In August, the International Council of Museums (ICOM), posed the question ‘What is a museum?’ at its annual conference in Prague. Out of this question, a new definition of museums was born, describing them as “a not-for-profit, permanent institution in the service of society that researches, collects, conserves, interprets and exhibits tangible and intangible heritage.” But that is not all.
It is the final two sentences that take big step forward from previous definitions, offering a more inviting and approachable dynamic for the museums of the 21st century: “Open to the public, accessible and inclusive, museums foster diversity and sustainability. They operate and communicate ethically, professionally and with the participation of communities, offering varied experiences for education, enjoyment, reflection and knowledge sharing.”
The sentiment however is probably the same as it ever has been, but the language has evolved. Museums have always been a space of civic pride, for learning and enjoyment, for inspiration and creativity. The difference is these days museums, like many cultural, charitable and public institutions, must prove it.
There have been movements a step ahead of this definition, that have also taken a step to examine impact. In 2013, the UK’s Museums Associations launched its ongoing Museums Change Lives campaign, spearheaded by a certainty in the power of museums to improve people’s lives, enhancing health and wellbeing, inspiring reflection and debate, and creating better places to live and work. Its vision has since been translated into Spanish, Portuguese and Arabic and has encouraged museums around the world to harness their social impact.
Impact doesn’t have to be big. Bryony Robins writing for cultural leadership body Clore in a provocation paper, challenged the cultural establishment not to ignore the work of smaller museums and instead learn from them. She highlighted that these museums, were quite often the only place of cultural activity within their locations, often sharing their space with other parts of the local community e.g. for yoga or art classes. As such, these museums potentially form people’s first route into culture, acting as a seamless bridge across the community and playing a vital role in establishing wider audiences for arts and heritage.
This in turn can translate into meeting many objectives of council plans. In an ICOM and Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) collaboration they say it is important, when evaluating the local development impact of a museum, to do it in conjunction with the agenda and goals of local government. “When those agendas are aligned, it is easier to mobilise local resources (regulatory, financial, land and human resources) to enable the museum to realise its local development potential.”
But what is impact without community? Museums are as much an asset to their communities, as the communities are to the museums. Through connection and collaboration with communities through exhibitions, digital space and events, to being inclusive to all visitors and representative of their community in their governance, staffing and volunteers – maximising community involvement and relevance, must be a paramount driver to achieve impact.
One could argue therefore that museums are needed more than ever – in an unsettled world, post-pandemic world grappling with a cost-of-living crisis and climate change. The Washington Post, suggest the new ICOM definition is aspirational than prescriptive, at a “fraught time for museums”. Expectations of what museums can deliver, are done so in a reality of conflicting pressures – delivering and demonstrating community impact, but facing reduced funding; being identified as community warm spaces, but unable to pay their own energy bills; being there for all but lacking employee diversity.
However, Rebecca Carlsson, writing for MuseumNext, suggest that while museums cannot solve these issues, they can contribute to our collective and wider understanding of our local communities and societies, helping to respond and shape how we see the future. Their power, she argues lies in their ability to bring communities together to learn from the past and educate future generations.
Professor Karen Brown, University of St Andrews, goes further suggesting that community resilience is an urgent necessity “in the face of global imbalances and rapid change”. She puts forward that museums and heritage organisations bear a huge responsibility for the communities they serve – with museums among the most trusted public institutions around the globe, “they therefore have an ethical obligation to support social cohesion and development… because community-based museums linked into their distinctive natural environments are among the most community-engaged, wellbeing-oriented catalysts for building social sustainability and resilience.”
The argument therefore seems compelling that museums, along with other cultural services, are part of the glorious fabric of our communities. The ICOM definition is a helpful step-forward in strengthening the message about the significance of museums, as a part of our communities and societies. And in these times of disquiet, we can look to museums with optimism and as beacons of unity, inspiration and hope, as the case studies that follow show.
This week the Global Local Bulletin looks at the role of museums in building a sense of place locally and developing skills and knowledge for the future.