BY Tom Morton in Opinion | 30 DEC 19
Featured in
Issue 208

How Should We Define a Museum in the 21st Century?

Some suggestions for the International Council of Museums

BY Tom Morton in Opinion | 30 DEC 19


In my role as chairperson of Great Yarmouth Museological Professionals (GYMP), I read with interest a recent article on frieze’s website regarding our rival body, the International Council of Museums (ICOM). As your readers will be aware, this consortium of 20,000 cultural institutions – which does not, to its considerable demerit, include the Yarmouth area’s twin jewels, Caister-on-Sea Contemporary and the Jason Statham Centre for Broderie Anglaise – recently attempted to redefine that most slippery of terms, ‘the museum’.

For the past half-century, ICOM has described the museum as a ‘non-profit institution’ that ‘acquires, conserves, researches, communicates and exhibits the tangible and intangible heritage of humanity and its environment for the purposes of education, study and enjoyment’. Recognizing – at last! – that these words were a woefully inadequate reflection of 21st-century museological praxis, in July 2019 ICOM’s executive board proposed a new definition of museums as ‘democratizing, inclusive and polyphonic spaces for critical dialogue about the past and the future’, which should be ‘participatory and transparent’ and ‘contribute to human dignity and social justice, global equality and planetary wellbeing’. Critics decried this reformulation as overly politicized, indeed as ‘ideological’, and ICOM is now working on a fresh draft.

Like its forebear the West Anglia Society of Curators (WASoC) – a punky, grassroots collective founded in 1976, when Yarmouth’s cultural offerings began and ended with panto in the Winter Gardens and the Radio 1 Roadshow on Wellington Pier – GYMP is a radical, free-thinking organization. As such, we are uniquely placed to help ICOM reach a definition of the museum fit for the third millennium. At a recent Extraordinary General Meeting, we came together to debate this crucial issue. A small sample of our members’ contributions are reproduced below:

‘Museums are dynamic potentialities, through which (always and already) imbricated subjectivities are negotiated. Sites of both collective and personal emancipation, they seek to inaugurate their public qua public, while simultaneously figuring and refiguring the individual human gestalt.’

– Visitor Experience Officer, Bradwell Children’s Museum 

‘The word museum derives from the classical Greek Mouseion, or Temple of the Muses. At the heart of these institutions is an almost spiritual encounter between visitors and the objects on display. For all the urgent new challenges that the 21st-century museum must meet (not least its own decolonization), enabling this connection remains its enduring task.’

– Director, the Bernard Matthews Historic Turkey Farm Experience, Western Longville 

‘All institutions dedicated to the collection, care and display of Homo sapiens’ cultural patrimony should aspire to the condition of André Malraux’s museum without walls. Not literally, of course. Think of the conservation issues! But maybe we could do without that jazzy external cladding that seems so popular with museum architects these days? As long as an adequate climate-control system is in place, we should be fine.’

– Conservator, Centre for Islamic Art, Filby 

‘The great Turkish novelist Orhan Pamuk once wrote: “The museum is somewhere time is transformed into space.” Or was that space into time? Either way, it’s going to sound epic in my next application to the Lottery Heritage Fund.’

– Head of Development, Scratby Stiftung für konkrete Kunst

‘Museums are not about buildings, or even collections, but making memories that will last a lifetime – the texture of a hummus wrap in the cafeteria, the aroma of scented candles in the gift shop, the delicious feeling of Schadenfreude we all feel at seeing a weekend dad desperately trying to prevent his offspring from flicking V signs at the cloakroom attendant’s back. Traditional museums may be preoccupied with dusty material culture but, in our 21st-century “experience economy”, visitors demand much more than simply pictures on the wall.’

– Commercial Manager, the Ormesby St Margaret Institute for International Visual Culture

‘Above all, museums are about stories. Recently, I saw a timid adolescent boy absolutely enraptured by a Dutch golden age painting of a songbird. Suddenly, there’s this huge explosion, and the next thing I know the boy’s stolen the canvas, which in years to come will function as a symbol of both his lost childhood and of art’s inability to provide genuine solace in a world where – no, wait, that’s the plot of Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch. Christ, my job is boring.’

– Invigilator, Guildhall Museum, Mustard Hyrn

I commend these modest proposals to ICOM, and to frieze’s readership. Onwards!

Yours museologically,

Hannah Spearritt
Chairperson, GYMP

Main image: Louvre Abu Dhabi, 2019. Courtesy: © Department of Culture and Tourism - Abu Dhabi; photograph: Mohamed Somji 

This article first appeared in frieze issue 208 with the headline ‘Letter to the Editors’.

Tom Morton is a writer, curator and contributing editor of frieze, based in Rochester, UK.