Defining the museum and managing conflicting agendas

I start 2020 with a blog entry on conflict. However, what I want to explore is whether conflict can be a positive force within the art museum.

In part this exploration has been prompted by the decision in 2019 by ICOM (the International council of museums) to seek to change their definition of what constitutes a museum. The old ICOM definition recognised the multiple responsibilities of museums. These include acquiring, conserving, researching, communicating and exhibiting the tangible and intangible heritage of humanity for the purposes of education and enjoyment. Nonetheless, in 2018 the ICOM Executive Board decided to develop an alternative definition that was ‘more relevant and appropriate for museums in the 21st century and future museum landscapes.’ In the document that details how the new definition was arrived at (which I would urge anyone to read), emphasis is placed on the changing role museums play within societies that are themselves facing complex and urgent challenges. Ecological and human rights issues are foregrounded, as is the importance of cultural democracies and cultural participation. The text emphasises the responsibility museums have in supporting critical thought and providing spaces where ‘a plurality of voices can speak.’

In light of this, the new definition emphasises how museums are ‘inclusive, democratising and polyphonic spaces for critical dialogue about the pasts and the futures.’ It identifies the need for museums to acknowledge and address the conflicts of the present and to enable equal access to heritage for everyone. And whilst the new definition recognises that museums hold artefacts in trust for society, priority is given to the active partnerships that museums must embed with communities. The museum of the 21st century still needs to collect, research and communicate, but now with a transparent purpose of ‘contributing to human dignity and social justice, global equality and planetary wellbeing.’
The revised definition has not met with universal approval. For example, a survey by the UK Museums Association in August 2019 identified that 61.9% of its members who had replied to the question ‘Do you think [the new definition] captures what a museum is in the 21st century?’ said no. Further comments by members on twitter suggest that museum professionals feel the new definition is too wordy, too complicated and too prescriptive. Other critical comments go further, identifying that the new definition strays too far from the museum’s fundamental responsibility to its collections.
I myself find the revised definition helpful, not least in acknowledging the conflicted terrain of current museum practice. In a previous blog I have explored how competing discourses operate within the museum, because of the multiple agendas that twenty-first century cultural organisations need to juggle. I read in the new ICOM definition an attempt to surface this complexity and set a progressive agenda for museums. It is aspirational to a greater degree than the previous definition. But in recognising the multiple and at times opposing responsibilities museums have within society, it is arguably more accurate and relevant.
In my view, what becomes more interesting than dismissing the new definition is grappling with it. If we accept that museums are inherently conflicted, how do we as museum practitioner researchers work productively with these struggles? In starting to think about this question I have been drawn to the political concept of agonism and particularly the writings of Chantal Mouffe. Within agonism conflict is framed as a space where difference is respected; an emancipatory space where the engagement with contested views allows for a plural democracy. Rather than aspiring to move beyond conflict to consensus, agonism sees value in tolerating, indeed respecting, the conflicting positions that people hold.

Curator Bojana Piskur from the Museum of Modern Art, Ljubljana outlining the role of the museum in the social and political sphere at the ‘Creating Stories’ conference at Buk Seoul Museum of Art, South Korea, December 2019

I am interested in the potential offered by Mouffe’s situating of the art museum as an agonistic space. But whereas Mouffe argues that such an agonistic space can allow the public to come to terms with the contradictions of the world, I am interested in how agonism can help makes sense of difference and complexity for those working within the 21st century museum. Put simply, one example could be that rather than seeing the tension between maintaining a collection and foregrounding participation and audience engagement as problematic, how can we see this conflict as generative? And what happens if we begin by acknowledging that the different agendas at play in the museum are inherently conflicting, but that this need not be destructive?
The revised ICOM definition, whilst not providing a simple, bite-sized articulation, seems to be trying to attempt this task of recognising complexity. For that reason, in my view we should test it out and try and work with it, rather than dismiss it.

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