our more recent work, including the National Museum of African American History and Culture, Ralph Appelbaum Associates (RAA) has been dedicated to museum projects that seek to promote justice, equity, inclusivity, and accessibility in their institutional planning, as well as exhibition development, design, programming, and community engagement. We are keenly aware of the power of these institutions to remind us of our shared humanity.

Today, the renewed urgency for museums to be inclusive in their exhibition development and programming has pushed many established cultural institutions to reevaluate their mission, resources, staffing, and storytelling to transform how they engage with audiences at all levels. Similarly, new institutions are challenged to boldly assert their commitment to supporting justice, equity, community dialogue, and public education.

Fueled by both financial and ethical necessity, museum workers internationally are boldly proclaiming a critical role for museums in facilitating social inclusion, and their power as agents of change. —Lois H. Silverman from Museums, Society, Inequality, Chapter 5: “The therapeutic potential of museums as pathways to inclusion”

As exhibition designers, we are working at the intersection of history, culture, education, art, social justice, and architecture across our projects and see this essential shift in institutional positioning. Institutions that are dedicated to being socially responsive have the opportunity to illuminate and elevate diverse human experiences and provide a platform for community co-creation and dialogue. ICOM’s Proposal 4 clearly positions institutions in this critical role:

Proposal 4

A museum is an inclusive, not-for-profit institution, open to the public, which researches, collects, preserves, exhibits, and communicates tangible and intangible heritage, facilitating critical reflections on memory and identity. Museums are in the service of society, providing educational and knowledge sharing experiences. Driven by communities or shaped together with their audiences, museums can take a wide range of formats, fostering equal access, sustainability, and diversity.

We recognize that museums are a central nexus in their communities for engaging the past and connecting to contemporary social issues. As trusted and influential institutions, many museums are focusing their missions on highlighting profound questions of justice, equity, inclusivity, and power, all while striving to provide space for transformative discourse. By supporting social responsibility, civic engagement, and accessibility, particularly for under-resourced and/or marginalized communities, these museums are fostering positive and enduring change.

The museum field must realize that the problems of diversity confronting our institutions are too significant and so complex that the solutions lie in a collaborative and concerted effort that transcends the piecemeal and ad hoc approaches of the past. —Lonnie G. Bunch III, 14th Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution

The new definition of a museum must prioritize diverse perspectives, community engagement, and social responsibility, in balance with the inherent responsibility to research, collect, preserve, and teach. Only with this foundation can institutions ensure they are building meaningful programs and experiences that are relevant to their audiences and encourage critical engagement with complex issues, experiences, and cultures. This will position us all to explore difficult questions about our collective past and present and envision a more just and equitable future.

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ICOM Submission for SEGD
AJ Goehle, Luci Creative

Creating a definition that perfectly captures the meaning and purpose of a 21st century museum is no easy task. Today, we are seeing that the role of a museum continues to evolve based on location, audience, subject matter, community, and visitor-relevance or interest.

As a service provider to museums, and one which creates experiences that inspire discovery and activate connection, we actively focus on museums who ultimately serve their guests and future generations. In our project research, we see that visitors are looking to museums for safe and trusted shared-experiences. This goes well beyond the traditional definition of a museum.

Each of the proposed new ICOM museum definitions include some variation of the traditional definition “to collect, conserve, and interpret.” This is a common definition for museums that are created to interpret the tangible and intangible. But what about the content and stories beyond the artifacts? What about the thoughts, ideas, and conversations that these experiences encourage and spark? How does the museum’s mission live on with visitors beyond the museum’s walls?

Although a few of the proposals stretch this definition beyond literal objects/artifacts, they have only stretched it as far as “intangible heritage,” which keeps the focus on the oversight of the past rather than allowing museums to also convey the flourishing of ideas and the encouragement of contemporary discourse about our shared future. The stories we tell may be historical or reflective of the past, but they also inspire the future. The new museum is a place where people who visit are not like-minded. Rather, they come with different viewpoints and make use of the museum as a place to safely gather and share ideas about the past, ideas which shape who we are and where we are going. As exhibit developers, we look at the stories we are telling, and then look to the museum visitors, asking ourselves, “How do we create personal relevance for each individual visitor?” What are the personal connections and experiences that we are creating to help the 21st century museum visitor connect and find sustainable meaning?

We often remind ourselves that museums are centers for community, not community centers. They are resources—dedicated spaces to our “intangible heritage”—but they are  also places to explore our “intangible future.”

It’s this new opportunity—and responsibility—of 21st century museums to help shape the future by preserving, researching, and interpreting our world, helping visitors imagine what is possible. Museums can democratize access to information and provide more ways of inspiring a more worldly view. Through the experiences we create, opportunities are presented for our visitors to find uniquely personal connections, which encourage them to move from passive observers to active participants in their own journey.

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ICOM Definition for SEGD
Josh Goldblum, Bluecadet

It concerns me that in each definition proposed by ICOM, museums are defined by their “not-for-profit” tax status. While being “not-for-profit” sounds great in theory, in my experience this makes museums beholden to philanthropy. Museum customers are often the ultra-wealthy, foundations or the government, rather than those who directly engage with and benefit from museum content and experiences—the greater public.

It seems to me that businesses tend to serve their customers one way or another. Considering that on average museums take in only 6% of their revenue from ticket sales, it’s hard to make a case that the public is central to the financial health of the institution. Therefore, when the institution depends financially on donors more than the public for survival, the donor becomes the customer. Even in cases where the donors are not intrusive, failing to orient around the end user for product decisions can leave a vacuum allowing curators and museum leadership (often with the best of intentions) to step-in and make product decisions that would be better served by testing against the end user / visitor / customer.

Museums are competing for the time and attention of their visitors. They are not merely competing against other institutions; they are competing with any other business or organization that offers to entertain, educate or distract. This is a brutal competitive landscape, and museums, in order to survive and thrive, need to be highly attuned to the needs of their audience. Boxing in museums as non-profit spaces confuses who their audiences are and limits what they can be and who they can serve.

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ICOM “Museum Definition”
L’Rai Arthur Mensah, Local Projects

Proposal 4

A museum is an inclusive, not-for-profit institution, open to the public, which researches, collects, preserves, exhibits, and communicates tangible and intangible heritage, facilitating critical reflections on memory and identity. Museums are in the service of society, providing educational and knowledge sharing experiences. Driven by communities or shaped together with their audiences, museums can take a wide range of formats, fostering equal access, sustainability, and diversity.

Each of the proposals put forth capture the basic and fundamental role of a museum. However, the nuances captured in Proposal 4 on the facilitation of critical reflections most closely relates to my own thinking and philosophy of what a modern museum can and should do. I see museums as anchoring spaces that facilitate critical conversations and prime visitors to take action in some way.

My personal experience in exhibition design is related to taking social impact-related subject matter and crafting an experience for the visitor that educates, provides context, and hopefully inspires action. While not all museum spaces tackle such subject matter, inspiring action can be as simple as providing a space for a visitor to disconnect and immerse themselves in beauty as an act of self-care and rest, or as complex as providing tools and context for visitors to have conversations that progress ideas of racial reckoning and reconciliation (whatever that may mean to them).

Repositioning museums as spaces for the facilitation of conversation, as well as spaces for action, reframes the obligation museum professionals have in contextualizing exhibitions or experiences with a more critical eye towards the use of language. We can all agree that language is important – the way in which language is used to clarify and aid truth-telling is critical as we rethink how content in museum spaces is communicated.

It is my opinion that the museum has a unique opportunity to set an example to foster meaningful and transformative conversation such that it impacts the community in which it sits and beyond.