“Profound Healthy” Debate Over the Definition of Museums Marks the 25th ICOM General Conference

ICOM Postpones Vote on New Museum Definition in Light of Growing Rift in the International Community

There’s no doubt that museums are changing. As society evolves, so too do our museums – their nature, the purposes they serve, and the ideals they represent. Since 1946, the International Council of Museums (ICOM) has maintained a definition of “museum” that is used throughout the international community as a common reference point. Museums from Palermo to Pyongyang use the definition as a benchmark for creating visionary statements, setting goals, and planning outreach programs that are relevant, meaningful, and sustainable. In some countries, even federal policy makers pay close attention to the ICOM definition, as it’s woven into legislation and used to set national agendas.

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Time for a New Definition, But Not Yet Time for a Vote

Over the years, ICOM has made only minor tweaks to the definition set nearly a quarter of a century ago. An ongoing debate over the role and impact of language in museums, combined with an emerging debate over the legacy of colonisation represented in museums across the globe, has put ICOM in the hot seat. With pressure to create a new definition that addresses these issues and embodies 21st-Century ideals, they have become de facto arbitrators in what may just be the debate of the century for the international museum community.

At the 25th ICOM General Conference in Kyoto this past September, the vote on the new definition of “museum” was postponed, in light of the fact that it has provoked “profound healthy debate” over inclusivity and community in today’s museums.

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The Linchpin of the Debate: the Dutch “Golden Age”

The power of language to shape our impressions of culture and history brings to light a new, heightened sensitivity over the very words used in museums to describe exhibits. Super-charging the debate, The Amsterdam Museum now spearheads a progressive movement to acknowledge this impact. They, along with other museums in the Netherlands, are questioning the historical terms that have always been used in their museums as they struggle with the legacy of a colonial past.

For the Dutch, the term in question is the “Golden Age”, the era where the Dutch Masters created some of the world’s most treasured art. But the Golden Age represented more than an artistic fervor – it was also a time when the Dutch reached a pinnacle of wealth in the world– largely due to its colonization efforts – and slavery.

Forging Ahead in Amsterdam

A recent exhibition at the Amsterdam Museum’s Portrait Gallery is currently forcing the debate over the language used in museums. Called “Dutch Masters Revisited”, the exhibition features modern-day celebrities dressed in 17th-century costumes to promote the concept of inclusion. The museum’s artistic director explains, stating that the “Golden Age” was only golden for a small segment of the population. Those who felt the harsh impact of slavery or who simply did not share in the wealth of the era are severely underrepresented in art from the era. And by continuing to associate prosperity with the suffering of others, museums are not fulfilling their missions of inclusivity. Indeed, they risk alienating today’s increasingly diverse museum-going populations, whose perspectives on 17th-century history may be radically different than their own.

Fierce Debate in Amsterdam, “Profound, Healthy” Debate in Kyoto

In an attempt to portray a more balanced perspective, the museum’s directors have decided to remove all instances of the term “Golden Age” in their museum. That has sparked harsh criticism from Dutch conservatives, calling it “too ridiculous for words[1]

While the Kyoto debate was civil and thoughtful, there is an undeniable rift in the ICOM community, too, over the wording of the new definition of museums. As a translation agency, we are following the debate with great interest as it shows yet another dimension of the power of language in the context of museums.

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[1] https://www.dutchnews.nl/news/2019/09/amsterdam-museum-ditches-golden-age-in-favour-of-inclusive-17th-century/