Icom in turmoil after row over new definition of museums

The Art Newspaper 13 August 2020
By Vincent Noce

Wrangling over "ideological" text prompts resignations from International Council of Museums

The International Council of Museums (Icom) has been shaken by a series of resignations in the wake of the identity crisis that erupted last year at its conference in Kyoto. 

In September 2019, a bitter debate divided the organisation over a question that goes to the core of its existence: what is a museum? After four hours of heated arguments at Icom’s 25th triennial general conference in Kyoto, 70% of the delegates refused to vote on a new definition of the museum, choosing instead to postpone the debate indefinitely. The delay came as a blow to Icom’s Turkish president, Suay Aksoy, a driving force behind the project to draw up a new definition, and to the head of the committee that developed the text, the Danish curator Jette Sandahl.

Now, both Aksoy and Sandahl have resigned from their posts. In a letter sent to Icom’s executive board on 19 June, Aksoy resigned with immediate effect, citing a lack of support from the Paris-based secretariat. Two days later, the board elected an Italian successor, Alberto Garlandini, to chair the membership association of almost 45,000 museum professionals and institutions worldwide.

The new definition proposed in Kyoto was a 99-word statement presenting museums as “democratising, inclusive and polyphonic spaces for critical dialogue about the pasts and the futures”. The text defined museums as “participatory and transparent”, working “in active partnership with and for diverse communities” and “aiming to contribute to human dignity and social justice, global equality and planetary wellbeing”.

Multiple national Icom branches opposed the September vote, seeing the new definition as a fuzzy collection of political correctness and trendy posturing that would have little legal value. Some expressed alarm at the omission of words such as “education” or even “collection”, which they consider essential to a museum’s mission.

Following the conference, Aksoy entrusted a revision of the text to the same commission, with the addition of a few members including Juliette Raoul-Duval, the chair of Icom France, who was among the first to denounce an “ideological manifesto”. The commission was never able to meet. On 10 March, the French branch, supported by Icom Europe and Germany, invited all Icom representatives to a forum in Paris. Forty-one mostly European nations and international committees participated, but Sandahl refused to attend.

At the meeting, the chair of Icom Ireland, Hugh Maguire, expressed the general feeling that “no one disagrees with the inspiration and sentiments for democracy and participation” but the proposed text was “not a definition”, he says. The participants then requested an “absolutely transparent process” and more time for consultation. 

However, with Aksoy’s endorsement, Sandahl proposed a fresh vote on the definition in June 2021, which was rejected by the executive board. She subsequently quit the committee, followed by five of its members, two members of the executive board and Aksoy herself. 

One of the former committee members, the US curator Rick West, told the New York Times that the conflict reflects a fundamental debate over whether museums should be just “houses of collections and beautiful stops on the tourist trail” or engage with wider society. Meanwhile, African delegates of Icom have accused Europeans of resisting moves towards “decolonisation” and restitution.

Raoul-Duval agrees that Icom’s internal divisions go beyond a conceptual discussion. “The future of Icom is at stake,” she says. “Should we become a political tool, mostly led by scholars, or stay a professional association, guided by professional criteria?”

Alberto Garlandini, the new Icom president, tells The Art Newspaper that he wants “everyone to accept the diversity of opinion and put aside ideological positions”. He is confident he will be able to “create an atmosphere” that permits a vote on the new definition at the next general conference, planned in 2022 in Prague. Icom held its first virtual general assembly on 24 July “with 1,500 participants”, Garlandini notes, promising “more frequent strategic meetings” in future. “We are now looking forward to a new era in Icom’s history,” he says. 

Many think the rebooted definition should be broad enough to include all sorts of museums. For example, colleagues in authoritarian countries would not be able to uphold the organisation's statement of democracy and human rights, Maguire points out. He adds: “If after five centuries [of museums], we do not succeed in defining ourselves, it will be very difficult for the civil servants who distribute their subsidies to take us seriously.”
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