What’s All This About?

Democratizing, inclusive, acknowledging and addressing conflicts

Readers may or may not have known about an organization called the International Conference of Museums, but there is in fact such a thing, and it is based in Paris, and it does have 40,000 members, representing 20,000 museums around the world. In Ohio, they include the Cleveland Museum of Art, the Cincinnati Art Museum, the Cincinnati Museum Center and National Underground Railroad Freedom Center, and the Toledo Museum of Art. That sounds like a genteel bunch, but as Art Newspaper reported in August, the membership is embroiled in a “bitter debate within the organization,” “perhaps threatening its identity.”

The debate is over the definition of a museum: What is it? A person might just as well ask, “What is art?” and might also reasonably wonder what is the value of pinning such a thing down. It’s a thought-provoking question, though, and it relates not just to what museums do, but to how curators approach their jobs, and even how individual artists relate to the world.

The current definition: “A museum is a nonprofit, permanent institution in the service of society and its development, open to the public, which acquires, conserves, researches, communicates and exhibits the tangible and intangible heritage of humanity and its environment for the purposes of education, study and enjoyment.”

That seems reasonable. But in July, after a couple of years of discussion, ICOM’s executive committee proposed a new definition, holding museums to a higher standard of proactivity:

“Museums are democratizing, inclusive and polyphonic spaces for critical dialogue about the pasts and the futures. Acknowledging and addressing the conflicts and challenges of the present, they hold artefacts and specimens in trust for society, safeguard diverse memories for future generations and guarantee equal rights and equal access to heritage for all people.

“Museums are not for profit. They are participatory and transparent, and work in active partnership with and for diverse communities to collect, preserve, research, interpret, exhibit, and enhance understandings of the world, aiming to contribute to human dignity and social justice, global equality and planetary wellbeing.”

Was there dissent? Oh, you bet. Art Newspaper quoted Université Sorbonne Nouvelle professor François Mairesse as saying, “This is not a definition but a statement of fashionable values, much too complicated and partly aberrant.”

Revising the definition seems to be about a lot of things: keeping museums relevant, shedding their reputation and reality of having mostly guarded the status quo, including—for most of the museums familiar to most of our readers—a western European view of art and aesthetic ideas.

The first sentence alone points to the kind of transition we’re seeing in Cleveland, with or without a revised definition. Just about every nonprofit exhibitor is working to open doors for more people, to acknowledge histories and realities that have excluded entire populations from what those institutions present as “culture.”

It is no small change. Words like democratizing and inclusive, the idea of addressing conflicts and challenges, and even the use of plural pasts and futures describe for museums a much more active role in society than they are commonly understood to have. On the other hand, those terms are exactly that—descriptions of what is already going on. The Allen Memorial Art Museum in Oberlin currently has on view Afterlives of the Black Atlantic, which explores “the complexities of memory, identity, and belonging in the wake of the transatlantic slave trade.” And the Cleveland Museum of Art has been diversifying its staff as well as the artists exhibited—including the likes of Carrie Mae Weems, Kerry James Marshall, Wadsworth and Jae Jarrell, and others. And Artists Archives of the Western Reserve and the Sculpture Center recently collaborated to present seenUNseen—works by African American artists in the collection of Atlanta-based Kerry and C. Betty Davis, matched with works by 32 artists of color from Northeast Ohio. You’re seeing a more diverse range of stories told on the pages of CAN, as well.

In September the ICOM postponed their vote on whether to adopt the new definition of what a museum is. Whether they approve that new definition or not, a much bigger change is already underway. It’s good work. We are proud to help. And we look forward to seeing you.

Michael Gill
Editor / Publisher